Secret diasporas: the Irish in Latin America and the Caribbean

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 16

The legendary visit of St Brendan to Mexico in the sixth century—and his resemblance to the Aztec creator-god Quetzacóatl—may have been mythical but it is an indication of the mystery and sense of exceptionality surrounding relations between Ireland and Latin America. Yet, just like the rest of the diaspora, the Irish in Latin America hoped to improve their lot in military, business, religious or social ways. Less numerous than their compatriots in North America, Britain or Australia, Irish missionaries, soldiers, merchants, teachers, farmers and others who settled in the region left their traces, or re-emigrated to other parts of the world.
The number of Irish who decided on Latin America as their temporary or permanent home is still a matter of debate among scholars. Argentina and Uruguay alone received approximately 50,000 Irish-born immigrants. Thousands more were scattered in the Caribbean, Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico as a result of military operations, trade and colonisation schemes. The rate of re-emigration within the Americas and to Australia, Britain or back to Ireland was high, yet similar to that of other immigrant communities.

Missionaries and plantation-owners
Migration to Latin America was initially an extension of the Iberian dimension of the Irish diaspora. The first recorded Irish arrivals there were those of Juan and Tomás Farrel, who accompanied Pedro de Mendoza to found Buenos Aires in the Río de la Plata region in 1536. The early Irish presence in Latin America has been connected with traditional links between the Irish in Britain, Spain and Portugal.
Among the missionaries was the Jesuit Thomas Field, born in Limerick, who entered the order in Rome and arrived in Brazil in 1577. With two other Jesuits, he went to Paraguay and established missions among the Guaraní people. Other priests were born in Spain or Portugal of Irish parents, and were engaged by the Jesuits and Franciscans to mission in Latin America because they spoke English. Thus they could work not only to protect the native populations from Protestant English and Dutch colonisers but also to convert the ‘heretics’ themselves. A former Jesuit student, William Lamport of Wexford, was an early proposer of Mexican independence. Known locally as Guillén Lombardo, Lamport was jailed in October 1642 and died in prison in 1659.
In c. 1612 brothers Philip and James Purcell established a plantation in Forte de Tauregue, on the mouth of the River Amazon. Huge profits were made by the colonists in tobacco, dyes and hardwoods. They were followed by Bernardo O’Brien of County Clare, who built a fort on the north bank of the Amazon and named the place Coconut Grove. Other plantations existed in Guyana and the Caribbean islands, where owners, managers, foremen and in some cases indentured labourers also came from Ireland. In Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St Domingue, Montserrat, St Croix and other islands the Irish produced tobacco, sugar, coffee, cacao and cattle. In Cuba, Richard O’Farrill from Montserrat made a fortune in the slave trade, and his family became significant owners of tobacco and sugar plantations, cattle ranches, sugar mills and hundreds of slaves.

Merchants, colonists and workers
From Veracruz in Mexico, where the Murphy family traded fruit, arms and slaves, to the wool-exporters in southernmost Punta Arenas, Irish business people of all trades and ranks were present in the major ports and cities of Latin America.
In 1822 there were 3,500 ingleses (British and Irish) in Buenos Aires, where they made up the majority of foreigners who benefited from the free trade treaty signed with Britain in 1824. Merchants traded for silver, maté (a type of tea), hides, tallow and jerked beef. King’s County-born Thomas Armstrong led the Irish business community from its early stages in the 1830s until his death in 1875. Thomas O’Gorman, Patrick Lynch and Peter Sheridan were also prominent members of the business community. Other Irish people were employed by British firms, like William Mooney and Patrick Bookey of Westmeath, and Patrick Brown and James Pettit of Wexford. They were the initiators of early immigration chains from those counties to Argentina and Uruguay. Moreover, there were Irish-born stevedores and labourers in the meat-curing establishments.

Celebration of St Patrick’s Day, 1922, at Arrecifes in the north-west of Buenos Aires province. (Centro Argentino Irlandés de San Pedro)

Celebration of St Patrick’s Day, 1922, at Arrecifes in the north-west of Buenos Aires province. (Centro Argentino Irlandés de San Pedro)

From the 1850s, Irish merchants were established in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico, the West Indies and on the Pacific coast. In Valparaíso, Chile, the Irish and British contributed to business and social life. In Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador they opened trading houses and were involved in shipping and mining businesses. William Russell Grace of Cork became one of the most prominent businessmen in the Americas, with interests in almost all South American countries and in the US.
Irish colonies in Latin America were conceived to populate deserted areas and to whiten the native population. In the 1840s a ‘New Ireland’ in California was planned by Fr Eugene McNamara of County Clare. His projected colony was approved by the Mexican authorities but collapsed when the US annexed California from Mexico. William Cotter, an Irish officer serving in the Brazilian army, recruited some 3,000 people in Cork. When they arrived at Rio de Janeiro they were abandoned on the streets and mutinied. Most left Brazil but some went on to form a colony in Pernambuco.
Irish empresarios (entrepreneurs) established successful settlements in Mexican Texas, where settlers were brought from Wexford to establish colonies in Refugio and San Patricio on the Gulf Coast. They perceived themselves as Mexican through marriage, commercial contacts and as Spanish-speakers. During the Texas revolution some of the Irish were loyal to the Mexican government and established successful relations with vaquero neighbours, from whom they learned the basics of the cattle business. Other Irish settlements started in the Chaco region of Paraguay, Osorno in southern Chile, and in Patagonia.
The last Irish colony was established near Bahía Blanca, Argentina, with 700 passengers from the steamer Dresden, which sailed from Cork in 1889. They were part of a larger immigration scheme planned by the Argentine government and leaders of the Irish-Argentine community. Agents working out of Dublin and Cork convinced thousands of destitute people to travel to Argentina with false promises. In what later became notorious as the ‘Dresden affair’, many died—especially children—or re-emigrated to other destinations.
In 1835 some 400 Irish workers were hired in New York and laboured in brutal conditions to open the ‘sugar railroad’ between Havana and Güines. Workers from the Canary Islands and Ireland—described by the royal council in Havana as ‘worthless, lazy, disease-ridden drunkards’—were involved in the first recorded strike in Cuba. Likewise, the Irish workers in the multinational force on the Panama railroad between Colón and Panamá were deceived and abused. Feuds arose between the Irish and workers from other places. No other nationality displayed so much animosity towards people of darker skin and foreign ways as the Irish, and therefore the Chinese camp was relocated as far away from them as possible.
Many prosperous Irish-Argentine families perceived themselves as ingleses and their identity tended towards British rather than Irish traditions. In contrast, the poorer classes, made up of countryside labourers, urban servants and low-rank employees, were attracted by Irish nationalist appeals from the Catholic Church. The Irish-owned newspapers in Buenos Aires, The Standard and The Southern Cross, polarised the interests of these distinct identities.

Nationalism, diplomatic and cultural relations

A carnival party at Youngs ranch c. 1930s. Sara and Louise Young (with guitars) and their friends wear fancy dress representing Argentinian native women. (Centro Argentino Irlandés de San Pedro)

A carnival party at Youngs ranch c. 1930s. Sara and Louise Young (with guitars) and their friends wear fancy dress representing Argentinian native women. (Centro Argentino Irlandés de San Pedro)

The Dresden Affair and other failures ended further projects to attract Irish immigrants. A small but continuous flow arrived from Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Limerick, some of them from a Protestant background. Skilled workers were hired by railway companies, banks or meat-packing plants in Argentina. After the First World War, in which some Irish Argentines fought in British regiments, more arrived during the Irish Civil War. Financial crisis and catastrophe in Europe were serious barriers to emigration, and consequently Irish arrivals in Argentina virtually came to a halt after 1930.
The new-rich Irish families did not wish to be perceived by the Anglophile Argentine élite as belonging to the same circles as their poorer relatives in Ireland. A social gap arose between the Irish in Argentina and the Irish in Ireland, and weakened the links between both communities (even within the same families). In other Latin American countries the British predominance gradually gave way to US businesses. By the 1920s most of the families with Irish surnames in Latin America were considered—and considered them-selves—to be Brazilians, Chileans, Mexicans and so on rather than Irish.
The first Irish diplomatic envoy to Latin America was Argentine-born Eamonn Bulfin, who established a contact network in South America and started an Irish fund in support of the underground Irish Republic. In 1921 two of Ireland’s eight diplomats were based in Latin America. Formal diplomatic relations with the region started in 1947 with the opening of a mission in Buenos Aires, followed by Brazil and Mexico in 1975 and 1977 respectively.
Recent academic activity focuses on Irish–Latin American relations in literature, history and other disciplines. The University of São Paulo offers a postgraduate course on Irish literature and publishes The Brazilian Journal of Irish Studies. The Society for Irish Latin American Studies (SILAS) publishes the open-access journal Irish Migration Studies in Latin America ( and organises conferences and grant programmes.
The most efficient Irish representatives in Latin America have been religious missionaries. Most knowledge of Latin America in Ireland is derived from missionary news circulated through churches. The pioneering work of Fr Anthony Fahy and other Irish chaplains in nineteenth-century South America was followed by religious orders. The Sisters of Mercy and the Passionist and Pallotine fathers served the Irish community in remote regions. Irish missionary work with Latin Americans started when the Columbans opened parishes in Peru and Chile in 1952. The Legion of Mary followed in Colombia and attracted other orders that established missions from El Salvador to southern Chile.
In a process that ended with the Falklands (Malvinas) War of 1982, the Irish in Latin America gradually came to perceive themselves as Argentines, Brazilians or Mexicans with Irish family names. Present-day Latin Americans with an Irish background are estimated at c. 500,000, and most live in Argentina. The vast majority do not speak English nor keep the traditions brought from Ireland by their ancestors. Inter-community marriage during the twentieth century has allowed most of the families to assert their local Latin American identities. Nevertheless, perhaps seeking recognition of their Irish identity, in 2002 a group of about 2,000 Irish Argentines submitted a petition to the Irish minister for justice for permission to reside in Ireland. While the petition failed to obtain a favourable response, it was a demonstration that the links between Ireland and Latin America can still be reshaped to accommodate the needs of both societies.
Reversing the trend, since the late 1990s Ireland has attracted immigrants from the region. The most significant community are Brazilians in counties Galway and Roscommon. Most are from the interior of the state of São Paulo and came with the experience of working in slaughterhouses in Brazil. Furthermore, embassies from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Mexico reinforce the relation and work to attract investment. Immigrants and diplomats act more realistically than St Brendan in Mexico, and are shaping the basis of interest for further relations between Ireland and Latin America.

Edmundo Murray is a doctoral candidate at the University of Zurich and Secretary of the Society for Irish Latin American Studies.

Further reading:

G. Davis, Land! Irish pioneers in Mexican and Revolutionary Texas (Texas, 2002).

P. Kirby, Ireland and Latin America: links and lessons (Dublin, 1992).

O. Marshall, English, Irish and Irish-American pioneer settlers in nineteenth-century Brazil (Oxford, 2005).

E. Murray, Becoming Irlandés: private narratives of the Irish emigration to Argentina, 1844–1912 (Buenos Aires, 2006).


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