Fate of Irish man who inspired Zorro has been revealed

William Lamport was one of the Irish victims of the Spanish Inquisition, new book claims

The fate of the Irish man who inspired the character Zorro has been revealed in a new book about the Spanish Inquisition.

William Lamport, from Co Wexford, sought his fortune in 17th-century Spain and then in New Spain (present-day Mexico and Central America), where he was accused of fomenting rebellion among the native people.

Lamport was then tried by the Spanish Inquisition and sentenced to be burnt at the stake.

He spent 17 years in jail, but he cheated his executioners by hanging himself in 1659.

Lamport became an inspiration for the Mexican independence movement in the 19th-century.

He inspired the character of Zorro in a bestselling 1919 novel, which was reworked and adopted by Douglas Fairbanks into the blockbuster films of the 1920s and 1930s.

Maynooth University academic Dr Tom O'Connor said that while researching his new book, Irish Voices from the Spanish Inquisition, he had been astonished to find that at least 500 Irish people went before the inquisition, mostly in the 17th- and 18th-centuries.

The Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834. It was an attempt by the Spanish state to enforce Catholicism among Jews, Muslims and Protestants.

Dr O'Connor assumed because Ireland was predominantly Catholic that Irish involvement with the inquisition would be minimal.

However, his searches of the national archives in Spain suggested otherwise.

“This is a real Aladdin’s cave of archives and extraordinary character. It is unique,” he said.

“The records have proved to be an untapped treasure of social and geopolitical history.

“The characters who appear in them are often larger than life, sometimes tragic, and frequently canny and crafty. They provide a fascinating insight into the Irish character that many would find recognisable today.”

Executions

Two Irishmen were executed through the Spanish Inquisition.

The first, John Martin, from Co Cork, arrived in Spanish America as part of an expedition led by the notorious English privateer and slaver, Sir John Hawkins.

In 1568, Martin and his crewmates were ambushed by the Spanish navy off the coast of Mexico.

He was lucky enough to be released by the Spanish military but was later taken into inquisitorial custody on suspicion of heresy.

In 1574, Martin was convicted and was garrotted and burned at the stake at San Hipólito.

The other confirmed execution was that of the Leinster-born tailor James Kavanagh, who had converted to Protestantism in the Netherlands.

He refused to reconvert despite efforts by Irish clergy in Spain and was executed in 1566.

Exception rather than the rule

Although an estimated 4,000 “heretics” were put to death during the inquisition, Dr O’Connor said executions were the exception rather than the rule and judgment was often a lot more benign.

People could be tried for the most frivolous things. For example, merchant John O'Flaherty casually corrected a woman who thanked the Virgin of the Rosary for her safe passage as one of his ships sailed between the Canary Islands.

He told the woman that her safe passage had been down to the grace of God.

For his sins, he was sentenced to a severe verbal reprimand, spiritual penances and a lifelong ban from the Canary Islands.

Dr O’Connor said the inquistion was often used to regularise the status of would-be residents in Spain.

“It is a sort of a naturalisation process and the Irish are not only processed by it but acts as agents too in the process,” he said.