Marta Ramón-García
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Óscar Recio Morales

Madrid: Sílex Ediciones, 2020. 516 pp.

ISBN: 978-84–7737-837-2

Few tropes are as enduring in the Irish nationalist imagination as that of the Wild Geese: the waves of Irishmen who left their homeland between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in order to join the armies of European Catholic powers – mainly France and Spain – as the myth would have it, in search of military glory, religious freedom and an opportunity to return in force to liberate Ireland from British domination. Historical scrutiny, on the other hand, unsurprisingly reveals a more complex phenomenon: by the second half of the eighteenth century, the political exiles of the Tudor and Stuart wars had given way to economic migrants for whom Ireland was not so much a spiritual home, as a political badge and a business card to help them thrive in their host societies.

Óscar Recio Morales offers an enlightening case study in his impressively researched full-length biography of Alejandro ( Alexander) O’Reilly (1723-1794). Born as the eighth son of a minor County Meath landholder, O’Reilly was sent to Spain as a child along with two of his male siblings. He entered a career in the Spanish army at around the age of twelve, eventually found favour with Charles III, and rose through the ranks to become inspector general of infantry for the Spanish army, second governor of Spanish Louisiana, inspector general of the army and militia for Spanish territories in America, and military governor of Madrid by 1773. Along the way, he had already been created a knight of the Order of Alcántara, commander of Benfayán (Cáceres), and finally Count O’Reilly in 1771. In 1776 he suffered a humiliating military defeat in Algiers and fell from grace, but the fall was tempered by his appointment as captain general of Andalucía, and later governor of Cádiz. He resigned from all his commissions in 1786, was called back from retirement for the war against the French revolutionaries in 1793, and died en route to the front in Bonete, Albacete, on 23 March 1794.

Aside from its intrinsic scholarly merit, the value of Recio’s biography of O’Reilly is twofold. First, it fills a significant gap in the historiography of the Spanish Enlightenment; despite O’Reilly’s prominence in Charles III’s military establishment, he tends to be absent from general accounts of the period, and only his brief stint as Louisiana governor seems to have attracted attention, mainly on the part of North American scholars (12). Secondly, it adds more particularly to the historiography of the Irish diaspora in Spain. While there is a relative abundance of articles on the Irish in early modern Spain, with topics ranging in scope from individual case studies, to local histories, to collective analyses of religious and political activities (e.g. Pérez Tostado and Downey eds., 2020), there is a glaring dearth of monographs able to engage with the Irish émigré experience beyond the confines of the ten-thousand-word limit.

For the Spanish history reader, Recio offers a succinct but informative summary of the Irish context for O’Reilly’s exit from Ireland, from the Williamite War and the Penal Laws, to the several famines of the early eighteenth century. He does this with a notable lack of wild-goose romanticism, more instructively focusing on the lack of opportunities for Catholic families, the role of familial networks and the continuity factor involved in leaving one strongly militarised society for another. He also provides a striking counterpoint to the historical reputation of King Charles III. Usually hailed as the quintessential enlightened monarch, the patron of arts and rational government, “the best mayor of Madrid”, behind some of the most iconic Madrid architecture, from the Prado Museum to the Alcalá Gate, Recio’s Charles III instead emerges as a militarist who involved the country in ill-fated ventures, financed his urban improvement schemes by over-taxing an impoverished populace, and fled the capital for a full nine months when said populace revolted against his reforms in 1766.

But perhaps the most damning portrait in Recio’s narrative is that of the Spanish ancient-regime aristocratic class. O’Reilly’s career as inspector general of infantry was a sustained attempt to modernise and professionalise the Spanish army by emphasising formal instruction, limiting the purchase of military commissions, reducing endogamy and introducing a promotions system based on excellence rather than perceived hereditary rights. But this was a direct challenge to the aristocracy’s monopoly over the upper military echelons, and their response is both predictable and at times unintentionally funny. O’Reilly’s efforts culminated in the foundation of a short-lived military school at Ávila (1774-1779); he intended that the most promising officers in each regiment should attend this school, and that their performance should be a deciding factor in future promotions. Unsigned reports originating from the office of War Secretary Count Ricla, his superior, protested that this gave O’Reilly inordinate power – his school, his exams, his officials – shattered the principle of seniority, and led to veteran officers finding themselves under the command of newcomers, sometimes of “vulgar” origins (246). O’Reilly was not simply disregarding the true virtues of “blood, valour and seniority”; his educational programme was unnecessarily taxing for the students, and his insistence on “excessive hygiene” bordered on effeminacy and went radically against the “national character” (247).

This was the inspector’s fundamental flaw in a society obsessed with “purity of blood” and “old Castilian” credentials: his novel title as Count O’Reilly and his foreign origins disqualified him from truly comprehending the “spirit of the nation” (252). In the aftermath of the Algiers disaster, O’Reilly was classed with other foreign officials elevated by Charles III, such as the unfortunate Esquilache, and his origins were made the target of literary attacks, very likely orchestrated by his enemies among the nobility (320-25). Recio quotes abundantly from this satiric output, and places it in the context of the emergence of a Spanish “proto-nationalism” which looked to popular culture, particularly that of the Madrid lower classes, as the embodiment of the “national spirit” that O’Reilly supposedly could never commune with.

It is precisely in defining the contours of his Hispano-Irish identity that O’Reilly benefits from the full scope of a biography. Recio begins by lamenting the lack of a personal autobiography to balance the reams of paperwork produced by O’Reilly in his professional capacity, and declares that he has tried to avoid presenting him as a mere bureaucrat (20). While there is no lack of bureaucracy – to a degree of detail that makes footnotes as often interesting as overwhelming – Recio succeeds in building a personal portrait of a man he describes as “controversial”, but who mainly comes across as an extremely talented, meticulous, efficient reformer with a superhuman capacity for work, and an all-too-human array of contradictions.

It is particularly remarkable, for instance, that for such an assiduous opponent of the aristocratic oligarchy in the army, he did not abstain from recommending candidates on the basis of family origins or connections, and he was far from immune himself either to social ambition or clientelism. As early as 1758 he was already sounding out his superiors about the possibility of being conferred with a nobility title (56). A few years later, in 1767, his marriage to María Rosa de las Casas y Aragorri connected him with the powerful Basque faction at court, and the children born of the marriage solidified his Spanish roots. Meanwhile, his rise to prominence was assisted as much by his personal competence as by the influence of benefactors of Irish origins, notably Secretary of State and War Ricardo Wall (1694-1777), who promoted his appointment as military observer to Central European armies during the Seven Years’ War and brought him to the attention of Charles III.

As the all-powerful inspector general of infantry, O’Reilly would secure promotions for his own family members (64-5), and take other Irish protégées under his wing, especially his own cousin Hugo O’Conor and Gonzalo O’Farrill y Herrera, a member of the Cuban upper class who embodied one of O’Reilly’s most successful projects: the promotion of the military as a desirable career for colonial elites, as a means to reinforce both the defence of their respective territories and their own allegiance to the metropolis. O’Farrill would occupy various prominent military positions in Spain, including inspector general of infantry in 1798, before eventually accepting the post of secretary of war in Joseph I Bonaparte’s government and being forced into exile at the end of the Peninsular War (1808-1814).

Recio, on the other hand, is not concerned with building a map of Irish connections. He does provide a brief insight into the endogamic Irish regiments in the Spanish army (58-9) and the Irish community in Cádiz (348-9), and Irish individuals do occasionally feature in the narrative as O’Reilly’s collaborators and confidants, as is the case of Thomas Butler in Havana and Oliver Pollock in Louisiana. However, the intricacies of blood and political allegiances untangled for the reader are mainly those of the Basque and Cuban elites O’Reilly came in contact with, and the different factions in Charles III’s governments.

Recio’s O’Reilly is certainly not the nostalgic emigrant of Irish nationalist imagination. In 1735 O’Reilly was sent to Spain on a calculated move to provide him with a career as an officer in the Spanish army through enlistment as a cadet in the Hibernia regiment, one of three Irish regiments in the Bourbon “army of nations” (57). Recio describes this environment as a “bubble”, thus suggesting that young O’Reilly’s contact with Spanish culture and society may have been limited during his formative years. At the same time, however, there is no mention of return trips or significant contacts with the family he had left behind. From the moment he became a cadet, up to his final retirement in 1786, O’Reilly’s interests and ambitions materialised exclusively within the confines of the Spanish state. Unlike his compatriot and benefactor Ricardo Wall, who served as ambassador in London and was a declared Anglophile, O’Reilly manifested no particular affinity or aversion to Britain beyond his military duty to defend Spain from a colonial adversary. Most telling of all, unlike Wall, who made repeated protestations about his loyalty to Spain, O’Reilly never felt the need to do so, and he never questioned his own identity as a Spaniard.

Recio emphasises that O’Reilly’s deployment of his Irish identity was eminently pragmatic: it served him to gather witnesses for his application to the Order of Alcántara, and later to try and produce a sufficiently impressive family tree to obtain a title of grandee for his son and heir (322-3). However, his exit from the Hibernia regiment, his experience as a military observer in Central Europe, his interest in French military literature, his missions in Cuba and Louisiana, and his Basque connections, all added new identities to the mix.

This is perhaps the most important takeaway from Recio’s work. Identity is multifaceted, and a reader looking for the “Irish experience” will find a much richer kaleidoscope: an extremely talented, resolute, ambitious career official, who shared the values of elite society, and as a slave owner himself, some of its very worst practices; also an efficient and dedicated reformer who failed to modernise the army according to his vision, but managed to leave a durable imprint as the governor of Cádiz. As a backdrop, the book offers a fascinating window into the rivalries and intrigues at Charles III’s court, a minutely detailed account of the workings of the Spanish army, and a glimpse into the forces at work in Spain’s long descent into decadence and civil strife throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is only to be lamented that the book is inaccessible to an English-language audience, but it is to be hoped that translations, in whole or in part, will soon be forthcoming.

Works Cited

Works cited

Pérez Tostado, Igor and Declan M. Downey, eds. Ireland and the Iberian Atlantic. Migration, Military and Material Culture. Valencia: Albatros, 2020.