Ambrose O’Higgins, who set sail from Sligo and conquered South America

Irish Connections: Few young men were as ambitious as O’Higgins, field marshal in the colonial Spanish army and viceroy of Lima

Ambrosio O’Higgins: the Chilean city of Vallenar and Vallenar Bay, in Alaska, were named in his honour

Ambrosio O’Higgins: the Chilean city of Vallenar and Vallenar Bay, in Alaska, were named in his honour

 

Ballynary isn’t strictly a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place. You could drive through it with your eyes wide open and you’d probably still miss it. But this tiny Co Sligo townland has left a permanent footprint on two continents. And that’s thanks to one man.

Ambrose (later Ambrosio) O’Higgins was born here, to an impoverished Catholic farming family, in 1720. When he was 30 he emigrated to the Spanish city of Cadiz: home of the Spanish navy and an important hub for trade with the New World. In an era when the anti-Catholic Penal Laws were in force at home, Cadiz was a magnet for ambitious young Irishmen. And few were as ambitious as Ambrosio O’Higgins.

The portrait that emerges of O’Higgins from Tim Fanning’s Paisanos: The Forgotten Irish Who Changed the Face of Latin America is of a dour but industrious fellow. He took a job with the Butler Trading House, an Irish merchant firm. Then, in 1756, he sailed to South America to sell goods on behalf of a group of Cadiz businessmen. He landed in Buenos Aires, in what is now Argentina, then made the 1,500km trek west to Santiago, in modern-day Chile.

The climax of that journey was an arduous passage over the Andes. One of his first solo initiatives was to conceive and construct a series of weatherproof refuges along this route across the mountain range, which provided a year-round communication channel between Argentina and Chile for the first time.

In 1761 he was hired as a draughtsman by John Garland, an Irish-born captain in the Spanish royal engineering corps, and they were charged with repairing fortifications in southern Chile. Lima was still the jewel in Spain’s South American crown, and the city of Valdivia was a crucial resupply point for Spanish ships sailing there via Cape Horn. The two Irishmen manufactured 220,000 bricks on site in pursuit of that effort.

Returning to Spain, he made an ally of that country’s Irish former prime minister, Richard (or Ricardo) Wall. But it wasn’t until he was commissioned as an army captain, to lead a campaign against the Mapuche tribe on the frontiers in southern Chile, that his career really took off. Within four years he had been promoted to field marshal.

In southern Chile he was a frequent guest at the home of a landowner named Simon Riquelme. In 1778 he impregnated Riquelme’s teenage daughter Isabel. He funded the education of Bernardo Riquelme but never met his son.

A decade later O’Higgins was anointed first barón de Ballinar – a local take on his home place – by the Spanish king and promoted to governor of Chile. O’Higgins used his position to abolish the encomienda system of forced labour for indigenous peoples. He also clamped down on drinking, dancing, satirical verse and fraternisation between unmarried men and women.

In 1795 he was made viceroy of Lima, the highest royal official in Spanish America. The Chilean city of Vallenar, and Vallenar Bay in Alaska, were both later named in his honour.

But his son Bernardo was shunted off to Europe, without much in the way of financial support, lest word of his existence prove damaging politically.

There Bernardo became acquainted with Francisco de Miranda, an ageing lothario and revolutionary, whose conquests included Catherine the Great of Russia. Miranda schooled the young man in Enlightenment philosophy. When word of his son’s association with this enemy of the Spanish crown filtered back to Lima, Ambrosio ordered his European friends to disown the boy.

Bernardo was practically destitute when, in 1801, the old man died – and, surprisingly, named him his sole heir. Bernardo O’Higgins – he took his surname in violation of his late father’s wishes – was now one of the richest men in South America. Where his father had been a conservative and a monarchist, Bernardo was a revolutionary and an exponent of liberal republicanism. He became the first leader of an independent Chile and remains a national hero there.

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