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Ciaran Higgins discusses the role of Irish people in South America

O’Higgins plaque, Sligo, Ireland

The photo above is of a plaque in Sligo, Ireland, commemorating a famous nationalist, a man who personally took up arms and overcame a large empire. His exploits led to streets and squares named in his honour, appearing on coins and stamps, there is even a football team that bears his name. It commemorates Bernardo O’Higgins, a man who made his name in South America, not in Ireland. As the first leader of an Independent Chile, his legacy is widely recognised there, as well as in Peru for similar revolutionary activities. He appears here alongside his father, Ambrosio O’Higgins, who originally hailed from Sligo, but rose through the ranks to become a leading official in Spanish South America.

Seeing this plaque again made me think about it in relation to the statues protests, attitudes towards historical figures and how they are commemorated. The O’Higgins duo achieved a lot, but they are stuck in an obscure spot in a Council car park. It was a gift from a bank in Chile, erected in the 1990’s.  It sums up to me an overlooked history of the role of the Irish (and British) in South America.  There are better memorials to Bernardo O’Higgins, one in Dublin and another at Richmond in London where he lived as a young man, but he is rarely noted in this part of the world. 

Admiral William Brown, another remarkable figure who emigrated from the West of Ireland, ended up in charge of the Argentine navy. He is acknowledged by a worthy, if rather stern, bronze statue in Foxford, Co Mayo and one of more recent vintage in Dublin. These were also all gifts from South America.

Admiral Brown statue, Co Mayo
Daniel O’Leary statute, Cork

Daniel O’Leary, a Corkman went to Venezuela in the early 1800s with thousands of British military volunteers fighting in the independence campaigns. He learned Spanish and became aide de camp to Simón Bolívar, later documenting the life of this seminal figure using first hand documents he preserved. In 2010 a well crafted bust of O’Leary was erected in a park in Cork city, and as recently as 2019 a plaque marking his birthplace was unveiled.

I once met a man who was part of a Uruguayan rugby team who survived a plane crash in the Andes in the 1970s and who ate the remains of their perished comrades to stay alive.  He was an alumni of the Stella Maris school in Montevideo, founded by Irish Christian brothers in the 1950s, a school that contributed greatly to the development of Rugby in Uruguay. I was unaware of this connection until he pointed out the Shamrock on his old school tie and explained that historical link.

The Irish diaspora in the Anglo Saxon world is well documented and celebrated, but their involvement in non-English speaking societies less so. If the son of an Irishman had become the first leader of Canada I am pretty sure we would know a lot more about him. This blind spot can be down to the sheer weight of numbers that ended up in North America, but language and cultural memory must play its part. I can’t think of a traditional Irish song that recounts these Latin American stories.

In the English speaking world, it was easier to relocate, fit in, but also keep that contact with the Old World. Stepping outside that, into countries with a different language and ways of doing things to home, made them less visible, part of a distant ‘other’ world. Among my own ancestors, there was a history of emigration to the US, and I am still in touch with their descendants today.  There is a family story of a Great, Great Uncle who made the move to Central America, and was never heard of again.  He disappeared into that ‘other’ world.

There have been attempts to raise awareness of the history of the Irish in South and Central America, including exhibitions in 2016 and 2017. It is a worthy initiative. As the interest in learning the Spanish language increases in the UK and Ireland, perhaps we will re-evaluate historic connections with Latin America. The Council in Sligo are currently renovating the car park. I will be curious to see what becomes of the monument to a decisive figure in South American history.

Ciaran Higgins is Communications Officer for the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Open World Research Initiative