Irish migrants have been in Cuba since at least the beginning of the 17th century. Back in 1661, the Irish were mentioned among the groups of foreigners causing troubles for the local Spanish administration in Havana. There are families like the O’Reillys and O’Farrills whose Irish connections are well known, but there are many more that have slipped through the cracks of Cuban historical memory.
Cubans’ cultural identity has been presented as the result of a melting pot process between Indigenous peoples, Europeans (largely from the Iberian peninsula), and Africans. However, anyone that pays attention to details would notice that there’s a neighborhood in Havana named Lawton, and that Cienfuegos has the barrio O’Bourke; both of these names are discernibly Irish. One of my high school friend’s surname is Cowan, and a look into the ETECSA phone book reveals dozens of O’Connors, Connellys, O’Ryans, O’Donovans, O’Hallorans, O’Kellys, Kindelans, Creaghs, Wrights, Sculls, etc. When did that happen, and why has it been omitted from the national memory?
A look into the ETECSA phone book reveals dozens of O’Connors, Connellys, O’Ryans, O’Donovans, O’Hallorans, O’Kellys, Kindelans, Creaghs, Wrights, Sculls, etc.
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Tracing the genealogies of Irish families in Cuba, I identified three routes they took to finally arrive to our shores.
Irish migrants in Cuba were both oppressors and oppressed, and their history in Cuba is rich and understudied. I first started looking for an Irish presence in Guanabacoa, a village that was originally an indigenous enclave, and later became the home of a rsizable Afro-Cuban community. I found more than twenty Irish families inhabiting Guanabacoa from the 1860s to the 1890s. Other than some archival documents, there are no material remnants of their contributions to local history and development. But looking for the Irish in Guanabacoa led me to a key question: If there were no direct emigration routes from Ireland to Cuba, how did the Irish end up on our Caribbean island in the first place?
Tracing the genealogies of Irish families in Cuba, I identified three routes they took to finally arrive to our shores. Some Irish went first to Spain, and many settled in the Spanish American empire as colonial administrators or members of the Spanish armies. Other Irish were among many indentured servants transported to the Caribbean British colonies, and are found virtually everywhere. For example, the O’Farrills arrived in Cuba from Montserrat, the Kellys from Barbados, the O’Donovans from Puerto Rico, and the Bells from St. Croix. A third group of Irish came from the United States, the country that received the biggest influx of Irish immigrants worldwide. As agents of the Spanish crown, as settlers in the Caribbean, and as immigrants in the US, many had to confront the reality of African slavery.
Irish migrants in Cuba occupied spaces in all of its different social strata… They could be found working side by side with the Canary-islanders and Chinese coolies, but also with the enslaved Africans.
Some of the first immigrants of Irish origin who settled in Cuba arrived in Santiago de Cuba throughout the 17th century. Numerically, they were few. However, Irish surnames are found scattered all over the city and its history. They managed to dominate all aspects of life in Santiago, becoming an intrinsic part of the landed élite, and the main promoters of a modernizing economic model dependent on the labor of enslaved Africans. For example, John Duany (1625-?) arrived in this port city as early as 1665. Following the Spanish custom of translating their names into Spanish, and then adding the maternal surname after the paternal, he soon became Juan Duany Lynch. John/Juan Duany was involved in the construction of the military system of fortresses designed to protect the city of Santiago against frequent pirate raids and English attacks. The Morro Castle San Pedro la Roca still stands as a medieval gateway into Santiago’s harbor.
Even though the Duanys began their settlement in Cuba as supporters of Spanish colonial domination, by the end of the 19th century, members of this family significantly contributed to fighting for Cuban independence from Spain. This is the case of brothers Dr. José Joaquín Castillo Duany (1858-1902) and Demetrio Castillo Duany (1856-1922). A district of Santiago is named in their honor, as well as the local Military Hospital that was temporarily dedicated exclusively to tending COVID-19 patients in recent months.
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Irish migrants in Cuba occupied spaces in all of its different social strata, and endorsed every current of political thought. They could be found working side by side with the Canary-islanders and Chinese coolies, but also with the enslaved Africans. Men like the Fenian William Ryan, born in Toronto to an Irish immigrant family, were against Spanish domination over Cuba. But there was also a group called the Wild Geese who acted as agents of Spanish colonialism, among them the infamous County Meath native Alexander O’Reilly (known as Bloody O’Reilly and the figure commemorated in the naming of Calle O’Reilly); the prestigious Governor Sebastián Kindelán O’Regan; and Leopoldo O’Donnell. There were fighters for the abolition of slavery, like Richard Robert Madden, alongside figures such as José Ricardo O’Farrill and James Jenkinson Wright, who became the most despicable negreros (traffickers). Madden made a powerful enemy in the figure of Captain-General Miguel Tacón, who was complicit in the maintenance of the illegal traffic, and there was at least one attempt on Madden’s life while he was in Cuba.
Irish migrants in Cuba occupied spaces in all of its different social strata, and endorsed every current of political thought. They could be found working side by side with the Canary-islanders and Chinese coolies, but also with the enslaved Africans.
Irish migrants in Cuba were mostly Catholics, but many professed other denominations prior to their conversion to Catholicism. I have found Presbyterians and Quakers. More interesting, their religious affiliations did not keep them from becoming large slave-holders, and did not exempt them from participating in the illegal traffic of Africans.
Ireland’s economy and society was a part of the Black Atlantic and the traffic of enslaved people, a history of Irish interaction with African slavery that is largely forgotten: either purposely neglected out of shame, or due to its presumed marginal importance. Irish products fed the enslaved laborers in the Caribbean, and Irish linen clothed them. In turn, Caribbean-produced sugar, coffee, and tobacco were consumed all over Ireland. In Cuba, shady figures like James J. Wright, and other Irish Quakers, had a close involvement with illegal traffic, and with using enslaved workers for coffee production.
Ruins of La Gran Sofía coffee plantation main house. Photo Credit: Yaumara López Segrera Ruins of La Gran Sofía coffee plantation slaves’ barracks. Photo Credit: Yaumara López Segrera William O’Ryan portrait. Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Havana, Cuba. Photos courtesy of the author.
In the mountains of Santiago exist the material legacy of hundreds of coffee plantations. Deemed UNESCO World Heritage since the year 2000, they have mostly been linked to celebrated and memorialized French immigration. However, La Gran Sofía, the city’s most important coffee plantation, stands out as an Irish site of memory. Even with its grandeur, importance, and commemoration, La Gran Sofía is just one of many coffee plantations owned by Irish immigrants in the area.
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In spite of the intentional destruction of many records that documented slave trafficking, there is irrefutable proof of Dublin native James J. Wright’s involvement with it. He owned ships that were captured with captive Africans on board. At La Gran Sofía, Wright held over 300 Africans in slavery. This was only one of seven coffee plantations that he owned in La Sierra Maestra. His correspondence from Santiago to Dublin has survived, and is full of moments of silence regarding the inherent violence of the slavery condition. His letters are also a testament of the condemnation he provoked in the rest of his Irish Quaker family. At least one of his aunts refused his remittances because it was money connected with slavery.
Irish products fed the enslaved laborers in the Caribbean, and Irish linen clothed them. In turn, Caribbean-produced sugar, coffee, and tobacco were consumed all over Ireland.
Wright’s defense of slavery, and his racist and paternalistic views over the enslaved, have also come through in his writings, as well as his confrontation with Irish abolitionist Richard Robert Madden. But not all Irish endorsed slavery, many also fought it. Unfortunately, those that upheld slavery have been neglected by history, and this painful memory has been for a long time considered only a shameful footnote.
My own family rediscovered its remote Irish ancestry through my research. My maternal grandfather is the son of a Canary-islander from Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Like many other migrants, his father arrived in Cuba in 1905 searching for better economic opportunities. This same grandfather recently was surprised to discover that we have a more ancient history of migration. This French-Irish blood of ours comes from Nantes, a city that was well-known as a hot-spot in the trafficking of African people during the 17th and 18th centuries. My ancestors settled in Trinidad in the 1660s. This region’s sugar valley later achieved its economic prosperity due to the labor of thousands of enslaved Africans.
To remember this side of Irish history and its diaspora in Cuba could help to understand the current civil society debate in Ireland promoting the idea that the Irish in the Caribbean, like the Africans, were slaves, too. Contradicting this popular idea with historical evidence is not to erase the history of oppression of the Irish; it is to understand the complexity of the positions they found themselves in and their diverse reactions to it.
To remember this side of Irish history and its diaspora in Cuba could help to understand the current civil society debate in Ireland promoting the idea that the Irish in the Caribbean, like the Africans, were slaves, too.
The Irish in Cuba have a long, mostly yet-to-be discovered history. They were mistaken for ingleses (English) or for North Americans, but the survival of a sense of Irishness throughout Cuba is apparent in our street names, our surnames, and more importantly, our genetics. I wouldn’t know what an Irish-Cuban looks like because, like other Cubans, we come in all forms and skin tones.