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Speech at the opening of an Exhibition on the Irish in Latin America

Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Havana, Cuba,16 February 2017

Dr. Abel Prieto Jiménez, Ministro de Cultura de Cuba,
Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, Historiador de la Ciudad,
Maestra Onedys Calvo, Directora del Palacio de Segundo Cabo,
Dra. Margaret Brehony, Presidenta de SILAS,
Embajadoras, Embajadores,
Miembros de la comunidad Irlandesa en Cuba - A mhuintir na hÉireann i gCúba
Amigas y amigos – A Cháirde

Es un placer inmenso para mí estar aquí, en el Palacio del Segundo Cabo. Tengo entendido que lo están renovando ahora para crear un centro cultural y un museo enfocado al intercambio cultural entre Cuba y Europa.

I am delighted to join you all here today, as we celebrate this important exhibition, which has a particular focus on the contribution of Irish men and women in Latin America from the 17th to the 20th century, including their engagement in independence and revolutionary movements across the region. It is a remarkable achievement, bringing together the diverse strands of our joint story in a way which respects the complexities of that story, and the varied experiences it comprises.

May I commence by commending Margaret Brehony, the curator of this exhibition, which I understand will be displayed in its Spanish language version throughout Latin America, and also the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for commissioning it. 

The development of the political and economic landscape of Latin America has been a journey close to my heart, and one whose course I have been privileged to witness during my political and academic career. I have had the pleasure of visiting the region twice as President of Ireland, from Chile at the southern tip, through Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico. Now I am delighted to have embarked upon this visit to Cuba, Peru, and Colombia, whose histories were marked by the contributions of Irish migrants. For so many reasons it has been a privilege as President of Ireland to have had the opportunity of meeting the peoples and the elected representatives of these countries and of discussing with them the bilateral, regional and global issues that we face together.

Surrounding us here in Cuba are indelible reminders of the deep and durable historical links which unite two islands physically separated by some seven thousand kilometres. Immortalised in many of this nation’s streets and buildings are names which recall the many Irish who, across the centuries, have made their homes in Latin America. I think, for instance, of Juan Duany, who travelled to Santiago de Cuba in the 17th century to take part in the city’s fortification works. The name Duany is now eternalised in streets and neighbourhoods of Santiago de Cuba, reminding us of the many citizens of that name who, throughout the 18th century, held office as council members and mayors of its City Hall. I think of The Hotel Palacio O’Farrill, named for a family whose lineage can be traced back to County Longford; I think of Calle O’Reilly, named in recognition of the achievements of Meath born General Alejandro O’Reilly, who organised the military forces on this island and particularly the Black and Mulatto Militias, and of the inspiring words on that street’s wall plaque:

“Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope: Cuba and Ireland.” 

The refrain of this exhibition, ‘Exile’, provides an important reminder of the positive contribution of Irish exiles to world history.  There can, indeed, be no doubting the profound role played by Irish men and women in the development of the modern and independent republics that exist today in Latin America. There is also, however, no doubting the complexity of that role, and the complicated nature of the historic relationship between Ireland and Latin America; one which can make critical the challenge of embarking on the task of commemoration while being aware of the tension between the projects of celebratory commemoration and the discipline of history.

Indeed, many of the Irish exiles from the 17th century, the ‘Wild Geese’, as they are known, and their descendants – who have had a significant presence in the histories of Spain and Latin America well into the 19th and 20th centuries – did give military service in the name of empires that were often competing for the advantages they sought in slavery or the labour of indigenous peoples.

One of the great merits of this exhibition, however, is to cast a light on lesser-known experiences of Irish migration. It allows for the celebration of the common history that is shared between Ireland and Latin America but, critically, it also recalls the full range of experiences that were those of Irish migrants in Latin America, recognising the significance of the diverse layers of our common history.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish men and women, escaping a ravaged Ireland under British colonisation, found sanctuary in France, Spain and other countries of al Europe. Many flourished, and were appointed to prestigious positions as colonial administrators or officers in the imperial armies. 

Arriving at the time when empires were declining and the impulse for national independence was emerging, some of those Irish and their descendants have been immortalised in the history books of Latin America as key players in the struggle for independence – men such as Admiral William Browne the father of the Argentine Navy, and General Bernardo O’Higgins, Liberator of Chile. They are historic figures of whose achievements we, in Ireland, are justifiably proud, and who represent the profound contribution of the Irish to the crafting of modern Latin America. How moving it always is to know that they are remembered annually at ceremonial services such as graduation services for naval officers in Argentina.

We must also recall, especially today, the many stories which highlight the enriching effects of migration and the cross-pollination of ideas engendered by it. José Martí, admirer of Walt Whitman’s world breaking modernism, poet and founding father of Cuban independence, came into contact with Irish leaders such as Michael Davitt, O'Donovan Rossa and Charles Stewart Parnell during his exile in New York and wrote of the parallels between Irish and Cuban colonial histories. Then, of course, Daniel O'Connell and Simón Bolívar shared in the title of “The Liberator” and indeed Daniel O'Connell sent his own son and his nephew to fight in Bolívar's Irish legion. These were indeed emancipatory gestures. Nor should we ever forget O’Connell’s unambiguous opposition to slavery, a view not always shared by all of the exiled Irish in the Americas.

We can think, too, of Roger Casement, whose revolutionary patriotism was rooted in human rights and awakened on his witnessing of the brutality of colonialism in the Congo and in the Putumayo region of Latin America. The distinguished Peruvian writer and Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, brought Casement to the attention of recent global audiences with his book El sueño del celta, translated into English as The Dream of the Celt. I was delighted also to hear that Tim Fanning’s Paisanos is being prepared for a Spanish language edition.

But there are also the lesser known stories, the quiet narratives that are critical to Ireland and Latin America’s shared history. Here, today, we are reminded of the hundreds of Irish railroad workers who were brought from New York to Cuba in the mid-19th century to work as bonded labourers, building the Havana-Güines [pronounced Gwee-nes] railroad. The conditions under which those Irish labourers worked were brutal, and attempts to escape resulted in incarceration or execution. Seen as attractive to a project of “whitening” the population of an island with a black majority sowed to slave labour, the truculence of the Irish labourers, and their insistence on the rights of labour, be it from a remembered land agitation background or the exploration of trade union militancy in the coastal stations, quickly brought them to see some common cause with the other coerced labourers, notably from the Canary Islands, alongside whom they were working.

The cost of the passage of those Irish men and women to Cuba, and various other debts incurred as part of that undertaking, meant that many of them owed significant sums before they had even commenced work on the railways, and they consequently did not receive any pay for several months. 

Any honest overview of the Irish influence on Latin America seeming to be complete must acknowledge that some Irish exiles, even some who had suffered the realities of colonialism in Ireland, became themselves the agents of colonialism in Spanish-ruled Latin America. We know that, alongside those Irish who were exploited as railroad workers in Cuba, were families of Irish origin who operated large sugar plantations worked by slaves. Indeed, the Spanish General Leopoldo O’Donnell, a descendent of Hugh O’Donnell was a staunch defender of slavery and one of the largest holders of African slaves in the world, and has a deserved infamous reputation.

We can also acknowledge and welcome, however, the dramatic shift in allegiance which saw, in the space of one or two generations, the children and grandchildren of many of the original ‘Wild Geese’ go on to play influential roles in the revolutionary campaigns against Spanish rule, leading to the establishment of independent Republics in Latin America from the early 1800s onwards. The life of Bernardo O’ Higgins, for example, is one of sustained courage that moved on beyond the legacy of his father Ambrosio who, in his own fashion, tried reforming locals.

As we recall the profound and powerful roots that connect Ireland and Latin America, we are also invited, here in Cuba, to reflect further on the similarities that unite our two nations. Cuba and Ireland have both experienced the complexities that lie behind any struggle for liberation and independence. Both of our peoples have lived in the shadow of a powerful neighbour, a shadow which has darkened and starved of opportunity the lives of generations. We understand the true length cast by such a shadow, the profound legacy it leaves to a nation, even as it moves out of the darkness of oppression and begins to look to the future with optimism and hope, as Cuba does now.

In the Cuba of the turn of the 19th century, commercial expansion and the development of sugar production had greatly benefited the island’s economy. The Creole elite who ran those benefits delayed the development of what would later be a nationalist Creole rebellion against Spanish rule. Many separatist conservatives, viewing Spanish power as essential to the maintenance of slavery and fearing slave rebellion, stayed loyal to Spain during the Spanish American Wars of Independence.
 However, by the latter half of the 19th century affluent Cubans had become resentful of Spanish officialdom and became increasingly dependent on the United States as a market for their products. Some conservative Creole planters, far from seeking full independence, sought annexation to the United States as a means of gaining political and economic freedom while preserving slavery.

Of course, it is simply a fact of history that conflicting motivations also defined Ireland’s struggle for independence, with republicanism in any genuine sense not always a prominent ideology. Many who fought in the Easter Rising were seeking national freedom rather than equality achieved within a Republic. Some were motivated more by a desire to counter the unionist threat to Home Rule and to secure recent and invaluable gains in relation to land tenure. 

Contrary to the popular idea of rural Ireland in the early 20th century being mainly inhabited by peasant farmers, certain areas had, particularly in the post famine years, also been populated by a rural bourgeoisie known as graziers. Those were very often sons of tenant farmers who had gradually accumulated land acquired by bidding to the landlords for farm after farm. The Ranch War of 1906 –1910 had effectively isolated from the rest of the community these graziers who refused to participate in the system of mutual aid and assistance which lay at the heart of peasant farming. Eager to ape the manners and habits of the English landlords, they would come to be seen as an aloof and upwardly mobile group, constituting little less than a new native predatory class who wished to adopt a limited form of national independence, rather than becoming a Republic. Theirs would come to be a deep influence on the new Irish state.

There can be no doubt that the Ireland which gave rise to the Easter Rising was a project within which a dynamic mixture of ideologists dreamt, in their different ways, of a new Ireland. In a similar way, the organized pro-independence movement in Cuba ignited by the Ten Year War was a multi-racial and multi-class movement with a strong grass-roots character. Its leaders were no longer members of the Creole elite, but citizens whose social origins were modest. 

Then, too, just as the Irish revolutionary generation were inspired, in so many ways, by a yearning for a cultural revival, including those such as Pádraig Pearse, a major inspiration behind Cuba’s bid for independence was the middle class poet and journalist José Martí, often referred to as the “Apostle of the Cuban Revolution.” 

Sometime in 1894, Martí determined that conditions on the island were ripe for a renewed bid for independence. The economic situation was critical as a consequence of the cancellation of a trade agreement with the United States. It had also become clear that Spain’s much heralded plans for ruling Cuba as just another Spanish province were mere “traps for the gullible.” Fighting broke out again on 24th February 1895 with several uprisings in the east of the island. 

Much of Martí’s adult life was spent in exile, and it was during his years in New York that he encountered Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell. He was struck by the parallels between Irish and Cuban history, rooted in a shared experience of colonialism. Ireland and the Irish became a regular subject of his journalistic works, including the struggle for Irish independence and the contribution to that independence of those such as Daniel O’Connell, Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Indeed, José Martí’s contribution to our understanding of a foundational and complex decade in our history has been significant.

In reflecting on the nature of freedom, I think that it is fair to say that both Ireland and Cuba have experienced the great desire for a true freedom that can only be achieved when a nation is allowed to develop upon its own national lines, enabled to become, once again, true to its identity and to the distinctive aspirations of its people. In Ireland, as in Cuba, the reclaiming of our distinctive cultural identity – including, for the Irish people, the preservation of our national language – was central to our new found independence. Much of the idealism at the heart of 1916 was inspired by a vibrant cultural revival which sought to craft a new Ireland continuous with a distinct Irish culture and heritage, but also, for some, such as James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, an Ireland in which true freedom would be understood as a generous social vision.

Such a generous vision lies at the heart of the coming together, here in Cuba, of the African, European and Indian cultures which have created such a vibrant national identity. Indeed, it is no surprise that the concept of transculturation was created by a son of Cuba, the distinguished anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. 

The diverse elements which have interacted to produce this nation’s distinctive music, dance and oral culture celebrate a great understanding of the importance of culture being enabled to evolve in accordance with time, place and history, no one strand being asked to cede its identity to another. This understanding has been critical in asserting Cuba as a space with its own culture and history, independent of their status as a Spanish colony, and allowing them their own place in the world.

Dear friends,
Today, the history of the Irish in Latin America is the subject of an emerging area of scholarship, not just in Ireland but across Europe and the Americas. This exhibition, which includes twenty-six panels covering the exploits of notable Irish and Irish-linked figures such as William Lamport, Eliza Lynch, and Roger Casement, and has resonance across the entire Latin American continent, will greatly support that scholarship.

También nos recordará, espero, las sólidas fundaciones sobre los cuales podemos seguir construyendo las relaciones entre Irlanda y América Latina. De hecho, no sólo estamos mirando hacia un futuro enraizado en una historia común, sino también fundado en una conciencia renovada de nuestra solidaridad.
Indeed, this exhibition will contribute to reminding us of the strong foundations on which we can continue to build and strengthen Ireland’s relationships with Latin America, as we look to a future rooted not only in a shared history, but in a world that respects its interdependency.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir. Muchísimas gracias.