Paisanos – The Forgotten Irish Who Changed The Face Of Latin America
by Tim Fanning
The full title is a bit of a mouthful, but don’t let that deter you, Paisanos is a quality book. It takes a thorough (but not too heavy) look at both Irish and Irish descendants who played a major role in the wars and commerce that helped to shape Latin America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Most of the action is set in South America, though we do get some context, with tales of how the Irish came to be in Spain originally. The only story of note set outside the southern American continent relates to the San Patricios. Their full title was Battallón de San Patricio, or St Patrick’s Battalion, and it was on 10th September, 1847, as the full horror of An Gorta Mór (The Great Famine) raged across Ireland that the US Army hung 16 members of the battalion in San Angel, a small village now engulfed within the suburbs of Mexico City. Two days later, the US military repeated the process as they executed a further 30 men of this Irish battalion of the Mexican Army.
The story of the San Patricios is one of religious persecution and idealism. Many of the Irish soldiers hung were formerly in the US military but deserted for various reasons including sectarianism within the US officer corp, as well as feeling an empathy with the suffering Mexicans. The men who died are revered in Mexico today as heroes of the US/Mexican War.
Further south, we learn of William Brown, an Irishman who helped the Argentine nation gain its independence from Spain. He also created the Argentine navy. Brown would have been handy to have around during the war for Las Malvinas in the nineteen-eighties as Argentina lost that one to the UK and the terror that was Thatcher.
There is also the story of Bernardo O’Higgins, born to Ambrose O’Higgins from Ballynary in County Sligo, who rose to become both general and hero of Chilean independence. He was also installed as Supreme Director of the fledgling nation, which appears to be another name for dictator. It didn’t last. O’Higgins was assisted by John McKenna of County Monaghan in his revolutionary quest.
Many of the Irish emigres were lured to Latin America with the promise of great riches and ideological satisfaction, only to discover that the reality was much different. Simon Bolívar, known as the Great Liberator, had both an Irish legion and a Hibernian Regiment in his army as he fought to bring freedom from the Spanish Empire to Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Neither Irish detachment excelled and one mutinied against the poor conditions that they were obliged to suffer. This caused much embarrassment for the senior Irish officers who remained in Bolívar’s forces.
Paisanos is a book laden with stories of merchants, fiery priests, sailors, soldiers and spies who all hailed from the Emerald Isle and became household names across South America. It’s a revelation to find that such adventurers, who all went to Latin America in their tens of thousands to escape famine, persecution and poverty in Ireland, are not so renowned in their homelands. Perhaps there is more that could be done to educate Irish people about all their compatriots achieved abroad.
In this book, there is the sad story of Eliza Lynch from Charleville in County Cork. Eliza was consort to the Paraguayan dictator, Francisco Solano, but they were unable to marry as she was previously wed displeasing the all-powerful Catholic Church who would not allow it. Lynch bore Solano a son and both he (at the age of 15) and his father were executed by Brazilian soldiers during one of the most horrific episodes in Latin American history. It was through the War of the Triple Alliance that Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil allied to completely destroy Paraguay killing an estimated 70% of the entire Paraguayan population – approximately 300,000 people. Eliza Lynch refused to allow her lover and son to be tossed into a shallow grave and so dug it herself as the callous Brazilian soldiers cheered and jeered. Today, she is a heroine in Paraguay on a par with Evita of Argentina. Yet she is barely known at all in her native homeland.
In a nod of the head to the media of today, there is a story surrounding the career of the propagandist priest, José María Blanco White who – besides having one mouthful of a name – descended from refugees who fled Ireland after Cromwell seized their estates. José became a Catholic priest in 1800 before eventually leaving Spain for London where he became a propagandist working in conjunction with the British authorities to weaken Spain’s grip upon her colonies in Latin America. Blanco White was successful in widening divisions between Spain and her new world territories and was loathed in his homeland. He received a pension from the British state for his shit-stirring stories and is a precursor to many of the MSM outlets, with their Fifth Columnist writers, who ply their sordid wares across the globe today, often on behalf of Israel.
Paisanos is a must for all who are interested in Irish emigration to Latin America, or who might have more than a passing interest in the wars that were fought there for independence. Names such as O’Brien, O’Connor, Lynch, Casey, Dillon, Donovan, Kiernan, Mulhall, O’Donnell, McKenna and O’Gorman can be found spread across South America today, most adapted to the prevailing language. Their contribution to life there has been immense. Of course, many other nations also played a major role in the formation of the American Republics, England especially. But it was the Irish who managed to insert themselves at the very top of revolutionary society in a time of political and economic chaos throughout the Americas.
The story of the Paisanos (compatriots) is epic. One book is insufficient to thoroughly explain it all. Yet this particular tome does an excellent job of introducing some of the many personalities involved. It’s a fine platform to move from into deeper research if desired. It’s also a sad indictment of just how bad life in Ireland was for all those who were forced to flee the land they called home, for climes unknown, a land that multitudes were never to see again.
Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. Informative and engaging without boring the reader. Eyebrows will be raised at the exploits of some of the Irish who arrived on Americans shores. Heads will be shook in bemusement as the characters demonstrate that you can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but… well… you know the rest.
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