Thursday, December 5, 2013

Highlights of the Irish in Cuba

An abbreviated and selective history of the Irish in Cuba

The first report of Irish in Cuba dates to 1609 and speculates they were employed as sailors. 

Manuel A.Tellechea, a Cuban American from New Jersey, summarized the important role of Irish who came to Cuba via Spain in a blog post on St. Patrick’s Day, 2005:  [ ]

“The largest Irish migration prior to the Great Potato Famine of 1848 was to Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Irish, who were awarded Spanish citizenship on arriving in Spain as persecuted Catholics, joined the Spanish army's Hibernian regiments and became Spain's best soldiers and most famous generals. Many of these were posted in Cuba and married into the island's aristocracy, establishing our own great Irish-Cuban families (the O'Farrills, the O'Reillys, the Kindelans, the Madans, the Duanys, the O'Gabans, the Coppingers and the O'Naughtens).  Four Captains General of Cuba were of Irish origin (Nicolás Mahy; Sebastián Kindelán; Leopoldo O'Donnell and Luís Prendergast).”

Irish people served at high levels in government and in senior military positions.  The lighthouse at El Morro, the fort that guarded Havana Bay, had been known as "O'Donnell's Lighthouse", after the Spanish governor, a relative of Red Hugh O'Donnell.

The O'Farrill family came from Longford via Montserrat.  They rose to prominence as slave traders, importers and sugar plantation owners.  The family mansion has been restored as a beautiful boutique hotel.  O’Reilly Street was named after General Count Alejandro O’Reilly, a native of Baltrasna, County Meath.  He organized the black and mulatto militias and the defenses of Havana in 1763.  A statue in New Orleans memorializes his role as governor there under Spanish rule.  

The second wave of Irish came to Cuba via the US in the 19th century, as described in a comprehensive summary by Rafael Fernández Moya that was translated and published by the Society for Irish Latin American Studies.  Moya currently works with the internationally famed Historian’s Office of Old Havana and its tour company Habaguanex and teaches a new generation of university students.              [ ]

He tells contrasting stories of the Irish experience in the first half of the century:

Juan O’Bourke, who was born in Trinidad around 1826 and twenty-five years later took part in the armed uprising of July 1826 organised by Isidoro Armenteros, collaborator of the expansionist general Narciso López, lived in this city [Cienfuegos] from 1839. The young revolutionary Juan O’Bourke was arrested and later condemned to ten years in prison in Ceuta from whence he escaped and headed to the United States….

In June 1855 a boy named Juan Byrnes, whose father was Gregorio and his godmother Margarita Byrnes, was baptised in Havana. This surname became part of the heart of the intellectual community of Matanzas. Firstly, this happened through the educational work of Juana Byrnes de Clayton, the first headmistress of the school for poor girls. This school would later become the Casa de Beneficencia, founded in 1846

He writes that the Irish who came to build Cuba’s first railroad in the 1830s did not have an easy experience:

“The Junta de Fomento brought the technicians, foremen, superintendents and a group of workers made up of 273 men and 8 women from the United States under contract, among whom were English, Irish, Scottish, North American, Dutch and German labourers. However, they were all identified as Irish, perhaps due to the greater numbers of those of that nationality.

While the work was being carried out, the so-called Irish workers and Canary Islanders were subjected to hard labour beyond their physical endurance, receiving insufficient food in return. Nor were they assured the pay and treatment previously agreed upon. After some weeks putting up with mistreatment and hunger the “Irish” workers and Canary Islanders decided to demand their rights from the administration of the railway works and when these were not adequately met, they launched the first workers’ strike recorded in the history of the island. The repression was bloody; the Spanish governors ordered the troops to act against the disgruntled workers, resulting in injury and death.”

Other Irish coming via the US to Cuba found a smoother path.

“It has been said that the introduction of the steam engine and other improvements in the sugar industry, Cuba’s main economic activity in that period, was mainly the work of North American growers who had settled on the island, particularly in the areas surrounding Matanzas and Cárdenas, north coast districts which, according to the opinion of the Irish writer Richard R. Madden, had more characteristics in common with North American towns than those of Spain.

One of the growers who had come from the United States named Juan D. Duggan was, according to the Cuban chemist and agronomist Alvaro Reynoso, one of the first farmers in the country to plant sugar cane over great distances…. The introduction of the steam engine on the sugar plantations resulted in the necessity to hire operators or machinists in the main from the United States and England. After the administrator, the most important job in a sugar plantation was without a doubt that of machinist, who had to work like an engineer because, besides being responsible for all repairs, sometimes they had to come up with real innovations in the machinery.”

The democratic instincts of the American Irish confronted the colonial attitudes of the Spanish Irish in the Cuban aristocracy:

“Some of these foreign technicians living in the Matanzas region became involved in a legal trial, accused of complicity with the enslaved African people’s plans for a revolt, which were abandoned in 1844. Six of them were originally from EnglandIreland and Scotland: Enrique Elkins, Daniel Downing, Fernando Klever, Robert Hiton, Samuel Hurrit and Thomas Betlin.

The number of people arrested later grew and all were treated violently during interrogation. In November 1844 the English consul Mr. Joseph Crawford informed the Governor and Captain General of the island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, that the British subjects Joseph Leaning and Pat O’Rourke had died after being released. The doctors who treated them indicated that the physical and moral suffering they had endured in the prison was the cause of death. One of the streets in Cienfuegos was given the name of the infamous Governor of the Island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, who embarked on a bloody campaign of repression against the Afro-Cuban population and against the white people who supported their cause.”

Moya recounts the Irish role in Cuba’s ten year unsuccessful War of Independence against Spain (1868-1878):

“From the beginning, the Cuban Liberation Army had the support of patriots who had emigrated to or organized outside of Cuba, mainly in the United States where they raised funds, bought arms and munitions and recruited volunteers who enlisted to fight for the liberation of Cuba from the Spanish yoke. Among the foreign volunteers was the Canadian William O’Ryan.…Upon the US American general Thomas Jordan’s arrival, who was named Chief of the High Command and later Head of the Liberation Army in the Camagüey region, W. O’Ryan was named inspector and chief of cavalry, before attaining the rank of general. He was sent on a mission to the United States, from where he set out to return to Cuba at the end of October 1873. He sailed aboard the American steamship Virginius…. The Virginius was captured by the Spanish warship Tornado off Cuban waters and was towed into the bay of Santiago de Cuba on 1 December. Five days later, by order of the Spanish authorities, all the leaders of the revolutionary expedition were executed, O’Ryan among them. On 7 December the ship’s captain, Joseph Fry, and 36 members of the crew, were executed, causing a diplomatic and political conflict between Spain and the United States. In honour of the independence fighter O’Ryan a street of the Sagarra subdivision in Santiago de Cuba was given his name.”

The Ireland-Cuba Piano Project “Una Corda” noted these links:

One of the more colorful characters who fought for Cuban independence in the late 19th century was Captain John Dynamite O’Brien, who successfully ran guns and ammunition from the US to the independent Cuban forces. Revolutionary journalist and poet Bonifacio Byrne and writer Richard Madden were very much involved in espousing the cause of Cuban independence.  One of the founders of the Cuban Communist Party was Julio Mella, whose mother was an Irishwoman, Cecilia McPartland

Movement also occurred from Cuba to the US with a strong Irish dimension. The iconic Cuban intellectual, Father Felix Varella, "the leading educator, philosopher and patriot of his time", fled from Cuba to New York in 1823 to escape execution for his opposition to slavery and Spanish colonialism.  He gained fame as the priest to and defender of impoverished Irish immigrants, fluent in their language.,7327

While documentation is not conclusive, the grandfather of Ireland’s independence leader and President is said to have been Cuban, active in the sugar trade in Matanzas Province.  Juan Manuel de Valera reportedly sent his son Vivion Juan, an aspiring sculptor and music teacher, to New York to avoid the Spanish draft.  He married Catherine Coll from Bruree, County Limerick.  Their son Eamon de Valera was born in 1882 and sent to Ireland to live with his mother’s family after his father’s death from illness in 1885.  

Cuba's iconic revolutionary Che Guevara was from Argentina but his grandmother Anna Lynch hailed from County Galway

Among contemporary Irish links in Cuba are monuments in public parks to the ten deceased hunger strikers and John Lennon of the Beatles.


Potential Irish connections suggested by Rafael Fernández Moya that will constitute the basis for our educational program

For the Irish Connection and People to People we have the following subjects for the talks:

1) Irish presence in Cuban culture;
2) Priests and nuns in Catholic institutions of several orders (Jesuits, Ursulines
      from New Orleans, Carmelites, Saint Augustin from Florida);
3) Dynamite John and the struggle for independence;
4) Irish struggle for independence in José Matrti's chronicles in New York;
5) San Patricio farm in Limonar owned by George and Mary Gowen from Boston.

There are several places of interest  to show such as:

*  Cuban telephone company  Museum. Vesey T. Butler was the manager of the
      first network of the city
*  Central Railroad Station. Robert Orr from Glasgow was manager of The
       Havana United Rail Road
*  Alameda de Paula.   A part of it is known as O'Donnel Hall.
*  Plaza Vieja Brewery, formerly the home of Pedro Pablo O'Reilly
*  Carlos Finlay's statue. Father's family from Scotland and mother's from Ireland
*  Cecilia McParland's home in Obispo street. Mother of Julio Antonio Mella
*  The Bank of Nova Scotia in O'Reilly St
*  Captain General's Palace, in Plaza de Armas. Four of them had Irish origin
       (Mahy, Kindelan, O'Donnell, Prendergast)
*  Picture of piano player Ignacio Cervantes Kawanagh in Mercaderes Street
*  Cathedral Church. Built by the Jesuits. One of them was Thomas Ignatius Butler
      from Ireland
*  Archbishop's building. former property of José Ricardo O'Farrill y Herrera
*  O'Farrill Hotel, former property of José Ricardo O'Farrill y O'Farrill
*  Cristina Railroad Station museum. Irish workers in the history of the first line
      from Havana to Bejucal-Guines
*  Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel. Initial managers were Bowman and Flynn
*  Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje. Church and school under the rule of  Saint
      Augustin of Florida missionaries
*  Casa Simón Bolívar. Former residence of James C. Burhnham, businessman 
      from Boston, whose three children owned the house till the end of the 19th 
      century. Their mother was Pamela Blakeley,  from Charleston, S.C.daughter of 
      Robert Blakeley,  from SavannahGeorgia and half sister of  the mulatto
      Charles Blakeley, also from Charleston
*  Calle Cárcel (Jail St.)  Remains of the prison built under Captain General
      Tacón, where Charles Blakeley was kept for several months.  He was
      involved in the freedom movement of the people in 1844, known as the
      Conspiración de la Escalera (Ladder Conspiracy).  He was the first non-white
      surgeon dentist with an official licence in Cuba. 
*  El Cotorro (The Parrot)  On the old road to Guines, now Central Road, at  
      kilometer number 20 at Loma de Tierra, Dr, Arturo O'Farrill, Chico
      O'Farrill's father, had a estate named "Finca Casañas" close to the lands of the
      Irish pioneer Richard O'Farrill O'Daly
*  Tapaste (x), (San José de las Lajas, Havana Province)  Town built on
      O'Farrill's lands. Its church was also built with the aid of this family.

Pinar del Río 
*  There is a museum Äntonio Gutierrez, born in Philadelphia and  son of Mary 
      Therese Holmes y Walsh, member of a revolutionary Irish family.

*  Casa de la Cultura "Bonifacio Byrne", a Cuban poet of Irish origin whose
      family is connected by marriage to another family of surname Daly
*  Streets named Tirry, O'Reilly, Byrne and Madan denoting the Irish presence
*  Casa de Beneficencia directed several years by Juana Byrne de Clayton
*  City jail built in 1840 at Fernando VII or Saint Francis Square
*  El Morrillo Castle where Amntonio Guiteras was executed
*  Limonar. South of Cárdenas. (x) Two coffee estates named San Patricio (St.
      Patrick) owned by Daniel O'Leary and George C. Gowen and his sister Mary
      Brooks Gowen, from Boston.  Another one named "Pamela", property of
      Robert Blakeley, from SavannahGeorgia.
*  San Antonio de Cabezas (x)  Among the founders of this town were the Valera
      family, headed by José María Valera, owner of a sugar estate named San 
      Antonio, known as San Antonio de Valera. He had several children, one of
      them named Juan Manuel, and a grandson named Juan Luís Valera Acosta. It is
      probably Irish President Eamon de Valera's family's home town

(x) Circled in the attached map

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