In this blog post, I intend to move beyond Chile and the O’Higgins clan and examine some other exceptional Irish individuals who played their part in the history of Latin America. There were quite a few men and women either Irish born or of Irish descent, and their names are still revered in places such as Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico…….names such as Daniel Florence O’Leary, William Brown, Eliza Lynch and the San Patricios.
Before looking at individuals, it’s worth retelling the story of a group of Irishmen who are still honoured in Mexico up to the present day. The Battalion of San Patricio (St Patrick) consisted of Irishmen who were former members of the United States Army but who had deserted to the Mexicans. This occurred in 1846 in the midst of a war between the two countries as they battled for control of areas that now include Texas and New Mexico. Many of these Irish soldiers were recent famine arrivals from Ireland, and they experienced huge amounts of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment from the largely Anglo-Protestant population. They also identified with the Mexicans as a Catholic nation menaced by a larger overwhelmingly Protestant neighbour. John Riley from Clifden in Galway was the person who founded the San Patricios, and turned them into an elite unit. In Mexico, they are primarily remembered for their heroic last stand at Churubusco just outside Mexico City as the US Army attempted to take the site. Following American victory, the US Army unwisely took a leaf out of the official British playbook for dealing with native rebellions in lands forcibly conquered, and they hanged nearly fifty of these men, before branding the others with the letter D on their cheeks. Brilliant diplomacy as usual there guys. The Americans have been making friends around the world with those tactics ever since, and their actions have helped ensure that these Irishmen are still honoured in Mexico to this day.
Many other Irish people were equally prominent much further south on the American continent. One of these was Cork native Daniel Florence O’Leary. He arrived in South America in 1817 at the age of sixteen as a member of the Irish Legion, an army recruited in Ireland and England to support the famous revolutionary Simon Bolivar. Around one thousand soldiers crossed the Atlantic and landed in Colombia. While many deserted following months without pay and enduring terrible conditions, O’Leary enjoyed a much more fruitful military experience, being decorated with the Order of the Liberator for distinguished service on the battlefield. After independence, he spent a number of years representing Venezuela in diplomatic service in Europe. Daniel Florence O’Leary died in 1854, and in 1882 his remains were re-interred in the National Pantheon in Caracas near those of Simon Bolivar.
William Brown’s name is inextricably linked with the history of Argentina. He left his native Foxford in County Mayo as a young man, and joined the British Navy. Brown settled in Buenos Aires in 1812 at around the same time as the rebellion against Spanish rule was beginning. Two years later, the patriot government entrusted him with a small fleet which defeated the Spanish squadron and lifted the blockade of the River Plate. In 1825, he was made Governor of Buenos Aires. Today Admiral William Brown is considered the father of the Argentine Navy, and there are numerous ships, towns, schools, streets and football clubs named after this son of Mayo.
Of course, it wasn’t only Irish men who played a part in South American history. Eliza Lynch is known to history as the unofficial Queen of Paraguay. She had been born in Charleville in Cork in 1835, and moved to Paris at fifteen, marrying a French officer the following year. Divorced by twenty, she met Solano Lopez, the son of the Paraguayan Dictator, and they began a relationship that would ultimately result in 7 children. Settled in Asuncion, she was a patron of the arts and promoted education for all, especially women. In 1862 Solano Lopez came to power and two years later he took his country to war against the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. After five years of war, Paraguay was in ruins, with approximately ninety percent of the male population annihilated. Eliza remained by Lopez’s side throughout it all, even burying him and her son on the battlefield. Following the hugely unpopular war, she became persona non grata in Paraguay, and lived out her remaining years in Paris, where she died in 1886 at only 51. In the second half of the twentieth century her memory was rehabilitated in Paraguay, and she was reclaimed as a national heroine. In 1961, her remains were taken back to South America, and re-interred in a tomb in the national cemetery in Asuncion after the Catholic Church, showing their usual tolerance and sensitivity, prevented her burial beside Lopez in the National Pantheon due to the fact that they had never married.
Other notable Irish women in Latin American history include Marina O’Bourke, Marion Mulhall and Cecelia Grierson. O’Bourke was the daughter of a Limerick man who owned a plantation in Cuba. Her family had profited from slavery, but Marina O’Bourke was a confirmed abolitionist, and in 1871 she helped one of their slaves to buy her freedom. Marion Mulhall was a writer who described her experiences exploring into the heart of South America and meeting indigenous peoples. While Cecelia Grierson was the first woman in Argentina to graduate with a degree in medicine, which she was not allowed to use due to her gender. She was a firm proponent of education for women, and founded the first nursing school in Argentina in 1891. Grierson was also a member of the suffragist movement, and set up the Argentine Women’s Council. Today several medical institutions and a Buenos Aires street bear her name.
So this concludes our whistle stop tour of Irish participation in the history of Latin America. As I said in my previous post, I would recommend Tim Fanning’s Paisanos for anyone who wants to learn more about this topic. Next time I would like to introduce a new subject to my posts………reviews of excellent history books that I have read. I’m going to start with a fascinating read that I’ve just finished………They All Love Jack (2015) by Bruce Robinson, which examines alleged links between Freemasonry and Jack the Ripper……….don’t miss it!!