Tomás Mac Síomóin
Andalusian Odyssey: Irish Monks, Military and Merchants in Europe
- relationship of modern Ireland and Europe is beset by ambiguity. This was pithily expressed by a senior Irish politician twenty years ago, Mary Harney, who felt “closer to Boston than to Berlin.” The nineteenth-century mass migration of starving citizenry from Ireland to the United States left an indelible mark on the Irish psyche. Many Irish vaunt in its wake a sense of kinship with their American cousins. Whereas Europe may seem to most to be irremediably “foreign”.
This sentiment is strengthened by another effect of the English colonization of Ireland, the loss of our native language. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Irish were replacing their native Gaelic by a hybrid form of English, referred to by the poet, W.B. Yeats, as “Kiltartanese”. Most Irish today are English-speaking monoglots. The ability of most of us to maneuver through continental European languages is limited, almost non-existent. Communication with our American kin, on the other hand, is facilitated by the bond of a common language.
Things were not always so. The European mainland hosted many major missionary endeavours from Gaelic Ireland during the first ten centuries of the Christian era. Their contribution to monastic culture in the European “Dark Ages” was huge. Today’s France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland, were beneficiaries. The monastery and cathedral of St Gallen developed from the pioneering efforts of the Irish St Gall (550-646 AD); the northern Swiss canton where he laboured still bears his name. The library there holds more than 400 Gaelic manuscripts and musical works copied by the monks. Among these, the famous ”Plan of St Gall” details the layout of an ideal medieval monastery, an intellectual treasure of the first rank.
Reichenau monastery, associated with the Irish monk St Pirmin (c.700-753 AD), stands on an island in Lake Constance, between modern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. This foundation survived until the Napoleonic invasion of the region in 1802. Many of its treasures are preserved in the Baden State Library in Karlsruhe. St Pirmin was followed in Salzburg by St Virgil (Feargal), born around 700 AD in Co. Meath. A renowned geographer, he taught that the world was round, long before this view became current in Europe (although it was the norm in Ancient Greece).
Other examples of such missionary zeal abound. The regions where these pioneering monks laboured were just emerging as real nations, but were still largely virginal forest. They were territories, not countries, where borders changed with each new local ruler. In that context, these Irish scholars were “nation builders”, for they participated in establishing the foundations of modern Europe.
The next major Irish incursion into continental Europe was that of the “Wild Geese”, Irish mercenary soldiers who emigrated from English-occupied Ireland to serve in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries armies of Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Sweden, and Poland. As we will be discussing the activities of non-military Irish emigrants to Spain in more detail, let us first have a brief look at how the “military wing” of their brother exiles formed part of the Spanish military machine!
The first Irish troops to serve as a unit for a continental power formed a specifically Irish regiment of the Spanish Army of Flanders during the Eighty Years’ War in the 1590s. It fought in the Netherlands until 1600 when it was disbanded due to heavy losses through combat and sickness. Another regiment was formed following the defeat by England of the joint Gaelic-Spanish forces in the Battle of Kinsale, Ireland, in 1603. The “Flight of the Earls” (that is, the departure from Ireland of Gaelic military leaders and their retinues) took place in 1607. This generated a new Hispano-Irish regiment in Flanders, officered by Gaelic-Irish nobles, recruited from their followers, and opposed to the English rule of Ireland. It garrisoned Brussels from 1609 to 1621 and liaised with Irish Catholic clergy in the seminary there, creating the Irish College of Louvain, a renowned centre of Gaelic learning.
During the seventeenth century, 34,000 Irish troops sought service in Spain. In the eighteenth century, Spain’s Irish regiments saw service in Europe and the Americas. For example, the Irlanda Regiment (raised in 1698) was stationed in Havana from 1770 to 1771, the Ultonia Regiment (raised in 1709) in Mexico from 1768 to 1771, and the Hibernia Regiment (raised in 1709) in Honduras from 1782 to 1783.
Heavy losses and recruiting difficulties diluted the Irish element in these units, though the officers remained of Irish ancestry. The Hibernia Regiment was reconstituted with Galician recruits in 1811 and ended the war as a fully Spanish corps. These Irish regiments were disbanded in 1818, as insufficient recruits, Irish or foreign, were forthcoming.
The repressive forces that impelled able-bodied Irishmen to join the Irish regiments of continental armies were also attracting some of their fellow countrymen to a continental business career. The monopoly of Cádiz on Spain’s transatlantic commerce became a magnet for enterprise-inclined immigrants of many European nationalities, among them the Irish. A community of Irish merchants established itself in Cádiz, leaving its mark on the business life of that city. Why Cádiz? Let us see if we can trace the trajectory of this least known extension of Irish talent to continental Europe!
Not just a city of South-West Spain, Cádiz is an archipelago. It is separated from the mainland by a narrow canal through the boggy sloblands of Caño de Sancti Petri, across which present-day trains from Sevilla forge. Seabirds preen on the Guadalete river estuary, taking startled flight at their approach. Then two Cádizes appear: tourist Cádiz, with views of the back entrances of high-rise hotels that front the ocean to the South-West. And finally, the old city, the administrative and commercial hub of Cádiz Province. With 116,970 inhabitants in 2018, it is the most populated urbanization of Cádiz Bay today. Its sister conurbations are Jerez de la Frontera, Huelva, and Algeciras, gateway to Morocco.
Ship-building is the chief economic mainstay of this city. Tourism comes second, thanks to pristine beaches and popular traditional festivals. Traces of habitation here in Europe’s oldest city by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Moors, from as far back as 3100 BC, are displayed in the city’s impressive History Museum. Few are aware, however, of late medieval Ireland’s close associations with Cádiz. Let us see if we can illuminate this dark corner!
Dusk is falling. Cádiz is astir. A civilized ritual of Gaditanos, inhabitants of Cádiz, is the nocturnal copa ! Citizens at tables in their local square, enjoy wine, beer, and plates of pinchos or tapas, such as cheeses, fish, shellfish, tortellitos, meats under moonlight, adding their voices to the din. My wife and I often go to the Plaza de San Francisco to buy tapas, along with copas of vino, from bars on the square, Los Platillos Volantes or La Marisquería San Francisco. We bring them to our table in the shadow of El Convento de San Franciso, whose church wall forms one side of the square. A major restaurant faces the church, the Ristorante San Francisco, the thought of whose tortillas (Spanish potato omelettes) makes the mouth water.
Antonio Gomez Fitzpatrick joins us. His reddish hair, beard and craggy profile, unlike those of his fellow Gaditanos, have a somewhat familiar aura. “Why did you leave Ireland, Tomás,” he asks me. A history teacher, he is interested in an Ireland that he hopes to visit someday “when I learn a little English!”
“We modern Irish, Antonio, live in the Anglosphere. Ignorance of our cultural roots is well-nigh universal; many perceive Gaelic/Irish speakers to be a twenty-first-century anomaly. ‘Irish identity’ is validated by Anglosphere approval. Or occasional hope-boosting displays in international sports arenas! Meanwhile, linguistic erosion of our remaining Gaelic-speaking areas – efforts to stem the tide – predicts survival of the language on recordings in museum archives! Some believe that complete anglicization of Ireland will weaken our already ambiguous European identity.”
My wife and myself are unashamed Caribbeanophiles. She is a graduate of the Escuela de Artes Plásticas de Puerto Rico. I lived in Cuba, mainly in Santiago de Cuba (Oriente Province) to research the story of an Irish journalist there during the 1868 revolt against Spanish rule (Ceallaigh: Scéal ón mBlár Catha, 2009). We are both fully “at home” in the Antillean ambience of Cádiz.
As Spain’s major link with the “new world”, the imprint of Cádiz on the cultures of Spain’s American ex-colonies was profound. And vice versa! Its plazas, churches, maritime walks, gardens, forts, and monuments signal modern Cádiz’s exotic, sometimes tumultuous, past. The owner of a local hostelry, Las Viñas, where we take a local dry vino de la costa (sherry), opines that Cádiz speech is closer to that of Cartagena de Indias (on Colombia’s Gulf of Mexico coast), than to that of Northern Spain. Hardly surprising! The Spanish Caribbean was largely colonized by Andalusians and Canary Islanders. A home from home for those pioneers! The seaweed-scented South Atlantic breezes and tropical vegetation of Cádiz evoke the Antilles rather than Mediterranean Spain.
- maritime forts of Cádiz recall those of old Havana and San Juan, the capitals of Cuba and Puerto Rico. These were brainchildren of a leading eighteenth-century Spanish military architect, Tomás O’Daly, from Clonbrusk, Co. Galway and Cádiz. At the instigation of the omnipresent Alejandro O’Reilly, then Governor of Puerto Rico, he designed the impenetrable Fortress of San Cristóbal in San Juan. English invaders of Puerto Rico in 1798 failed to breach this redoubt, suffering heavy losses before retreating. The design of the two castillos of the maritime defence wall of Cádiz, SanSebastian and Santa Catalina, drew on Tomás O’Daly’s expertise in Antillean fortification planning. se structures offer striking Atlantic seascapes, the “Wave of Gades”, the “world’s end” of classical Grecian lore, included. Tomás’s brother, Jaime (Séamus) O’Daly, Galwayman and Cádiz merchant, re-emigrated to Puerto Rico and pioneered sugar processing there. Thus, these two Galway brothers illustrate the wide reach of Gaditano entrepreneurs and military personnel in Spain’s overseas territories.
“A contemporary English Consul General in Spain commented: Count O’Reilly has carried out marvellous improvements on the house and buildings of this city, paving the streets, constructing gardens, promoting arts and sciences and provisioning the poor and their children; the maritime wall and defensive fortifications of Cádiz were built, a task accomplished in such a satisfactory manner that there is not a single beggar to be seen in the whole of Cádiz, when previously the number of such was between two and a thousand two hundred.”
A refugee from English oppression in Ireland, Field Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly (whom we met above) was appointed Capitan General of Andalucía (1780-1786) and Governor General of Cádiz by King Carlos III. The maritime wall and defensive fortifications of the city we mentioned were built during his mandate. They were needed, as the wealth and prosperity of Cádiz attracted pirates from France, England, Holland, and North Africa. The King then awarded O’Reilly the title of Count and the leadership of a Spanish Army which was to wrest Rosellón, French Catalonia, from French control. Travelling to assume this post he died and was buried in Albacete. So lived and died Ireland’s most illustrious military exile ever. Calle O’Reilly, a street in Cádiz, is named after him as is one in Central Havana, Cuba, showing the reach of this son of Gaelic Ireland in the heyday of Imperial Spain.
A prominent plaque on a terraced house on the elegant Plaza de Candelaria indicates that Bernardo O’ Higgins, father of the Liberator and former dictator of Chile, lodged here for four years before leaving to achieve fame in Latin America’s Southern Cone. A patron of a lively hostelry on a corner of the Plaza near the O’Higgins house, the Peña La Estrella, one Miguel José Gorman, relates O’Higgins, vaguely, to Latin American revolution. But – in spite of his own Irish surname – he is unaware that O’Higgins hailed from the Roscommon-Sligo border in Ireland before emigrating to Cádiz. And that he played a key role in the development of Chile, fathering that country’s Liberator, Bernardo! Nor is Señor O’Gorman aware of his own probable roots in the Irish colony that thrived in old Cádiz. Sic transit gloria mundi …
Antonio meets us later to describe to us the Irish colony of Cádiz. On our way to our rendezvous we walk down a bustling Calle Virgen de la Palma, named after the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Palma and approach the El Faro restaurant. Stalls offering maritime produce – mussels, prawns, lobsters, oysters, cockles, sea-urchins, crabs, crayfish – crowd the pavements, jutting out into the street. The extensive menu of the restaurant tells us that not only doctrinaire pescatarians dine well in El Faro. Thus, ropa vieja – the delicious national shredded meat dish of Cuba (did it originate in Cádiz?) – is served here with chickpeas, also Iberic ham, and rabo de toro (bull’s tail), a much-appreciated delicacy wherever bullfighting is cherished. Antonio “Barbarossa” Fitz greets us. He then shows us a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry. “This was originally Garvey’s sherry,” he says. “The mutation of Gaelic “Garvey’s” to English “Harveys” was a ploy to maximize sales in the English drinks market. It signals the sale of Señor Garvey’s enterprise to an English interest that understood the commercial potential of this product. But this is a tiny part of a much bigger story.”
“Cádiz’s boom began with the European ‘discovery’ of the New World,” he continues. “Columbus sailed from here. Eighteenth-century Cádiz accounted for seventy-five percent of Spanish trade with the Americas. It became one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities of Spain. Many of its fine buildings date from that period. So, Cádiz became a prime target for pirates and Spain’s enemies. It was attacked often during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was also targeted, albeit peacefully, by Irish emigrants in search of commercial opportunities denied them in their English-ruled homeland.”
“These immigrants had clear ideas regarding the aims of their emigration and their means to realize them,” continues Antonio. “Cádiz was a city of boundless commercial and social opportunity they were determined to exploit. Arrivals here were predominantly, though not exclusively, from the South and South-East of Ireland. Waterford, Kilkenny, and Cork constantly recur in contemporary correspondence. Immigrant surnames were a mixture of original Gaelic-Irish and Old English, descendants of thirteenth-century and subsequent Norman invaders of Ireland. But, as England’s Penal Laws were designed to stifle all Irish enterprise, occupied Ireland was as commercially dead as the dodo.”
“So, when King Carlos ll conceded Spanish citizenship to Irish refugees in Spain in 1640, his offer was eagerly accepted. By 1749, those Irish domiciled in Spain for over ten years, or who had Spanish wives, gained the commercial and financial rights of Spanish natives. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century decrees, promulgated by Spanish monarchs, facilitated further assimilation of Irish immigrants into Spain and Andalucía, and their acceptance as financiers. Most of these devoted themselves to trading and general commercial interests. For some, Cádiz was a permanent base, from which they engaged in international trade.”
“By 1614, Irish merchants sought a consul to represent them in Cádiz. They formed networks of contacts with France, Flanders, even England, sustained mainly by familial relationships. They liaised with their kin in Sevilla, Cádiz, Málaga, Huelva, the Canary Islands, and the Portuguese Algarve. Some acquired vineyards, engaging in commercial wine production. The still extant Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry, originally Garvey’s Sherry, elaborated here in Jerez de la Frontera, dates from these Irish initiatives. By the eighteenth century, Irish entrepreneurs had become Spanish Crown suppliers of agricultural products and articles of consumption. They monopolized the commercialization of Virginian tobacco and developed agricultural land in Sevilla.”
- account of the unhindered assimilation of Irish emigrants by Andalucía contrasts with harrowing reports of the mid-nineteenth-century arrival of shiploads of starving, illiterate “Famine Irish” on “the shores of Amerikay”, there to claw their way desperately up the social ladder, leaving a slew of emaciated corpses in their wake. A social and cultural nightmare from which, arguably, modern Ireland has not fully recovered … Our emigration story, viewed through the Gaditano lens, is much more agreeable. “The number of Irish emigrants in Cádiz increased here from twenty-one heads of family in 1709 to 128 by the end of the eighteenth century,” continues Antonio. “Abandoning the repressive milieu of Penal Law Ireland, they were attracted by the accessibility of the Latin American market through Andalusian ports. Commercial success made some into creditors of their compatriots and small-time capitalists. Access to Nordic and transatlantic markets afforded many of them funds to invest in ships. Others became ship carpenters or sailors. Many Irish immigrants pursued small-scale commerce and activities related to local administration in Andalucía, indicating adaptability to the needs of their adopted community.
Wide communal involvement of Irish immigrants was expressed through patronage of hospitals, chapels, and works of urban renewal. Pedro Langton, a merchant, donated a large sum to aid the widows of Cádiz and so did Lorenzo Carew for the rehabilitation of a premises for catechism instruction. The community exhibited contrasting personal and familiar aspirations: some sought lands and privileged status, others favoured local integration. Others again occupied ecclesiastical posts, like the auxiliary bishop of Sevilla, Miguel Fitzwalter, or local government posts, especially in the later eighteenth century.”
Irish missionary priests, from a chain of colleges in Castille and Portugal, with the King of Spain as patron, tried to cohere the Irish community. The College of Saint Patrick, founded in 1612 in Sevilla, outstanding educationally, was a reference point for the local Hispano-Irish community. It housed the Sociedad de San Patricio, a foundation that offered scholarships to Irish students. Cádiz Irish favoured familial endogamy, to assure their patrimony and interests and enhance their social stability. But intermarriage of Hiberno-Irish with locals had already initiated a weakening of national loyalties. By the eighteenth century some Cádiz Irish had begun to collaborate commercially with the English, even – in some cases – accepting the designation “British” to extend the range of their business opportunities.
“But total assimilation to our Hispanic ways was inevitable,” says Antonio Gomez Fitzpatrick. “Neither Gaelic nor Irish-accented English has been heard from immigrants for almost two centuries now in Cádiz. But, let us now commemorate our Irish ancestors who worked here for the prosperity of our city with the superb creaminess of an original Hispano-Irish sherry. Let us raise our glasses to the memory of that prize product of the vineyards of the late Señor Garvey in Jerez de la Frontera, the original Garvey’s Sherry!”
“Salud! Sláinte Mhaith!”
 M.B. Villar García and P. Pezzi Cristóbal (eds), Los Extranjeros en la España Moderna. Malaga, 2003. My translation.