Eleven years ago, while travelling in South America, I spent a pleasant day wandering the streets of Chillán, a small city in southern Chile. Chillán is famous for being the birthplace of Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the country’s founding fathers, who played a major role in the wars against the Spanish in the early nineteenth century and served as Supreme Director of Chile for six years.
Bernardo was the illegitimate son of Ambrose O’Higgins, who had scrambled up the social ladder from humble beginning as a tenant farmer’s son in Ballynary, Co Sligo, to become the Viceroy of Peru, the most powerful Spanish governor in South America. Bernardo’s mother was Isabel Riquelme, born in Chile to a family of Basque ancestry.
Ambrose O’Higgins was a cold, distant father, who, afraid that the scandal arising from his child born out of wedlock would damage his career, sent his son to Europe. It was there that the young Bernardo, who was intensely proud of his Irish ancestry despite his poor relationship with his father, became attracted to the revolutionary ideas coursing through the continent and resolved to return home to free Chile from Spanish domination.
I had some vague, half-formed ideas about Bernardo O’Higgins before I arrived in Chillán. I had first heard about him from Máire Gaynor, a family friend who had never been next nor near South America. Neither was she a history buff, but her maiden name was O’Higgins, and she was fiercely proud that she was related, however distantly, to the man whose bronze effigy I was now peering at in a remote Chilean city. Somehow this musty piece of information about a heroic ancestor in a country on the other side of the world had been passed down through her family like a much-loved family heirloom.
That is not to say that Bernardo O’Higgins is unknown to the rest of us. Such is his fame in Chile – the main thoroughfare in the capital, Santiago, is named after him, as is one of the country’s main administrative regions – that he has percolated into the Irish consciousness, despite our rather vague knowledge of Latin American history. The founder of the Argentinian navy, William Brown, from Foxford, Co Mayo, is another South American prócer – a term used to indicate an eminent person or leader – who is equally well-known in the land of his birth.
But there are plenty of other Irish names sprinkled through the history of the wars of independence in Latin America. Roads, plazas, schools, football teams, even warships are named after Irish men and women who are revered in public memory for their contribution to achieving the independence of the Latin American republics but are little known in the country of their birth.
In Uruguay, a frigate is named after the Co Tipperary-born Peter Campbell. The memory of Daniel Florence O’Leary, the son of a butter merchant from Co Cork, who left Ireland to fight with Simón Bolívar in the jungles, plains and mountains of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, is recalled in a city-centre plaza in Caracas. Burdett O’Connor province in Bolivia is named after Francis Burdett O’Connor, from Bandon, who fought to secure the independence of his adopted country.
In Ecuador, there are streets in Guayaquil and in Cuenca named, respectively, after Thomas Charles Wright from Drogheda and Arthur Sandes from near Listowel. A neighbourhood of Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, is called Madame Elisa Alicia Lynch, after the doctor’s daughter from Charleville in Co Cork who is honoured in that country for her role in the War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
These names are the few, mostly men of privileged birth, who made it into the history books. But as I was researching Paisanos in archives and libraries in Bogotá, Santiago and Buenos Aires, several years after visiting Chillán, I realised that for every Bernardo O’Higgins or William Brown, whose fame carries across oceans and centuries, there were thousands more less well-known but equally fascinating stories of Irish men and women who came to Latin America during the independence era in the first decades of the nineteenth century. They were emigrants and soldiers, merchants and spies, priests and farmers.
Among them was James Florence Bourke, the Irish spy working for the British government who seduced queens and threatened prime ministers in order to achieve his ends in Spain and South America.
Then there were the thousands of impoverished Irish men who, tempted by false promises of riches in exotic Venezuela, left their homes in Ireland to fight in the armies of Simón Bolívar, bringing their families with them.
Bolívar’s agents recruited them between 1817 and 1820 in the alehouses of Belfast and Dublin. Many of them died before even reaching the South American mainland; hundreds of soldiers from every part of Ireland succumbed to disease on the tropical island of Margarita off the coast of present-day Venezuela. At home, they had been bootmakers, brewers, butchers and bricklayers, down on their luck in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
Most of those who travelled to South America – in overcrowded, underprovisioned ships – dreamt of a better life, others of adventure and glory, but there were also those who were motivated by political ideology. They included Daniel Florence O’Leary and Francis Burdett O’Connor, two Corkmen who rose through the ranks to become generals in the armies of the countries they helped liberate from Spanish rule. They and their compatriots played a crucial role in helping Bolívar’s army break the stranglehold of Spanish power in the northern part of the continent.
This year, in tandem with the centenary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland, marks the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence in Argentina. It is therefore a doubly fitting moment to remember the contribution made by Irish men and women to the achievement of Latin America independence. And maybe in the future their Irish descendants will be equally proud of them.
Tim Fanning’s new book Paisanos: The Forgotten Irish who Changed the Face of Latin America is published by Gill Books and out now, priced at €24.99