Many people are aware of the Irish contribution to the development of the United States because of the well-documented Irish diaspora in North America. The Irish diaspora in Latin and South America, on the other hand, is a different story. The majority of people are unaware of the significant roles played by the Irish in South American history or the connections that exist between the many struggles for independence found in South America and Ireland’s own fight for freedom.
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There are many Irish names strewn across the history of Latin American struggles for independence and freedom. There are roads, plazas, schools, sports clubs, and even warships named after Irish men and women who are remembered for their contributions to the liberation of Latin American countries but are seldom recognised in the nation of their birth.
Scholars disagree over the exact number of Irish who chose Latin America as their temporary or permanent home. Around 50,000 Irish-born immigrants arrived in Argentina alone, making it the country with the highest number of Irish immigrants outside of the English-speaking world. Military activities, commerce, and colonisation programs spread thousands more throughout the Caribbean, Brazil, Venezuela, and Mexico. Re-emigration within the Americas and Australia, the United Kingdom, and Ireland was significant but comparable to that of other immigrant populations.
Many Irish men and women have influenced South American history differently. Here are just a few examples of these influential people.
St. Patrick’s battalion (Mexico)
The Mexican Army’s St. Patrick’s Battalion was made up of Irish Catholic immigrants who abandoned the US Army and fled to Mexico during the conflict, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. The San Patricio’s, as they were known, were brave combatants who played a crucial role in some of the war’s most brutal battles.
The Mexican-American War began at a time when there was racial and religious prejudice toward Irish immigrants in the United States. Though the Irish potato famine, which began in 1845, prompted a significant inflow, there had been a continual stream of Irish immigrants to the United States in the years preceding the conflict. The Protestant majority in America disliked the Irish because of their inferior socio-economic standing and the fact that they were Catholic.
When these Irish immigrants learned more about their foe, they realised they had more in common with Mexicans than they did with the Americans they served under. Many Mexicans were Catholic, which was significant, but Irish Catholics were also inclined to see the American war against Mexico to be akin to their countrymen’s struggle against Britain back home.
The San Patricios fought well in multiple battles but were ultimately defeated by the American Army at the Battle of Churubusco. In the aftermath of the battle, many were killed or fled with the retreating Mexicans, while US forces captured around 85. The 50 San Patricios who were apprehended were executed by hanging. The San Patricios were the only defectors who received this penalty out of the 9,000 men who deserted the US Army during the Mexican War.
Eliza Alice Lynch (Paraguay)
Eliza Lynch, a native of Charleville, County Cork, rose to prominence as the unofficial “Queen of Paraguay”. She moved to Paris with her family when she was a child to escape the Great Famine, and it was here that she met Francisco Solano-López, the son of Paraguay’s president, Carlos Antonio López. Lynch and López would start a relationship and she would return to Paraguay with him. Eliza Lynch became the unofficial queen of Paraguay when he became president in 1862. They had seven children, and, in 1870, his estate was given to her after his death during the Paraguayan War, making her one of Latin America’s richest women.
During the conflict, propaganda said she was the driving force behind Lopez’s ambition. However, in a book titled “Protest made by Elisa A. Lynch”, which she wrote in 1876 while in Buenos Aires, she claims that she had no knowledge of and did not meddle in political affairs, instead devoting her time during the war to helping the wounded and the countless families who followed López wherever he went.
Admiral William Brown (Argentina)
Admiral William Brown (1777-1857) was the founder of the Argentine Navy, often known as Guillermo Brown. He was a native of County Mayo who led the fight for independence from Spain, being given the moniker the “Father of the Argentine Navy” in the process.
William Brown left Ireland as a young man to the “New World”, moving from colony to colony until he eventually found his home in Buenos Aires in 1811, with the hopes of owning a mercantile vessel after being press-ganged into the British Navy years prior. He volunteered his assistance during Argentina’s war for independence from Spain in 1814. Despite his lack of military experience compared to the Spanish Navy, he still proved to be a brilliant naval strategist.
Brown’s most significant victory occurred early in the war when he led a makeshift fleet at Buenos Aires to overcome the Spanish blockade of the River Plate, which threatened to suffocate the newly-formed revolutionary state that would later be known as Argentina. Almost every town in Argentina, no matter how small, has an Admiral Brown statue, as well as a square, street, or government building (often all three) named for the Irishman.
From the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, Irish immigrants who chose South America as their final destination were transformed by the Latin American spirit, leaving an impact in their respective nations that is still felt today. Whether it be In politics, industry, religion, literature, or art, they and their descendants have made immeasurable contributions to the countries of their preservation.