10 Ways Latin America Has Irish Roots

Saint Patrick's Day celebration in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Every year on March 17th, Ireland and many other countries in the world where there are Irish communities, turn green to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. This religious celebration has been around for over 1,000 years and it commemorates the death of Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, who introduced Christianity to the country in the 5th century.

Over time, this religious celebration has turned into a celebration of Irish culture and heritage, packed with parades, good luck charms like the three-leafed shamrock, green clothes, and all things Irish, including food and drinks, particularly Irish beer. Among the countries that celebrate St. Patrick’s Day are the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa.

The reason why so many countries in the world have thriving Irish communities is, of course, immigration. Ireland is no stranger to economic hardship, political unrest, and famine, so Irish people have immigrated by the millions in search of a better life. This is a type of life experience they have in common with Latinos.

Actually, Latinos and Irish people have a lot of connections. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the Irish in Latin American countries:

Most of the Irish people who chose Latin America landed in Argentina

Saint Patrick's Day celebration in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Argentina is home to the fifth-largest Irish community in the world and the largest in Latin America. In the 18th century, Buenos Aires welcomed over 50,000 immigrants from outside the English-speaking world. They moved to rural areas, working as cattle ranchers and sheep farmers, and Argentina became their home away from home. Today, their descendants still live in the country, and they have a rich history there.

The Irish built the Cuban railroad

old photograph of the railway and train system in Cuba

While Cuba isn’t usually associated with Irish immigration, Irish people did immigrate there even before the 1940s potato famine. That’s because Cuba and Latin America, in general, were prime destinations for struggling laborers. One of the waves of Irish immigration to Cuba happened in 1835, when over 370 workers, most of them Irish, were sent from New York to Havana to work on the Cuban Railway Commission. While the Irish were responsible for helping develop Cuba’s infrastructure, many of them died in the process. Moreover, once the railroad was done, they were abandoned there. This led to some Irish influence in Cuba’s economic, political, and cultural development, though the available research on it is minimal.

The Irish supported Mexico during the Mexican-American War

Battle of Buena Vista, lithograph by Currier & Ives, c. 1847

Battle of Buena Vista, lithograph by Currier & Ives, c. 1847

During the Mexican-American War, a group of Irish immigrants, known as the “San Patricios” or “Saint Patrick’s Battalion,” played a major role. They fought alongside Mexican forces against the U.S. and were driven by a common Catholic identity with the Mexicans. The San Patricios were brave and quite skilled in artillery, so they were of great help. Unfortunately, their support wasn’t enough to avoid the turn of the war against Mexico. Eventually, most of the San Patricios were captured at the Battle of Churubusco and punished, which included execution by hanging.

Simón Bolívar asked Irish soldiers for support during independence

Painting of Sim\u00f3n Bol\u00edvar by Arturo Michelena 1895

Painting of Simón Bolívar by Arturo Michelena 1895

Simón Bolívar, known as the "Libertador" of South America, didn’t have a smooth campaign for independence from Spanish colonialism. He found himself in difficult situations because his army lacked experience, so he asked British and Irish soldiers for support, recruiting them into his army. The British Legions were mostly Irish veterans (1,700 of them) with extensive military and combat experience. They formed several units, such as the Venezuelan Lancers and Venezuelan Hussars. The help of the British Legions was essential in the fight for independence and the birth of the new republics of South America.

An Irish doctor established the first medical school in Buenos Aires

Sculpture in Buenos Aires dedicated to Miguel O'Gorman by the artist Miguel Blas y F\u00e1bregas

Sculpture in Buenos Aires dedicated to Miguel O'Gorman by the artist Miguel Blas y Fábregas

Born in Ireland, Miguel O’Gorman was a part of the expedition of the first viceroy of Río de la Plata (now Argentina) in 1777. When peace was reached with Portugal, he settled in Buenos Aires at 62 years old and is considered the father of modern medicine in the country. With over 10 years of experience and a medical degree from Paris, he established the Academy of Medicine in Montevideo, the first medical school in Buenos Aires. He also focused greatly on public health measures, introducing the latest vaccination methods to prevent the spread of disease.

Eliza Lynch became the unofficial “Queen of Paraguay”

Eliza Lynch, long time companion of Paraguayan president Francisco Solano L\u00f3pez, c.1864

Born in Charleville, North Cork, Eliza Lynch became a symbol of resilience in Paraguay. She lost her father during the Irish famine and then fled to France with her mother where she married at 16 to a French army officer. In high society, she met General Francisco Solano López, the billionaire heir to the President of Paraguay. They fell in love and went together to South America. Though they never got married, they lived together and she became not only the unofficial “Queen of Paraguay” (loved by the people and hated by the elite), but also one of the wealthiest women in South America. After witnessing López and their son's death in battle, Lynch was imprisoned and deported to Paris, where she spent her remaining days. Eventually, she was posthumously honored for her patriotism, with her remains repatriated to South America.

Cecilia Grierson became the first female physician in Argentina

Portrait of the doctor Cecilia Grierson

Irish Argentine Cecilia Grierson was the first woman to obtain a medical degree in Argentina and she went on to accomplish so much more. She had a remarkable life that went beyond medicine because she challenged societal norms and advocated for the inclusion of women in professions like obstetrics. She founded the School of Nurses and Massage Therapists, pioneered specialties like gynecology, and was elected president of the First International Women’s Congress. You may have heard her motto before: “Deeds. Not words,” which perfectly summarizes her legacy.

Rómulo Antonio O'Farrill Jr. became one of Mexico’s media barons

Portrait of R\u00f3mulo Antonio O'Farrill Jr.

Born in Puebla, Mexico, Rómulo Antonio O’Farrill Jr. was of Irish descent and he became one of the biggest media barons in Mexico. Alongside his dad Rómulo O’Farrill Silva, he set up Mexico’s first TV station in 1949. The family also started a newspaper chain “Novedades de México,” with a sister paper “The News,” which ran until 2002 and was one of the most-read English newspapers in Latin America. O’Farrill became known as a man of vision for growth and development, no matter the challenges.

Ambrose O’Higgins’s son became the first leader of independent Chile

Portrait of Bernardo O'Higgins holding the Chilean Constitution

Ambrose O'Higgins, born in Ballynary, Co Sligo in 1720, was an Irish man who became an essential figure in the history of Chile. He rose through the ranks of the Spanish colonial imperial service and went to South America in 1756, where he helped establish communication channels between Argentina and Chile. O'Higgins's career eventually led him to become the viceroy of Lima, the highest royal official in Spanish America. His son, Bernardo O'Higgins, inherited his wealth and ideals, becoming a revolutionary leader and the first ruler of an independent Chile.

William Brown became the father of Argentina’s navy

Daguerreotype of admiral William Brown during its last years. He is considered "the father" of Argentine Navy.

Born in Foxford, County Mayo, William Brown was a sailor and naval commander who founded the Argentine navy and is considered one of the nation’s heroes. He played a pivotal role in Argentina’s fight for independence, securing major victories against the Spanish. Brown served Argentina his entire life in wars that followed their independence from the Spanish and then he became governor of Buenos Aires until he died in 1857. His legacy endures to this day and Admirals of the Argentine Navy wear a replica of his sword.

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