Volume 7, Number 3

March 2010

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Irish Soldiers in Spain and Latin America:
An Introduction

By Karen Racine (1)


Irish soldiers have a long history of seeking service in foreign lands. Known collectively and colloquially as the “Wild Geese”, they constitute a distinct subset of the Irish emigrant and diasporic communities. Irish soldiers have fought in all continental European wars, sometimes as mercenaries for hire, and other times as true believers in the service of Catholic monarchs against Protestant foes. They were present in the Americas too, dating from the first voyages that accompanied the explorers and conquistadors in the sixteenth century and continuing all the way up to the present with rumours of connections between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) (2).

In fact, Irish soldiers have had a significant presence throughout the histories of Spain and Latin America. The historian Gráinne Henry has conducted an excellent case study of approximately 10,000 Irish troops who served in Spanish Flanders at the time of the great Armada. (3) This episode is significant, and it underscores the longstanding connection between Irish soldiers abroad and the development of national identity at home, the persistence of a militant strain of Counter-Reformation Catholicism in their world view, and the close connection between Ireland and the Spanish-speaking world. Another Irishman, William Lamport of County Wexford, was a solitary, quixotic figure who fought in the continental wars and then travelled to Mexico in 1659 where he tried to set himself up as an independent king. In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, Alejandro O’Reilly was a military commander who dominated Cuba, Florida and Louisiana while it was under Spanish control, and Ambrosio O’Higgins held a similar command post in Chile and Peru.

The presence of Irish soldiers in Spain and Latin America continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Oisín Breatnach’s article shows, both the French and Spanish armies had Irish soldiers who faced each other across enemy lines during the Peninsular War. Matthew Brown and Enrique Rodríguez have both written extensively on the activities of the British and Irish Legions in the Spanish American wars for independence and have provided biographical studies for this collection. Tom Byrne extends the story of the Irish role in Latin America southward, in his discussion of the 1806 invasions of the River Plate and Brazilian territories. His account reminds us of the famous Admiral William Brown of County Mayo who served the Argentine navy so memorably in that era.

Mexicans fondly recall the famous Saint Patrick’s Battalion (known as the Batallón San Patricio), which fought in five major battles during the United States-Mexican War (1846-1848), and whose experiences have gone on to inspire romantic novels, films, songs, poems and, more recently, serious historical scholarship. The unit began as a small group called the San Patricio Company, jokingly called the ‘Red Guards’ or colorados, a reference to their red hair. Their leader was a career soldier from Galway named John Riley, or Seán O’Raghailligh, who brought together approximately 200 men under a green silk banner of his own design. The flag had a shamrock, harp and Mexican crest on one side, and the figure of St Patrick on the other, nicely blending Irish and Aztec symbolism with the incorporation of a serpent. Irish-descended deserters from the US military comprised 40% of the San Patricios, which was finally raised to full battalion status only in 1848, at a late stage of the war. Patrick Dalton, James O’Leary, Matthew Doyle, Francis O’Connor and Henry Hudson all distinguished themselves in the service of the Mexican nation. In a conflict notable for its viciousness, the San Patricios saw a lot of action. (4) They were present at the disastrous Battle of Monterrey (21-24 September 1846), the Battle of Buena Vista (22 February 1847) and the infamous Battle of Cerro Gordo (12-18 April 1847), before being completely routed at Churubusco on 20 August 1847. A plaque to their memory has been erected in Mexico City’s plaza San Jacinto in San Ángel with the inscription “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic St Patrick’s Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives for the Mexican cause during the unjust American invasion of 1847.” Moving ceremonies in their honour are still held there twice a year, one on St. Patrick’s day, and the other in September to mark the date when so many were executed by vengeful American forces. (5)

The story of Miss Eliza Lynch, the fiery Irish beauty who was the lover of President Francisco Solano López during the Paraguayan War (1865-1870) is the stuff of legend, and is often retold for its exotic and romantic qualities. She was born in Cork in 1835 and spent her life abroad attached to various military men and advising them during times of war. Fleeing the famine in her impoverished homeland, the teenaged Lynch married a French military surgeon and trailed after him when he was posted to a garrison in North Africa. Once back in France, she met Francisco Solano López, a dashing young South American soldier who was training with the Imperial forces, and the two struck up a scandalous and very public affair. A pregnant Lynch returned with young Solano López to Paraguay in 1854 where they lived together openly and she bore him five children. (6) When Francisco Solano López succeeded his father as president in 1862, Eliza Lynch assumed the position of unofficial First Lady. She was at his side throughout much of the Paraguayan War, even accompanying him to the front and participating in military decisions; she has often been blamed for ordering some of the more violent reprisals, including the massacre of hundreds of opponents at Humaitá and San Fernando. Their story has often been retold by historians and novelists alike, not just for its drama and intrigue, but also because Eliza Lynch was a strong female presence in a very male-dominated and militaristic environment. (7) In this volume, Michael Kenneth Huner recounts a related story of the Irish-American soldier-diplomat Martin Thomas McMahon, who encountered Madama Lynch during his own service in Paraguay.

The long and close connections between Irish and Spanish national events were brought to the fore during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). An estimated nine hundred Irishmen fought in this ideologically-charged conflict, and they could be found on both sides of the bitter divide. In fact, one scholar has claimed that the Spanish Civil War even served as a prolongation, or proxy, or extension of an ongoing Irish civil war; to underscore this point, he notes that one Irish company in the service of the republicans in Spain named itself after James Connolly, who was executed for his participation in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. (8) The Irish Christian Front used conditions in Spain as a bludgeon to attack Prime Minister Eamon de Valera’s government’s neutrality and to score points with the populist right-wing at home; oddly, the Irish Catholic church advocated much more strongly for Franco than did its Spanish counterpart. Similarly, the Irish left also drew inspiration and succour from the battle being fought by republicans in Spain. The Irish serving in both the republican and the fascist forces were plagued by factions and strong personalities. Frank Ryan had been a member of the Irish Republican Army and became an important figure among the approximately two hundred men who joined the republican International Brigade and went on to further renown; General Eoin O’Duffy recruited and led an Irish Brigade of seven hundred or so men who fought alongside Generalíssimo Francisco Franco and the fascists before returning home in ignominy in 1937. Irish newspapers regularly carried detailed stories about the cruelties and humiliations being visited on Spanish priests and the desecration of churches in order to whip up anti-republican sentiment. Because of the longstanding cultural connections between Ireland and Spain, it is clear that the Spanish Civil War held profound meaning for the island’s domestic politics as well.

This special issue of Irish Migration Studies in Latin America is devoted to the theme of Irish soldiers who served in Spain and Latin America at various points in time. The authors form a diverse group and have sought to combine high-quality scholarship with humane storytelling. For those readers who might wish to pursue additional reading about the multi-faceted experiences of Irish soldiers abroad, I have compiled the following bibliography.


1 University of Guelph

2 Jeremy McDermott, "IRA influence in FARC Attack" (9 May 2005), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4528109.stm

3 Gráinne Henry, The Irish Military Community in Spanish Flanders 1586-1621 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1992).

4 Robert Ryal Miller, “Los san patricios en la guerra de 1847,” Historia Mexicana 47:2 (1997), p. 362.

5 Miller, “Los San Patricios”, p. 376.

6 Edmundo Murray, “Santa o cortesana?” Southern Cross 135:5957 (February 2010). Web edition < http://tsc.com.ar/notacomp.php?id=632 >

7 See her own letters published as: Eliza Alicia Lynch, Exposición y protesta (Asunción: Fundación Cultural Republicana, 1987). Biographies of varying quality include: Nigel Cawthorne, The Empress of South America (London: Arrow Books, 2003); Fernando Baptista, Elisa Lynch, mulher do mundo e da guerra (São Paulo: Civilização Brasileira em convênio com o Instituto Nacional do Livro, Fundação Nacional Pró-Memória, 1987), William E Barrett, Woman on Horseback: The Biography of Francisco López and Eliza Lynch (London: Peter Davies, 1938).

8 Rémi Skoutelsky, Novedad en el frente: las brigadas internacionales en la guerra civil (Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy, 2006), pp. 152, 196.


-Aylmer, Richard John. (1997) “The Imperial Service of William Aylmer 1800-1814.” Irish Sword 29:81, pp. 208-216.

-Baptista, Fernando. (1986) Elisa Lynch, mulher do mundo e da guerra. São Paulo: Civilização Brasileira em convênio com o Instituto Nacional do Livro, Fundação Nacional Pró-Memória.

-Barrett, William E. (1938) Woman on Horseback: The Biography of Francisco López and Eliza Lynch. London: Peter Davies.

-Barros Basto, Fernando Lázaro de (1971) Ex-combatentes irlandeses em Taperoá. Rio de Janeiro: Editôra Vozes.

-Bartlett, Thomas and Keith Jeffrey, eds. (1996) A Military History of Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

-Brett, Edward M. (2005) The British Auxiliary Legion in the Carlist War. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

-Brome, Vincent. (1965) The International Brigades: Spain 1936-1939. London: Heinemann.

-Brown, Matthew. (2006) Adventuring Through the Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press.

------. (2004) “Castas, esclavitud y extranjeros en las guerras de independencia de Colombia.” Historia y Sociedad 10, pp. 109-25.

------. (2005) “Rebellion at Riohacha, 1820: Local and International Networks of Revolution, Cowardice and Masculinity.” Jahrbuch für Geschichte Lateinamerikas 42, pp. 77-98.

------. (2006) “Soldier Heroes in the Wars of Independence of Gran Colombia.” Hispanic Research Journal 7:1, pp. 41-56.

-Brown, William. (1957) Memorias del Almirante Brown. Academia Nacional de la Historia, Publicación de la Comisión de Homenaje al Almirante Guillermo Brown en el centenario de su muerte. Buenos Aires: [n.p].

-Chandler, Richard.E. (1981) “O’Reilly’s Voyage from Havana to the Balize.” Louisiana History 22:2, pp. 199-207.

------. (1979) “Eye-witness History: O’Reilly’s Arrival in Louisiana.” Louisiana History 20, pp. 317-24.

------. (1982) “O’Reilly and the Rebels: Report to Arriaga.” Louisiana History 23:1, pp. 48-59.

-Cockcroft, John and Raúl Jiménez Lescas. (2006) Michoacanos e irlandeses en la guerra anti-imperialista de 1846-1848. Morelia: Secretaría de Desarrollo Social.

-Corkill, David and Stuart J. Rawnsley, eds. (1981) The Road to Spain: Anti-Fascists at War, 1936-1939. Dunfermline: Borderline.

-Cox, Patricia. (1954) Batallón de San Patricio. Mexico: Stylo. [Fictional account]

-De Blácam, Aodh Sandrach. (1936) For God and Spain: The Truth About the Spanish War. Dublin: Office of the Irish Messenger.

-Doyle, Bob. (2006) Brigadista: An Irishman’s Fight Against Fascism. Dublin: Currach Press.

-Dungan, Myles. (1993) Irish Soldiers in Foreign Armies. Belfast: Appletree.

-Dunkerley, James. (1999) The Last Man: Francisco Burdett O’Connor and the Emancipation of the Americas. London: Institute for the Study of the Americas.

-Echeverri M, Aquiles. (1972) Sangre irlandesa en Antioquía: Biografía del Dr Hugo Blair Brown, Miembro de la Legión Británica y médico-coronel de los ejércitos patriotas. Medellín: Academia Antioqueña de la Historia.

-Flanagan, Laurence. (1995) Irish Wrecks of the Spanish Armada. Dublin: Country House.

-Gallaher, John G. (1993) Napoleon’s Irish Legion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

-García Hernán, Enrique and Oscar Recio Morales, eds. (2007) Extranjeros en el ejército: militares irlandeses en la sociedad española 1580-1818. Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa, Secretaría General Técnica.

-Gianello, Leoncio. (1957) Almirante Guillermo Brown. Buenos Aires: Estrada.

-Glozier, Matthew and David Onnekink, eds. (2007) War, Religion and Service: Huguenot Soldiering 1685-1713. Aldershot: Ashgate.

-Hand, Ruperto. (1979) Asesinato de Córdova: proceso contra el primer comandante Ruperto Hand. Edited by Enrique Ortega Ricaurte. Prologue by E. Otero D'Costa. Bogotá: Academia Colombiana de Historia: Editorial Kelly.

-Harris, Ronald George. (1999) The Irish Regiments, 1685-1999. Staplehurst: Spellmount.

-Hayes, Ralph. (1977) The San Patricios. New York: Leisure Books. [Fictional account]

-Hennessy, Maurice. (1973) The Wild Geese: An Irish Soldier in Exile. London: Sidgwick & Johnson.

-Henry, Gráinne. (1992) The Irish Military Community in Spanish Flanders, 1586-1621. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

-Henty, G.A. (1901) In the Irish Brigade: A Tale of War in Flanders and Spain. London: Blackie.

-Hogan, Michael. (1997) The Irish Soldiers of Mexico. Guadalajara: Fondo Editorial Universitario.

-Ireland, John. DeCourcy. (1995) The Admiral from County Mayo: A Life of William Brown from Foxford, Father of the Argentine Navy. Dublin: E Burke.

------. (1952-1953) “Irish Soldiers and Seamen in Latin America.” Irish Sword 1:4, pp. 296-316.

------. (1964) “Thomas Charles Wright: Soldier of Bolívar, Founder of the Ecuadorian Navy.” Irish Sword 6:25, pp. 271-85.

-Jennings, Brendan. (1964) Wild Geese in Spanish Flanders, 1582-1700: Documents Relating Chiefly to Irish Regiments (Brendan Jennings, ed). Dublin: Irish Manuscript Commission.

-Jump, Jim, ed. (2006) Poems from Spain: British and Irish International Brigaders on the Civil War. London: Wishart.

-Ker Texada, David. (1970) Alejandro O’Reilly and the New Orleans Rebels. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana Press.

-Kinnaird, Lawrence. (1996) “Alejandro O’Reilly in Louisiana” in Gilbert C Din, ed.: The Spanish Presence in Louisiana, 1763-1803. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

-Krueger, Carl. (1960) Saint Patrick’s Battalion. New York: Dutton. [Fictional account]

-Kuethe, Allan James. (1983) “El Marqués de Esquilache, Alejandro O’Reilly y las reformas económicas de Carlos III en Cuba” in: Memorias. 4o Congreso Venezolano de la Historia. Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia. Vol. 2, pp.117-34.

-Lambert, Eric. (1969) “Irish Soldiers in Latin America, 1818-1830.” Studies 58:232, pp. 376-95.

------. (1983) Voluntarios británicos e irlandesas en la gesta bolivariana. Vol. 1. Caracas: Corporación Venezolana de Guayana.

------. (1993). Voluntarios británicos e irlandesas en la gesta bolivariana. Vols. 2 & 3. Caracas: Ministerio de Defensa.

------. (1977). “General Francis Burdett O’Connor.” Irish Sword 13:51, pp. 128-34.

------ and F. Glenn Thompson. (1979) “Captain Morgan O’Connell of the Hussar Guards of the Irish Legion.” Irish Sword 14:53, pp. 280-2.

-Lynch, Eliza Alicia. (1987) Exposición y protesta. Asunción: Fundación Cultural Republicana.

-McCann, Sean. (1972) The Fighting Irish. London: Five Goodwin’s Court.

-McDonnell, Donal and Chris Lawlor, eds. (2006). General O’Brien: West Wicklow to South America. Dunlavin: West Wicklow Historical Society.

-McGarry, Fearghal. (1999) Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War. Cork: Cork University Press.

-Miller, Robert Ryal. (1989) Shamrock and Sword: The St Patrick’s Battalion in the US- Mexican War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

------. “Los San Patricios en la guerra de 1847.” (1997) Historia Mexicana 47:2, pp. 345-85.

-Molloy, Dorothy. (1970) “In Search of the Wild Geese.” Éire-Ireland 5, pp. 3-14.

-Murphy, David James. (2007) The Irish Brigades: A Gazeteer of Irish Military Service, Past and Present, 1685-2006. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

-Murphy, W.S. (1960) “The Irish Brigade of Spain at the Capture of Pensacola.” Florida Historical Quarterly 38:3, pp. 216-25.

-Murray, Edmundo. (2010) “Santa o cortesana? [about Eliza Lynch]” Southern Cross 135:5957.

-Muzzio, Rodolfo. (1957) “El proceso al Almirante Brown.” Historia 2:7, pp. 33-50.

-O’Brien, Thomas. (1994) Strong Words, Brave Deeds: The Poetry, Life and Times of Thomas O’Brien, Volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. H. Gustav Klaus, ed. Dublin: O’Brien Press.

-O’Connor, Peter. (1996) A Soldier of Liberty: Recollections of a Socialist and Anti-Fascist Fighter. Dublin: Reprint.

-O’Cuinneagáin, Seósamh. (1976) Saga of the Irish Brigade to Spain 1936 (November 1936-June 1937). Enniscorthy: Donegan Print.

-O’Reilly, Alejandro. (1969) “An Account of Governor Alejandro O’Reilly’s Voyage from Havana to New Orleans in July 1769.” David Ker Texada and Fernando Faraldo, transl and eds. Louisiana History 19:4, pp. 370-5.

------. (1983) “O’Reilly’s 1869 Commission: A Personal Account.” Jack D.L. Holmes, transl. Louisiana History 24:3, pp. 307-13.

-O’Riordan, Michael. (1979) The Connolly Column: The Story of the Irishmen who Fought in the International Brigades in the National-Revolutionary War of the Spanish People 1936-1939. Dublin: New Books.

-Parker, Geoffrey. (1972) The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

-Pérez Vila, Manuel. (1957) Vida de Daniel Florencio O’Leary: Primer edecán del Libertador. Caracas: Imprenta Nacional.

-Pyne, Peter. (1996) The Invasions of Buenos Aires, 1806-1807: The Irish Dimension. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Institute of Latin American Studies.

-Recio Morales, Oscar. (2002) El socorro de Irlanda en 1601 y la contribución del ejército a la integración social de los irlandeses en España. Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa, Secretaría General Técnica.

------. (2003) España y la pérdida de Ulster: Irlanda en la estrategía política de la monarquía hispánica 1602-1649. Madrid: Laberinto.

-----. (2009) Ireland and the Spanish Empire 1600-1815. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

-Rodríguez Casado, Vicente. (1941) “O’Reilly en Luisiana.” Revista de Indias 2:3, pp. 115-38.

-Romay, Francisco. (1957) “Brown, visto por extranjeros” Historia [Buenos Aires] 2:7, pp. 63-7.

-Ryan, Frank ed. (1975) The Book of the XV Brigade: Records of British, American, Canadian and Irish Volunteers in the XV International Brigade in Spain 1936-1938. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Graham.

-Skoutelsky, Rémi. (2006) Novedad en el frente: las brigadas internacionales en la guerra civil. Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy.

-Stevens, Peter F. (1999) The Rogue’s March: John Reilly and the St Patrick’s Battalion, 1846-1848. Washington: Brassey.

-Stradling, Robert. (1999) The Irish and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939: Crusades in Conflict. Manchester: Mandolin.

------. (1994) The Spanish Monarchy and Irish Mercenaries: The Wild Geese in Spain 1618-1668. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

-Torres Ramírez, Bibiano. (1969) Alejandro O’Reilly en las Indias. Seville: Escuela de Estudios Hispánicos.

-Torres Reyes, Ricardo. (n.d) “El Mariscal O’Reilly y las defensas de San Juan , 1765-1777.” Historia [Universidad de Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras].

-Tovar y R., Enrique. (1946) “El general Juan O’Brien, ayudante del generalísimo José de San Martín.” Universidad de San Carlos 6, pp. 73-101.

-Walsh, Micheline. (1960, 1965, 1970). Spanish Knights of Irish Origins: Documents from Continental Archives. 3 vols. Dublin.

------. (1961-1962) “Some Notes Toward a History of the Womenfolk of the Irish Geese.” Irish Sword 5, pp. 98-106.

-Ward, Sharkey, Sea Harrier over the Falklands: A Maverick at War (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1992).


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2010

Published: 02 March 2010
Edited: 27 September 2010

Racine, Karen 'Irish Soldiers in Spain and Latin America: An Introduction' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:3 (March 2010), pp. 299-304. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0907.htm), accessed .

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