Dúnyer Pérez Roque
University of Oviedo

Creative Commons 4.0 by Dúnyer Pérez Roque. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Margaret Brehony and Nuala Finnegan, eds.

Ediciones Boloña, 2019. 270 pages.

ISBN: 9789592942073


Cuba and Ireland share much more than the Atlantic Ocean or island similarities. Their respective pasts of resistance and anti-colonial struggle – Cuba from Spain and Ireland from the United Kingdom – forged the character of each nation’s citizens and marked the history of both countries. Their location on the periphery of the areas of influence of both empires contributed to them becoming a transit or destination site for multiple nationalities, which resized their ethnic composition and enriched their cultural legacy. But the most important thing about this connection was the relationship established between the nationals of both countries, whose traces remain anonymous or mostly unknown, and formed the basis of a deep and solid bond in the past.


Although academic, cultural, tourist, and political activities have been carried out in Cuba in recent years that intertwine both countries, Cuban bibliography and historiography have suffered, and no significant scholarly work that presents an introductory approach to historical connections between Cuba and Ireland has yet to be published. The peak between these relations is found in the presidential visits of both leaders: that of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, to Cuba in 2017, and that of the president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, to Ireland in 2019.

The Historical Center of Old Havana has witnessed, since the beginning of the 2000s, the work of a former researcher of the Habaguanex Tourist Company, Rafael Fernández Moya, who investigated this presence in Cuba and compiled a list of place names of origin, indicating the Irish presence in the history and geography of Cuba (Fernández Moya 2007: 193), and traced all activities linked to the Irish in the Hotel Palacio O’Farrill. From hosting ambassadors, to talks, conferences, presentations of Irish music and literature, it has become an important center for the rescue of the Irish legacy in Havana and Cuba.

Imbued with this growing interest in Celtic culture in general, and Irish in particular, I was inspired to write an article about José Martí’s vision of the Irish presence in American culture and politics (Pérez Roque 2012), but these and many other efforts were insufficient to address this comprehensive and controversial issue. Hence, after so many years of research, it was strange that no book had been written about these relationships, a debt that is partly settled by the text at hand.

Scanning the book

First of all, the bilingual edition (Spanish and English) of the book is appreciated by readers of both languages, allowing them to observe and learn from its translation. This detail from the editors, rare nowadays, expands the dimension and scope of this work. The book is composed of the Introduction, seven chapters by Cuban and Irish authors (Gera Burton, Julio David Rojas Rodríguez, Margaret Brehony, Giselle González García, Rafael Fernández Moya, José Antonio Quintana García, and Félix Flores Varona) and the biographies of the contributors. The scientific rigor of the investigations is supported by documentary sources consulted in the National Archive of Cuba, parish archives, cemetery books, period newspapers, and travelers’ chronicles. Also, the final bibliography demonstrates the variety, quantity, and quality of sources consulted.

According to its editors, Irlanda y Cuba: historias entretejidas / Ireland and Cuba: Entangled Histories threads together disparate stories about diaspora and movement; stories about suffering, triumph, integration, and isolation” (11). Although disparate, and covering topics apparently disconnected from each other, the contributions all demonstrate the physical, philosophical, marital, commercial, military, etc. contacts between Irish people – or their descendants – and Creoles, generally with members of the Havana aristocracy, in a historical symbiosis marked by constant exchanges and influences. On the other hand, its authors maintain that

The idea of entanglement suggests a level of interconnection that is complex and sometimes ambivalent. For this reason, we consider the concept to be most apposite for this examination of the sometimes uneasy relationships sustained between Irish communities, or noted Irish figures, and Cuban society at different stages of their islands’ histories. There is no one single narrative about the Irish diaspora in Cuba nor is there any discernible coherent thread that unites the different figures that are the subject of study in the book’s chapters. Rather, the scholarship here shows that certain Irish figures such as O’Kelly and Madden were inspired by their experiences and encounters with Cuba. (14).

The book begins with two chapters focused on the Irish presence in the slave trade in Cuba. In chapter one, entitled “Liberty’s Call: Richard Robert Madden’s voice in the anti-slavery movement”, Gera Burton carries out a historical analysis of the role played by Richard Robert Madden in the construction of international alliances against slavery. The “Madden case” introduces us to the theme of the progressive Irish, defenders of the abolition of slavery, and is the result of the era in which he lived, of great changes in the legislative conceptions of human rights in early-nineteenth-century Britain. Following the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1807, Madden was one of many special magistrates sent to the “western sugar colonies” to enforce the Emancipation Act signed in 1833. Additionally, Burton extends the analysis of the influence of Madden as part of a much larger discourse of growing international opposition to slavery.

On the opposite side, chapter two, “Conquering Atlantic Space Upon Black Shoulders: The O’Farrill family and the slave trade (1716-1866)”, by Julio David Rojas Rodríguez, examines the renowned Irish-Cuban-Spanish O’Farrill family and their active participation in the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Taking these contrasting stories as a starting point for this book gives an idea of the complexity of the analysis of Irish migration. Clearly functioning as imperial agents, the O’Farrills sadly built their fortune on African slaves, also revealing the complicity of Irish men and women in this disastrous commercial practice and their commitment to maintaining slavery in Cuba. Rojas Rodríguez begins this story at the beginning of the eighteenth century with the arrival of Ricardo O’Farrill O’Daly, from Montserrat and patriarch of the family, representing the interests of the South Sea Company in Cuba in the slave trade. It was established from its beginnings as one of the most powerful houses on the Island, as it also owned sugar plantations. They continued to trade slaves even after the slave trade was abolished, a practice that ceased in 1866 when members of the family were put on trial.

Chapters three to five shift focus from specific figures or family stories to offer a more concentrated examination of other facets of Irish migration. Chapter 3, entitled “Ethnic Whitening Processes and the Politics of Race, Labour, and National Identity in Colonial Cuba: A Case Study of Irish Immigrants (1818-1845)”, by Margaret Brehony, takes us into the wave of Irish immigrants imported as skilled workers that occurred in the 1830s. It investigates the demographic, ethnic, and racial components of their interactions with the need for labor that Cuba had at the time. In addition to fulfilling labor requirements, Irish immigrants addressed the need to “whiten” the Cuban population and the workforce, and thus counteract the progressive increase in the number of enslaved Africans, serving as an ethnic experiment for the dominant white sectors in Cuba. Brehony also addresses the discursive strategies used by colonial elites, who only conceived of a workforce of which they could be owners (see also, Brehony 2012). She also clarifies the circumstances under which the protests and resistance of Irish railroad workers threatened the colonial social order, with the ruling classes experiencing some of the consequences that the transition from slavery to free labor would bring.

For its part, chapter four, “Dying in Havana: A Microhistory of the Irish immigrants Buried in the General Cemetery (1859-1862)”, by Giselle González García, explores local spaces and microhistories in the funerary records of Havana. This essay reconstructs the fragmented history of a group of Irish who died in the Cuban capital between 1859 and 1862. The fundamental source she uses points to the ways in which Cuban bibliography and historiography have suffered, as the only available source in some cases for tracking these Irish migrants are death certificates, from which González García extracted fragments of information such as age, marital status, social class or religion, which constitute the only extant reliable data on practically unknown processes about these people in Cuba. Thus, the author states, the General Cemetery of Havana becomes a powerful instrument of memory.

Chapter five, “Women in the Irish Diaspora in Cuba: Their Role in Economic and Social Development”, by Rafael Fernández Moya, focuses on gender studies and the role of Irish migrant women in Cuba. With an almost forensic evaluation of archival sources, Fernández Moya maintains that Irish women in Cuba contributed significantly to Cuban society and intervened in the formation of identity on the island during the nineteenth century. Their status as foreigners allowed them to enter certain labor markets, though they had to battle the patriarchal limitations of the time. They came to work as dentists, in sales, as domestic workers, businessmen, sex workers, and even in medicine. He also highlights how key family roles, such as mothers or grandmothers, allowed Irish women to influence the lives of prominent Cuban figures, such as Julio Antonio Mella McPartland and Antonio Guiteras Holmes.

The final two chapters analyze key figures of political and cultural resistance: James O’Kelly, Oscar Wilde, and José Martí, both Cuban and Irish. Chapter six, “James O’Kelly: War Correspondent in Cuba”, by José Antonio Quintana García, focuses on the book “La tierra del mambí” (a collection of chronicles, short essays, and reports), which has become one of the quintessential examples of literary journalism. Quintana García examines the role of James O’Kelly (1840-1910) as a chronicler of the first war of independence against Spanish colonialism, between 1868 and 1878. He points out that foreign correspondents were key in the spread of news about the war and highlights the exceptional reportage carried out by this Irish figure, who arrived in Cuba as a reporter for the New York Herald in 1872. O’Kelly opted in his book for a combination of self-critical satire and unquestionable solidarity with the separatist cause, providing interesting perspectives and first-hand information about this historical moment on the Caribbean island.

Finally, chapter seven, “José Martí’s Forgotten Portrait of Oscar Wilde”, by Félix Flores Varona, concentrates its analysis on a little-researched essay in Martí’s work and an often equally ignored chapter of his life: his encounter with this important Irish figure in New York in 1882. This work of his, simply titled “Oscar Wilde”, is a prelude to a more extensive one, and, in Flores Varona’s opinion, it is among those of greatest interest in Marti’s work from a stylistic and poetic point of view since it expresses a realistic vision of the Irish author. Through a perceptive analysis of Wilde, Martí brings us closer to this important figure of European letters, and it should not be considered a “minor work” within Martí’s oeuvre. Flores Varona also considers that it is a representative piece of literary journalism in Martí’s universe, demonstrating his international connections.

Final words

It will be the mission of future generations of researchers to continue delving into this fascinating topic, the connection between two peoples who, although geographically distant, have similar connections and were united by their desire for independence. The similarity in their histories speaks of a common past of struggle and resistance that we must not forget in moments where the loss of historical memory and cultural hegemonies seek to impose themselves.

Works Cited

Brehony, Margaret (2012). “Irish Free Labor and the Abolition of Slavery in Cuba, 1832-1844.” Eire-Ireland 47 (1):70-94.

Brehony, Margaret and Nuala Finnegan (2019). Irlanda y Cuba: Historias entretejidas/ Ireland & Cuba, Entangled Histories. Havana: Ediciones Boloña.

Fernández Moya, Rafael (2008). “The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba.” Journal of Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 5 (3): 189-97. http://www.irlandeses.org/imsla0711.htm 

Pérez Roque, Dúnyer (2012). “Algunas consideraciones martianas sobre la presencia irlandesa en la cultura y política estadounidense.” Revista Honda 35: 59-64.