ohigginsBook Review

The Forgotten Irish Who Changed the Face of Latin America

Tim Fanning, Gill and MacMillan, 280 pages

It is often forgotten that as Leopold Blooms walks the streets of Dublin and extols the virtues and vices of Irish life, he has in his back pocket a leaflet about the attractions of elsewhere, namely Palestine with its ‘orange groves and immense melonfields’. As a Jew, Bloom would have been interested in the attractions of a new Jewish homeland, and in fact the Zionist aspect to Ulysses is one that is insufficiently explored.

But the reality is that, through the centuries, many Irish people would have been aware of the attractions of settling somewhere more promising, with a fresh start in a sunny region rife with economic and political opportunity. Usually, we think of the United States or Australia, but in this unusual and valuable book Tim Fanning tells us about the huge and significant migration to South America, from the early 1700s right down to the late 19th century.

And the attractions were not dissimilar to those offered to Bloom. Generations of Irish immigrants to South America had seen the agricultural potential of the continent, and the perception, writes Fanning, was of ‘plenty of fertile land in a continent rich in all kinds of minerals, including gold, silver, tin and copper’.

What most impressed was how empty the continent appeared to be and like the pioneers and prospectors of the Old West, the Irish felt they could really make something of themselves there.

In the 1830, for example, Daniel O’Leary dreamt wrote of a ‘rural idyll where he would be far away from attacks of the intriguers and the ambitious who seek to bring about things I detest’. In a letter to his wife, O’Leary wrote, ‘if I manage to get my licence and liberty, I will go to the South or to any remote province, and there on some piece of land I will hide away from the world, content and may be happy with you, my little ones and the daily chores’.

A handbill, just like Bloom’s on Palestine, was distributed in Dublin in 1819 urging people to settle in Venezuela in a country chiefly clear of wood, and immediately fit for the purposes of agriculture, or feeding of cattle; it abounds with game and livestock, such as cows, horses, mules etc and grows sugar, cocoa, cotton, indigo, delicious fruits etc.’ There was even to be a province of Venezuela called New Erin with its own Government and a capital called New Dublin !

Home Rulers must have been inspired. And the author has no doubt that the Irish national cause was greatly encouraged by the example, and success, of Irish settlers and leaders overseas and the forms of government that they shaped.

By the early 19th century, independence movements had developed all over South America and the attracted many Irish volunteers, eager for a new life and adventure – and a healthy parcel of land. This is ironic, as the main tradition of Irish migration to South America originally began with the Spanish conquest of the region.

Such are the ‘butterfly wings’ of history. With the Williamite conquest of Ireland, the Wild Geese elite fled to Spain where they gained powerful positions in the civil and colonial services as imperial Spain explored and settled, often brutally, the southern American continent.

This forms the first part of Fanning’s book and he creates vivid and compelling stories of individual adventurers, soldiers and forceful eccentrics who left a serious and lasting legacy. In some of the countries, they became national heroes: men such as the soldier Bernardo O’Higgins (above) the creator of modern Chile and William Brown, born in Foxford, Co Mayo and the founder of the Argentine navy – his statue is opposite the Convention Centre in Dublin.

Others include Ambrose O’Higgins, a Sligo-born clerk who became the Viceroy of Peru, then the most important post in region, and the extraordinary Eliza Lynch, the Cork woman who became the partner of the Paraguayan leader and the heroine of the people in that country’s War of the Triple Alliance (1864 to 1870) against the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Eliza Lynch was recently depicted in a movie starring, Maria Doyle Kennedy, as the imperious Eliza.

With an impressive trawl through original documents in Europe and South America, the author has woven a compact and utterly absorbing story. Or a collection of stories indeed, as he vividly brings to life a once unexplored natural vastness, suddenly playing host to war, intrigue and ambition. After the soldiers and adventurers, came the merchants, farmers, diplomats and politicians, rarely unmindful of their Irish blood.

”Ireland gave birth to my father and Chile to my mother: I consider myself as belonging to both countries..’ said Bernardo O’Higgins ‘I think there are no two countries better inclined to complement each other. The excessive population of one is the principal cause of its property, as its scarcity is of the other.’ This is a green light for migration if ever there was one.

The Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that South America was possibly the most exciting, but least reported on, continent, and this is also true from the perspective of Irish history. Fanning has truly rectified this and has given us some tales that could be straight out of the pages of that region’s great magical realist. Even Leopold Bloom would have been tempted.