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Ireland and Latin America

By Edmundo Murray

Station at St. Paul's Passionist Monastery, Capitán Sarmiento, Whit Sunday 1898
(Golden Jubilee, 1938)


Part 1 - Part 2



Since the mythical visit of St Brendan the Navigator to Mexico in the sixth-century, through the conviction in December 2004 of three Irishmen known members of the IRA accused of training guerrillas in Colombia, the pattern of relations between Ireland and Latin America has been heterogeneous, fragmentary, and erratic. The Irish presence in this part of the world is frequently linked to colonial and post-colonial tensions in Europe and the Americas, which are generally connected to British, French, Portuguese, Spanish and, more recently, US American imperialistic policies and discourse.

Of the 40-odd countries and territories shaping the map of Latin America and the Caribbean* only Argentina and certain Caribbean islands developed recognizable Irish communities which endured throughout the times. The other places in the continent have been visited by Irish missionaries, soldiers, merchants, scientists, teachers, and others who either settled in the region and left their visible or subtle traces, or re-emigrated within the Americas or to other parts of the world (though Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba developed Irish communities that sooner or later disappeared).

The number of Irish who emigrated to, or settled temporarily in, Latin America is still a matter of debate among scholars. However, it is significantly lower than that of the emigrants to the English-speaking countries, i.e., US, Canada, England, Australia or New Zealand. Argentina, the country that has attracted the largest quantities of immigrants received an inflow estimated by some scholars in 45-50,000 Irish-born persons. In addition to this, thousands more scattered in the region, especially in Uruguay, Brazil, Venezuela, and Mexico, as a result of military operations, trade, and colonization schemes. It is also important to consider the significant rates of re-emigration within the Americas, especially to the US, and to Australia, England, and back to Ireland, as well as from the US to Argentina in the 1820s, to Cuba where they worked in slave-like conditions in sugar plantations, to Panama where they died among the multinational workforce constructing the Panama railway, and to Brazil where they were recruited in New York for land settlement schemes in the 1860s. Even in the most successful Irish settlement in the region, Argentina, approximately one out of every two immigrants re-emigrated to other destinations, and this is an indication of the elevated mobility of the migrants.

The chronicles of the Irish in Latin America often reveal epic qualities, whether from the victim's or from the hero's standpoint. The former expresses an attitude of real or perceived economic exploitation by, and political subordination to, powerful foreign forces, and typically includes the exile mentality by which the English rule in Ireland (or the US American control over Mexico) led to emigration as the only secure way to ensure survival. The latter – the hero narrative – reveals the position (sometimes perceived as superior) of the Irish with respect to local Latin American ethnic groups. Both perspectives frequently neglect the everyday lives of the immigrants and their families, their settlement patterns, and their relations with other ethnic groups. As Graham Davis argues, "it is tempting in writing on the Irish pioneer settlers to isolate their story and to laud only their achievements. Such an approach distorts the Irish experience by suggesting a privileged contribution history" (Davis 2002: 238). Furthermore, it neglects the social and economic relations of the Irish and their families with native Amerindians, Hispano-Creoles, Africans, Catalonians, Galicians, Scottish, English, Italians, Germans, French-Basque, and immigrants from other parts of the world, as well as the cultural transfers accomplished among them.

Colonized Realms: Ireland and Latin America (1500s-1700s)

Flag in Luján basilica, Buenos Aires.

The early links between Ireland and Latin America may have been rather mythical. Some Mexican historians mention the possibility that St Brendan of Co. Kerry (c.484-580) landed on Mexican shores, and the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl was identified as a white-skinned and bearded figure who had visited the region and promised to return. Other legend is that Columbus visited Galway on one of his voyages west and prayed there in the church of St Nicholas. However, there is historical evidence for an earlier visit to Galway by Columbus in about 1477. The first recorded Irish names in Latin America were the brothers Juan and Tomás Farrel, members of the expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza that arrived in the River Plate in 1536 and founded the city of Buenos Aires.

The early Irish presence in Latin America seems to have been connected with religious, trade, and military relations between traditional families in Ireland and the Catholic establishment in continental Europe. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, many officers and administrators belonging to Old English Catholic families in Ireland withdrew their sons from Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and sent them to Catholic universities in Continental Europe. With the Catholic Counter-Reformation in its height, these young members of traditional families were taught the reforming zeal, and contributed to a flowering of Catholic spirituality at the popular level and to an anti-Protestant mentality. In Europe the most notable champion of the Counter-Reformation was Philip II of Spain, son of the emperor Charles V, who sought to re-establish Roman Catholicism by force. During the rule of Philip II the first Irish College was opened in 1592 in Salamanca. Spain was in war with England in 1585-1604, and the connections between Gaelic and Old English families with Spanish Catholic priests and officers sometimes represented a real threat to England, like when a Spanish force of 4,000 men established in 1601 at Kinsale in Munster. Unofficial contacts among Ireland, Spain, and Portugal continued thereafter, and thousands of Irish mercenaries (the "Wild Geese") served in French, Spanish, and other foreign armies. Religious, military, and commercial links created an Iberian dimension of the Irish Diaspora which would have direct effects in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century connections between Ireland and Latin America.

The first Irish person to leave his mark in Latin America was Thomas Field S.J. (1547-1626), born in Limerick, who entered the Jesuits in Rome in 1574. Fr Field arrived in Brazil in late 1577 and spent three years in Piratininga (today's São Paulo). Then he moved to Paraguay with two other Jesuits, and over the next ten years they established missions among the Guaraní people. Thomas Field, who died in Asunción, is credited with being the first Irish priest to celebrate the Roman Catholic rites in the Americas. Other priests who went to Latin America were born in Spain or Portugal of Irish parents, and were engaged by the Jesuits and the Franciscans because they spoke English and therefore they could work not only to protect the native populations from the Protestant English and Dutch colonizers but could also convert the heretics themselves.

In about 1612 the Irish brothers Philip and James Purcell established a colony in Tauregue, on the mouth of the Amazon river, where English, Dutch, and French settlements were also installed. Huge profits were made by the colonists in tobacco, dyes, and hardwoods. A second group arrived in 1620 led by Bernardo O'Brien of Co. Clare. They built a wood and earthen fort on the north bank of the Amazon and named the place Coconut Grove. O'Brien learnt the dialect of the Arruan people, and his colleagues became expert navigators of the maze of tributaries, canals and islands that form the mouth of the Amazon.

Other Irish tradesmen and priests worked in Latin America in the eighteenth century, however most of the Irish presence in the region from the 1770s onwards was owing to military action.

Rebels in Ireland, Mercenaries in Latin America (1770s-1820s)

The Irish soldiers acting in the region by the end of the eighteenth century and during the wars of independence were members of British, Spanish, Portuguese, and South American armies. From 1768 to 1771 an Irish Regiment played a role in the Spanish army which served in Mexico. All its companies were commanded by officers with Irish names, O'Hare, Barry, Fitzpatrick, Quinn, O'Brien, Healy, O'Leary, and Treby (Tracy). Some of them were Irish-born, and others were the children of well-known Irish families settled in Spain.  

Ambrose O'Higgins, Governor of Chile and Viceroy of Peru

Ambrose O'Higgins (1721-1801) is the supreme example of an Irish emigrant to the Spanish-speaking world who reached the highest ranks in the imperial colonial service. Born probably in Ballinary, Co. Sligo, O'Higgins was employed as an errand boy by Lady Bective in Dangan Castle, near Summerhill in Meath. An uncle sent him to Cadiz in Spain, from where he traveled to Peru. He first ran a small toy shop in Lima and after studying engineering was involved in improving the Andean roads and building houses for travelers. Recognized by the colonial authorities, O'Higgins was made administrator of the southern frontier of Chile. Here he made contact with the Mapuche people and was appointed governor of Chile in 1787 and set about modernizing the colonial administration. In 1795 Ambrosio O'Higgins was appointed viceroy of Peru, in which office he died in 1801 at the age of eighty.

A tradition of enlisting in the British army developed in Ireland. The enlisting of Irish Protestants began in 1745 and Catholics were permitted to enroll since the Catholic Relief Act of 1793. In the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815) an estimated 130,000 Irishmen served in the British army, and throughout the nineteenth century a sizeable proportion of the British army was Irish, exceeding 40 per cent in 1830. Lack of alternative employment opportunities at home (more than any alleged Irish fighting spirit or tradition) contributed to the high levels of Irish enlistment. As recently as in the Falklands-Malvinas War of 1982 the number of Irish names in the rolls of British units was significant.

In November 1762 the Irish-born captain John McNamara and his British 45th regiment attacked Colonia del Sacramento in the northern bank of the River Plate (present-day Uruguay). Colonia was then under Spanish control and the British intention was to return it to their Portuguese ally. McNamara and most of the crew were killed when the flagship Lord Clive blew up, but some waded ashore and were captured and interned in Córdoba, a province in the centre of Argentina, and Mendoza in the Andean foothills. When finally released, many of these remained in Argentina. They and some of their descendents were to become involved with the Argentine army of José de San Martín, which gathered in Mendoza in 1816 to invade and liberate Chile.

In 1806 and 1807 Britain made two unsuccessful attempts to displace Spain as the dominant power in the River Plate region. Of the 25,000 men directly involved in both invasions it is likely that a significant number of the officers and rank and file would have been Irish. The first expedition was commanded by William Carr Beresford (b. 1768), of the well-known Irish gentry family. On June 25, 1806 Bereford's troops landed at Quilmes, south of Buenos Aires city. After a skirmish with a force of defenders, Buenos Aires capitulated and Beresford men marched to the sound of pipes and drums into the city. The Spanish and Creole forces reacted and Buenos Aires was recaptured by local regiments. Beresford surrendered in August 1806 but thousands of fighting men were soon dispatched to South America and were placed under the command of John Whitelocke. This second British force invaded Montevideo in February 1807 and then attacked, and was repulsed by, Buenos Aires on July 5 of the same year. Some of the Irish soldiers deserted from the British army and settled and prospered in Argentina, and after the 1820s played a role in initiating emigration to Buenos Aires from the Irish midlands.  

Col. Arthur Sandes of the South American War of Independence 1817-1824
(The Irish Sword, XII N° 47, p. 139)

The other major military involvement of Irish people in Latin America was in the Wars of Independence. As a result of the failed British campaigns in the River Plate, viscount Castlereagh was of the opinion that the commercial penetration of Spanish America was preferable to its military conquest. This policy came into effect in most parts of Latin America when merchants and their employees from Britain and Ireland invaded the Atlantic and Pacific ports of Latin America. However, the new policy did not prevent British subjects enlisting in foreign armies. Most Irish saw military action as legionaries in Simón Bolívar's army that liberated Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

Recruited in Ireland by John Devereux and other officers, some 2,100 soldiers arrived in Colombia and Venezuela in 1817-19. The Irish Legion, which received the support of Daniel O'Connell in Ireland, ended in mutinies, epidemics, and a high death toll in Venezuela. Bolívar said he was not surprised at the conduct of the Irish, and was "pleased to be rid of these mercenaries who would do no killing until they had first been paid for it" (Hasbrouck 1928: 182-3). Devereux himself remained behind in England and Ireland, living sumptuously on the contributions of his dupes, until the return of some of those whom he had cheated exposed him to danger of being arrested or shot, so that he was forced to go to Venezuela many months after his Legion had departed.

Many Irish soldiers took part on the celebrated march across the Andes in 1819 and in the decisive battles of Boyacá (Colombia) and Carabobo (Venezuela). William O'Connor, who came to be known as Francis Burdett O'Connor, served as chief of staff to Antonio José de Sucre (later first president of Bolivia) at the battle of Ayacucho, Peru, in December 1824. In this period Bolívar had a succession of Irish aides-de-camp, of whom the most prestigious was Cork-born Daniel Florence O'Leary, who sustained a serious wound in battle following the Andes march and was decorated with the Order of the Liberator. A recognized hero of the Venezuelan independence, O'Leary settled in Bogotá and held a number of diplomatic appointments for Venezuela and Britain. He died in 1854 in Bogotá and in 1882 his remains were interred in the National Pantheon in Caracas near those of Bolívar.

William Brown, founder of the
Argentine Navy.

The South American wars of independence are often regarded as the result of a military strategy developed by the British governing elites and executed by brilliant military and naval commanders. On a pincer movement, Simón Bolívar from the north, José de San Martín from the south, and admirals William Brown and Scottish-born Thomas Cochrane shelling from the Pacific, prevented the arrival of supplies and reinforcements for the Spanish forces and effectively overthrew the Spanish rule in the region. William Brown (1777-1857), founder of the Argentine navy, was born in Foxford, Co. Mayo. He began his naval career as a teenager in merchant ships in the US, then enlisted in the British navy and was engaged in 1809 in commercial trading in Buenos Aires. Brown got involved when his ship was commandeered by the Spanish during the revolution of 1810. Appointed commander of the local fleet, he broke the Spanish blockade in the River Plate and ended the Spanish threat to the newly independent provinces of the River Plate. Wicklow-born John Thomond O'Brien (1786-1861) arrived in Argentina in 1814 and fought in the siege of Montevideo in that year. He then was appointed aide-de-camp of general San Martín, the liberator of Argentina and Chile, and in this capacity took part in all major actions of the independence struggle in Chile and Peru. Other South American patriots who fought for the new republics were Bernardo O'Higgins (1778-1842), son of Peru's viceroy Ambrose O'Higgins, and regarded as the father of the Chile's independence; Thomas Charles Wright (1799-1868) of Drogheda, founder of the Ecuadorean navy; Peter Campbell (b. 1780) of Tipperary, who organized the first Uruguayan naval force in 1814; George O'Brien, Charles Condell, and Patricio Lynch, naval heroes in Chile; Diago Nicolau Keating, Diago O'Grady, and Jorge Cowan, who served in Brazilian armies.

Escravos Brancos and Empresarios: Pre-Famine Settlements in Latin America (1820s-1840s)

William Cotter, an Irish officer serving in the Brazilian army, was sent in 1826 to Ireland to recruit a regiment for service against Argentina. He went to Co. Cork where he promised the local people that if they enlisted they would be given a grant of land after five years' service. He left for Rio de Janeiro in 1827 with 2,686 men and their women and children, but when they arrived they were completely neglected since the war with Argentina was over. The African-Brazilian people taunted them by calling them escravos brancos, white slaves. The Irish mutinied together with a German regiment, and for a few days there was open warfare on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. While most were finally sent home or went to Canada or Argentina, some did stay and were sent to form a colony in the province of Bahia.

A more celebrated military exploit involving Irish troops was that of the San Patricio Battalion made up of deserters from the US army during the Mexican-American war of 1846-48. Led by John O'Reilly, a deserter from the British army in Canada, some hundreds of Irish crossed over to the Mexican side encouraged by Mexican offers to be promoted as officers and put in charge of the artillery, as well as offers of land (however some historians argue that it was drink that lured them). The case shows the fluidity of loyalty and state boundaries at the time. Fighting under a green banner emblazoned with an Irish harp and a shamrock, the Irish won special decorations for their courage in the battle of Buena Vista, but suffered heavy casualties in the fierce battle of Churubusco. Seventy-two were court martialled and fifty hanged. The bravery of San Patricio battalion is widely known among Mexicans today, and every September 12 a ceremony in their honor takes place in the San Jacinto plaza in Mexico City. However, they were regarded as traitors in the US.

James Heweston, Irish empresario in Mexican Texas (William H. Oberste, "Texas Irish Empresarios and Their Colonies" (1973).

Successful Irish settlements have been established in Mexican Texas in the period 1829-36. San Patricio and Refugio colonies in the Gulf coast of Texas owe an important part of their history to the system of land grants allocated under the Mexican colonization law, and to the Irish empresarios (entrepreneurs) John McMullen, James McGloin, James Power, and James Hewetson. They were men of vision who had perceived themselves as Mexicans through marriage, commercial contacts, and as Spanish speakers. During the Texas Revolution of 1835-36 some of the Irish colonists were loyal to the Mexican government, to whom in law they owed allegiance as Mexican citizens and to whom they were obligated for the land grants bestowed upon them. Furthermore, the Irish colonists who had settled alongside Mexican neighbors acquired from them the skills and know-how of cattle ranching.

Land was the great opportunity that attracted thousands of emigrants from the center and southeast of Ireland to Argentina and Uruguay. This emigration commenced with the Irish soldiers left behind by the 1806-07 British campaigns in the River Plate, along with the simultaneous settlement of a number of British and Irish merchants in the region. According to the 1822 census, there were 3,500 ingleses in the Buenos Aires province. At this time, they made up the majority of foreigners in the city of Buenos Aires. Merchants in Buenos Aires benefited from the policy of comercio libre (free trade) that sparked an economic revival in the River Plate area, and established businesses to trade for silver from Potosí (Bolivia), maté from the plantations along the river Paraguay, and hides, talon, and jerked-beef from the pampas of Buenos Aires and Uruguay. One of the most influential of the Irish merchants in Buenos Aires was Thomas Armstrong (1797-1875), who came from a well-known Protestant landowning family of the Irish midlands. Together with Fr Anthony Fahy (1805-1871), Armstrong was to lead the Irish immigrant community from its early stages in the 1830s until his death. Another influential merchant family in colonial and independent Buenos Aires were the O'Gormans of Ennis, Co. Clare. Members of other prosperous Irish families settled from the end of the eighteenth century in Latin American ports. These families not only wielded considerable economic and political power within Ireland, but were also involved in Atlantic trade, with links to North America, Spain and Portugal, the West Indies, South Africa and, later, to Brazil and Argentina. Among these families, a number of Galway and Clare merchants served as agents in commercial houses in the Atlantic coasts and islands. They were Roman Catholics and loyalists to the British Crown. Other Irish merchants in Buenos Aires were employed by British firms, like William Mooney and Patrick Bookey from Westmeath, and Patrick Brown and James Pettit from Wexford. They are recognized as the initiators of the early immigration chains from those counties to Argentina and Uruguay.

In the 1820s the majority of foreign merchant ships entering the port of Buenos Aires were English, originating in Liverpool, London, Rio de Janeiro, Gibraltar, and Havana. Much of the loading, unloading, and ferrying was also conducted by British people, and Irish residents in the ports were employed as stevedores. From the signature of the Anglo-Argentine Treaty of Friendship, Navigation and Commerce in 1824, the British presence was further perpetuated and Argentina followed the first steps to later become an important part of Britain's informal empire. These were ideal circumstances for a massive welcome to ingleses, i.e., English-speaking immigrants especially from Ireland.

* This essay does not deal with the Caribbean region.

Part 1 - Part 2

Online published: 30 August 2005
Edited: 07 May 2009
Murray, Edmundo, 'Ireland and Latin America' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" November-December 2005 (www.irlandeses.org).

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2005

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