The Irish in Latin America
Their last names are Irish, but they are not from Ireland, Boston, or New York. Their cultural heroes are not Michael Collins, James Joyce, or Charles Stewart Parnell but William Brown, Francis Burdett O’Connor, Ambrose O’Higgins, Bernardo O’Higgins, and Daniel O’Leary among many others. Their surnames are Irish but their spoken language is not Gaelic or English, but Spanish. They are Catholics but St. Patrick is no more venerated than Saints Claver, Coromoto, or Luján. They love dance and song but are more likely to glide to an Argentine tango or swing to a Chilean cueca than to the beat of an Irish Jig or to the drumming of a bodhran.
They are the Irish of the Spanish-speaking Americas. Before there were thousands of Irish Catholic immigrants in New York City, Boston and other eastern seaboard cities, there were thousands of Irish Catholic immigrants in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Santiago de Chile, and throughout the Spanish- speaking Americas. Before there were violent anti-Catholic riots in most major eastern seaboard cities of the United States, there were harmonious relations between Irish Catholic immigrants and the Catholic citizens of the Spanish-speaking world. Before there were Irish American gangs in mid nineteenth century New York City and Philadelphia, there were Irish Legion and Hibernian Regiment battalions ghting in every major battle of the independence wars that transformed Spain’s Western Hemisphere colonies into independent nations.
Before reaching the Spanish-speaking Americas, however, sixteenth century Irish Catholic noblemen, priests, soldiers, and commoners found refuge from their Anglican Masters in Catholic Spain. There the Spanish Monarchs treated the Irish Catholics as a privileged and protected people. As the far reaching French Revolution’s ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité became new political currency in Europe and in Europe’s New World colonies, Spain sought to simultaneously modernize as well as maintain control of its Empire. Both policies failed. Two Irish Spaniards, Alexander O’Reilly and Ambrose O’Higgins, however, were at the center of those efforts. Alexander O’Reilly, born in County Meath, re-organized, reformed, and revitalized the Spanish military . Ambrose O’Higgins, born in County Sligo, became Viceroy of Perú, the most important political office of the Spain’s Empire in the Americas. He remade the bureaucracy and modernized infrastructure throughout the vast territories under his control. However, in spite of the efforts of O’Reilly and O’Higgins to reinvigorate Spain’s New World military and bureaucracy, it’s fossilized overseas Empire was too brittle to resist the political winds of change blowing from Europe as well as from the United States.
There was then, no shipwreck of history that accidentally transported the Irish to the Spanish-speaking Americas. There was no Great Famine like the one of the 1840’s that starved the Irish into emigrating to the cities of the Northeast of the United States. Instead, following the termination of hostilities of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars and responding to revolutionary recruitment appeals by Simon Bolivar’s European representatives, thousands of battle-hardened Irish soldiers, adventurers, and the unemployed responded to the recruitment calls to join the patriotic armies ghting against Spanish colonialism. A call that surely resonated with the Irish Catholics own struggles with British colonialism in Ireland.
This generation of Irish soldiers in Spanish-speaking America played critical leadership roles in the wars of liberation. Through demonstrated courage and proven authority, many rose to the highest ranks of command in Simón Bolivar’s forces. Soldiers like General Daniel Florencio O’Leary became Bolivar’s most trusted confidant, his Aide de Camp and Ambassador to the United States. Admiral William Brown fought heroic naval battles against overwhelming Spanish sea power, eventually creating the Argentine Navy. Francis Burdett O’Connor was the creative and courageous military tactician for some of Bolivar’s most important military triumphs. Peter Campbell was instrumental in securing the independence of Uruguay and parts of Argentine.
If many of the Irish in the revolutionary struggle rose to prominent positions of authority and command in the patriotic armies, thousands of anonymous Irishmen, soldiers in the Hibernian Regiment and Irish gave their lives for the freedom of faraway lands. Perhaps though, one Irishman, Bernardo O’Higgins, the illegitimate son of Ambrose O’Higgins, the Spanish Viceroy of Perú, encapsulates the significant and unique role of the Irish in the struggle for the liberation of Spain’s colonies. Exiled by his father to Europe, Bernardo O’Higgins was tutored there by Bolivar’s own revolutionary mentor, Francisco de Miranda. O’Higgins returned to his native Chile successfully commanding the Hibernian and Irish Legions against the colonial Spanish forces of which his father had been the supreme political commander. For his military victories, O’Higgins was named the Supreme Leader of Chile. He governed Chile for six years.
Of these Irishmen who fought for liberation of the Spanish colonies, the commander of all forces, the Liberator Simon Bolivar, said, “Irishmen—separated from your homeland in order to follow your generous sense of feeling, which has always distinguished you among the most Illustrious Europeans; I have the glory of counting you as adopted sons of Venezuela and as the defenders of the Liberty of Colombia.” Feliz día de San Patricio/ Happy St. Patrick’s Day