Irish immigration to Puerto Rico

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Irish immigration to Puerto Rico
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Notable Puerto Ricans of Irish Ancestry

Cayetano Coll y Toste.JPGRafael O’Ferrall.jpgKenneth McClintock3.jpg
Cayetano Coll y Toste • Rafael O'Ferrall • Kenneth McClintock

Location of the island of Puerto Rico (green)

From the 16th to the 19th century, there was considerable Irish immigration to Puerto Rico, for a number of reasons.

During the 16th century many Irishmen, who were known as "Wild Geese," fled or escaped from the English Army that they were forced to serve in and joined the Spanish Army in Europe or when they could "jump-ship" off the coast of Puerto Rico when British ships came to trade or when they were engaged in attacks against the Spanish colonial forces on the Island, at which time they joined the Spanish colonial armies, mainly in San Juan.

Many of these men who served in the Spanish colonial Army in Puerto Rico remained in the service of Spain after their military service was completed and settled on the Island, most often sending for extended family members from Ireland or Spain.

During the 18th century many men such as Field Marshal Alejandro O'Reilly and Colonel Tomas O'Daly were sent to the island from Spain to revamp the capital's fortifications. This led to an influx of additional Irish immigration to the island by family members brought to the Island by these Irish serving in the Island's Spanish colonial armies.

In 1797, the Spanish governor of Puerto Rico, Ramón de Castro, ordered the expulsion of the Irish from Puerto Rico which led immediately to protests from the islanders who had grown to respect the Island's Irish immigrant community for their steadfast support of the Island's residents. Almost all of those who fled the Island temporarily during this expulsion, survived the witch hunt created by Castro and continued to live in Puerto Rico discreetly.

In 1815, The Spanish government modified the Royal Decree of Graces to encourage Europeans of non-Spanish origin to immigrate and populate the last two remaining Spanish possessions in the "New World," Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Many Irish refugees who fled Ireland because of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s which killed over one million Irish people, immigrated to the US Mainland and many of those inadvertently reached Puerto Rico after being rejected at US Mainland ports because of epidemic outbreaks on-board their ships.

Many of these Irish settlers were instrumental in the development of the island's hugely successful sugar industry which was vital to the island's growing economy.

After Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain as a consequence of the Spanish–American War in 1898, many U. S. soldiers of Irish-American descent stationed in the island met the Island-born Irish-descended settlers and stayed on the Island where they were quickly incorporated into the Irish and non-Irish communities throughout the Island.

The Irish influence in Puerto Rico is not limited to their contributions to the island's agricultural industry; they have also influenced the fields of education, sciences, the arts and politics.

Irish in the service of Spain[edit]

Field Marshal Alejandro O'Reilly

Since the early 16th Century, the Irish, who were predominantly Catholics were suffering horrific injustices at the hands of their English overlords and authorities who were Protestant.[1] William Stanley, An English Catholic, was given a special commission by Queen Elizabeth I to organize an Irish regiment of solely native Irish soldiers and mercenaries in Ireland.

This was intended to get rid of Irish men who the English authorities wanted out of Ireland, where the English crown considered them a threat to their control over Ireland. These Irishmen were sent to fight as mercenaries on behalf of England in support of the Dutch United Provinces.

However, in 1585, motivated by religious factors and bribes offered by the Spaniards, Stanley defected to the Spanish side, taking his many Irish regiments with him. These Irishmen who fled the English Army to join the armies of other foreign nations came to be known as "Wild Geese."[2]

Among these "Wild Geese" was Alejandro O'Reilly, an Inspector-General of Infantry for the Spanish Empire who as a military reformer who became known as "The Father of the Puerto Rican Colonial Militia" with the assistance of another Irishman, Colonel Tomas O'Daly.

18th century[edit]

Demetrio O'Daly

In 1765, the King of Spain, Carlos III sent Field Marshal Alejandro O'Reilly to Puerto Rico, to assess the state of the defenses of that colony.

O'Reilly, known today as the "Father of the Puerto Rican colonial militia", took a very complete census of the Island, and recommended numerous reforms, including the instilling of strict military discipline in the local troops.

He insisted that the men serving the defense of the Realm receive their pay regularly and directly, rather than indirectly from their commanding officers, a long-standing practice that had led to abuses.

Some of O'Reilly's other recommendations resulted in a massive 20-year program of revamping San Felipe del Morro Castle in San Juan, now a World Heritage Site.

The training which he instituted was to bring fame and glory to the Puerto Rican militias 30 years later during the English invasions of Puerto Rico in 1797.

O'Reilly's civilian militias had become known as the "Disciplined Militia."[3][4] O'Reilly was later appointed governor of colonial Louisiana in 1769 where he became known as "Bloody O'Reilly."[5]

Another Irishmen Colonel Tomás O'Daly joined O'Reilly in Puerto Rico in the quest of further revamping the fort and was named chief engineer of modernizing the defenses of San Juan, which included the fortress of San Cristóbal. Later he was granted land in the vicinity of Guaynabo and O'Daly developed it into a thriving sugar hacienda.

O'Daly and another fellow Irishman Miguel Kirwan became business partners in the "Hacienda San Patricio," which they named after the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick.

The plantation no longer exists, however the land in which the plantation was located is now a suburb called San Patricio with a shopping mall San Patricio Plaza.[6]

O'Daly, following the example of the other Irishmen in Puerto Rico married a local woman of social standing, Maria Gertrudis de la Puente, herself of Spanish background and had three children, Isabel, Manuel, and Demetrio.

Easily, he joined an growing and thriving embryonic Irish immigrant community in Puerto Rico that would come to be associated with the growth of commercial agriculture. Upon his untimely death in 1781, his brother Jaime took over the property and helped raise Tomás' children.[7] Jaime O'Daly was named Director of the Real Fabrica de Tabaco (Royal Tobacco Factory) in Puerto Rico by the Spanish Crown.[8]

Jaime O'Daly became a successful sugar and tobacco planter. His nephews, Julio and Arturo O'Neill, moved to Puerto Rico in 1783 with their slaves and plantation equipment and were later followed by Tomás Armstrong, another Irishman and planter in 1791.

O'Daly 's connections with the non-Hispanic Caribbean and European nations helped him economically, but hindered his nomination to a post on the prestigious San Juan city council.

However, in 1787, the Spanish Crown appointed him director of the Royal Tobacco Factory. O'Daly remained in Puerto Rico, where he died of natural causes in 1806 and was buried in the San Juan Cathedral.[7]

Plaque honoring Ramon Power y Giralt in San German, Puerto Rico

Another Irishman, Joaquín Power y Morgan, came to Puerto Rico in connection with the Compañía de Asiento de Negros which regulated the slave trade in the island.

He married María Josefa Giralt of Spanish and Irish descent and they settled in San Juan. In 1775, they had a son, whom they named Ramon Power y Giralt.

Ramon Power y Giralt, distinguished himself as a Captain in the Spanish Navy when he defended the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo against an invasion from French forces by enforcing a blockade from 1808-1809.

Power y Giralt, who according to Puerto Rican historian Lidio Cruz Monclova, was the first native born Puerto Rican to refer to himself as a "Puerto Rican,"[9] was named Puerto Rico's representative to the Spanish Cortes in 1808 and later president of the same legislative assembly. He served in the Corte's until his death in 1813.

Demetrio O'Daly, Tomas O'Daly's son, as a young man went to Spain where he received his military training. O'Daly participated in the 1809 Peninsular War and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General during Spain's war for independence. Defender of the Spanish Constitution of 1812, O'Daly was considered a rebel and exiled from Spain by King Fernando VII in 1814.

In 1820, he participated in the successful revolt against the Spanish monarchy which resulted in his promotion to Field Marshal. He was then appointed the Representative of Puerto Rico before the Spanish Cortes. One of his accomplishments as representative, was the creation of a law which separated the civil authority from the military authority in the island.

In 1823, O'Daly was exiled by the restored Spanish Crown only to return to Puerto Rico in 1834. He returned to Spain in 1836 where he died the following year.[10]

Miguel Conway, Patricio Fitzpatrick, Felipe Doran, Jaime Kiernan, and Antonio Skerret, were other Irishmen involved in commercial farming around northern Puerto Rico, which they expanded with help of additional Irish immigrants to the Island that they brought to work on their farms and plantations.

Their properties covered areas from Toa Baja in the northeast to Luquillo in the east. At one point, Kiernan managed to acquire 400 acres (1.6 km2) of land in Hato Rey, which increased his total area to 800 acres (3.2 km2).[7]

Irish influence in Puerto Rico's sugar and tobacco industry[edit]

Undoubtedly, Irish immigrants played an instrumental role in the expansion and development island's economy and trade with Europe and other European colonies on the North and South American continents.

One of the most important industries of the island was the sugar industry. In addition to Tomás O'Daly whose plantation was a huge financial success, other Irishmen became successful businessmen in the industry, among them Miguel Conway, who owned a plantation in the town of Hatillo and Juan Nagle whose plantation was located in Río Piedras.

Not surprisingly, Puerto Ricans of Irish descent also played an instrumental role in the development of the island's tobacco industry. Miguel Conboy is credited with being the founder of the tobacco trade in Puerto Rico[11] and another Irish family, the Quinlans established two very profitable tobacco plantations, one in the town of Toa Baja and the other in Loíza.[12]

Brief Expulsion of the Irish from Puerto Rico[edit]

On February 17, 1797, the appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Brigadier Ramón de Castro, received the news that England had invaded the island of Trinidad.

Believing that Puerto Rico would be the next English target of invasion, he decided to put the local militia on alert and to prepare the island's forts against any military action.[13]

After the Spanish colonial victory in San Juan against England in what is known as the Battle of San Juan of 1797, Castro illogically became suspicious of all English-speaking European foreigners, mistakenly believing that they supported the anti-Spanish military campaigns of the English and ordered some of the local residents and foreigners, especially those of English and Irish descent, to be placed under surveillance. Many were given eight days to leave the island and those who did not leave were imprisoned.[14]

The people in Puerto Rico, among them Treasury official Felipe Antonio Mejía, were so outraged by Castro's irrational actions that they sent special envoys to Spain in defense of the Irish immigrant and merchant community on the Island and made their views known to the Spanish Crown where they condemned Castro's pronouncement as legally unjustified and economically counter-productive, promoting the strongly-held conviction to the Spanish Crown that the Irish immigrants had already proven their allegiance to the Spanish colonial government and were valuable integral economic and trade partners that expanded Puerto Rico's trade horizons with Spain and the Western Hemisphere colonies.

Eventually, the temporarily-banned Irish and their families returned to the island including the O'Dalys, Dorans, Kiernans, Quinlans, O'Ferran, Butler, Killeleigh and Skerrets, among many others.

In 1823, Irish brothers, Robert and Josiah Archibald, imported and introduced to Puerto Rico the island's first steam operated mill, which they successfully used in their already profitable Ponce sugar plantation, further establishing the Irish immigrant colonist community on the Island.[14]

19th century[edit]

Royal Decree of Graces of 1815[edit]

Royal Decree of Graces, 1815

By 1825, the Spanish Empire had lost all of its colonial territories in the Americas with the exception of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

These two possessions, however, had been demanding more autonomy since the formation of pro-independence movements in 1808. Realizing that it was in danger of losing its two remaining Caribbean territories, the Spanish Crown revived the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815.

In this second incarnation, The original decree was printed this time in three languages, Spanish, English and French with the absolutely fervent intent to immediately attract Europeans of non-Spanish origin, with the hope that the independence movements would lose their popularity and strength with the arrival of new settlers.

Additionally,free land was offered to those who wanted to populate the 2 islands on the condition that they swear their loyalty to the Spanish Crown and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church.[15]

Among the hundreds of Irish immigrant families who received free land was that of Angus McBean. The McBeans became involved in the cultivation of the sugar cane and established a huge plantation in the city of Bayamon. In 1821, the slaves owned by McBean were involved in a failed slave revolt planned and organized by Marcos Xiorro, a bozal slave.[16]

During this time, the O'Neill family who had arrived in Puerto Rico from Spain and other locations in the Caribbean, among them the islands of Tortola and St. Croix arrived to join the already thriving Irish immigrant community. However, many Puerto Ricans with the O'Neill surname can trace their ancestry to Colonel Arturo O'Neill O'Keffe. O'Neill O'Keffe was the son of Tulio O'Neill O'Kelly and Catherine O'Keffe y Whalen.

On August 8, 1828, O'Neill O'Keffe, a Knight of the Royal Order of King Carlos the 3rd of Spain and 2nd Marques del Norte, served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Spanish garrison of the City of Bayamón. He was married to Joanna Chabert Heyliger.

The descendants of Arturo and Joanna O'Neill were Tulio Luis, Arturo, Micaela Ulpiana and Gonzalo, all of whom had the surnames of O'Neill (their father) y Chabert (French mother). All, with the exception of Tulio Luis, were born in Puerto Rico where they established their families.[17]

Irish Potato Famine[edit]

Early Irish settlers, such as the ones pictured, immigrated to the Americas, including Puerto Rico.

Because of the many economic and political changes occurring in Europe during the latter part of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, hundreds of agricultural farm workers and their families abandoned their work in their homeland agricultures and moved to the larger cities with the advent of the Second Industrial Revolution in search of better paying jobs.

Those who stayed behind and tended to their farmlands, but suffered the consequences of the widespread crop failures brought upon as a result of long periods of drought and diseases such as the cholera epidemic and the potato fungus which caused the Great Irish Famine of 1840. Mass starvation was widespread in Europe.[18] Specifically, in Ireland, the Irish Potato Famine killed over one million Irish people and created nearly two million refugees.

These refugees went to Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and of course the Caribbean. One of the islands that many Irish families emigrated in large numbers to throughout this period continued to be Irish-friendly Puerto Rico.

Additionally, being a Spanish colony, the island had a primarily Roman Catholic population which appealed to the Irish immigrants, as opposed to the Protestant majorities of most of the colonies of the British Empire and the United States at the time that were openly hostile to Irish immigration.[19]

20th century[edit]

After Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the United States at the end of the Spanish–American War in 1898, many Irish-American soldiers who were assigned to the military bases in Puerto Rico chose to stay and live in the island upon meeting other Irish-descended relatives on the Islan. Unlike their counterparts who settled in the United States in close knit communities, both the Irish immigrants and migrants in Puerto Rico quickly became part of the immigrant community in Puerto Rico and adopted the language and customs of the island, thereby completely integrating themselves into the society of their new homeland.[20]

The Irish influence in Puerto Rican politics is also notable. After Pedro Albizu Campos was honorably discharged from the United States Army, he attended Harvard University in Boston, Mass. While in Boston he established clubs and centers where young Irish people congregated and discussed the independence of their homeland. Albizu was invited by Éamon de Valera to assist as a consultant in the drafting of the Irish Free State constitution. After Albizu returned to Puerto Rico, he joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and soon after became the party's president. Albizu adopted the Irish Republican Movement as the model for the Nationalist Party to follow.[21]

Irish influence in Puerto Rican and popular culture[edit]

Kenneth McClintock, served as the Puerto Rico Secretary of State from January 2, 2009 to January 2, 2013

Besides having distinguished careers in agriculture and the military, Puerto Ricans of Irish descent have made many other contributions to the Puerto Rican way of life. Their contributions can be found, but are not limited to, the fields of education, commerce, politics, science and entertainment.

Kenneth McClintock was the Secretary of State of Puerto Rico. McClintock served as co-chair of Hillary Clinton presidential campaign's National Hispanic Leadership Council in 2008, co-chaired Clinton's successful Puerto Rico primary campaign that year and served as the Thirteenth President of the Senate of Puerto Rico until his term ended on December 31, 2008. In late 2008, he served as President of then-Governor-Elect Luis Fortuño's Transition Committee.[22] He was sworn into office as Secretary of State on January 2, 2009 by Chief Justice Federico Hernández Denton, fulfilling the role of Lieutenant Governor, (first-in-line of succession) in the islands, until January 2, 2013.[23]

The Coll family played an important role in shaping Puerto Rico's politics and literature. Dr. Cayetano Coll y Toste was a historian and writer. He was the patriarch of a family of Puerto Rican, educators, politicians and writers. Both Coll y Toste's sons were notable politicians. José Coll y Cuchí was the founder of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and Cayetano Coll y Cuchí, was a President of Puerto Rico House of Representatives.[24] His grand daughter, Isabel Cuchí Coll, was a journalist, author and the Director of the "Sociedad de Autores Puertorriqueño" (Society of Puerto Rican Authors),[25] his other grand daughter, Edna Coll, was a notable educator and author. She was one of the founders of the Academy of Fine Arts in Puerto Rico.[26]

Among the members of the O'Neill family whose contributions to Puerto Rican culture are evident today are Hector O'Neill, politician and Mayor[27] Ana María O'Neill an educator, author and advocate of women's rights.[28] and María de Mater O'Neill an artist, lithographer, and professor.

Puerto Rican beauty queens of Irish descent who represented their island in the Miss Universe beauty pageant are the following: Ada Perkins - Miss Puerto Rico (1978);[29] Deborah Carthy Deu - Miss Universe 1985[30] and Laurie Tamara Simpson - Miss Puerto Rico (1987).[31]

The Irish element of Puerto Rico is very much in evidence. Their contributions in Puerto Rico's agricultural industry and in the field of politics and education are highly notable.[11] In the city of Bayamón, there is an urbanization called Irlanda Heights (Ireland Heights). For the last several years, the town of Luquillo has hosted a day-long Saint Patrick's Day festival which includes a Parada de San Patricio (St. Patrick's Parade) honoring Ireland's patron saint.[20] There are various Irish pubs around the island which also celebrate the holiday and serve the typical green colored beer on the occasion. Amongst them are Shannon's Irish Pub in San Juan, and Logan's Irish Pub in Río Piedras.[32]

Common Irish surnames in Puerto Rico[edit]

According to the written work "La Comunidad Irlandesa en Puerto Rico en el Siglo 18" (18th Century Irish Community in Puerto Rico) the following surnames were common amongst the first Irish settlers in Puerto Rico:[33]

Surnames of the first Irish families in Puerto Rico
Anderson, Armstrong, Balfour, Ballantine (Valentin), Branagh, Breslin, Butler, Carney, Cole, Coll, Coleman, Conroy, Conway, Cooper, Costello, Davis, Darby, Dilan, Dylan, Donegal, Doran, Dunn, Dunaho, Duran, Ferran (O'Ferran), Finlay, Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, Gilbert, Hayes, Henna, Kelly, Kearney, Kennedy, Kiernan, Kilkenny, Killeleigh, Kinsella/Quinsella, Kirwan, Logan, Martin, Mayo, McComber, McConnie, McClintock, McCormick, McDougall, McKinney, Monaghan, Monroe, Morgan, Munro, Murphy (Morfi), Murray, Nagle, Nolan, O'Daly, O'Ferral (O'Farrell), O'Ferran (Ferran), O'Fray, Oliver, O'Hara, O'Mara, O'Neill, O'Reilly, Perkins, Power/Powers, Quinlan, Richardson, Roberts, Scanlon, Shanahan, Simmons, Simpson, Skerret, Sullivan (Sólivan/Soliván), Todd, Walker, Williams and Wilson...among others.

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dictionary of National Biography 22 vols. (London, 1921–1922)
  2. ^ "Irish and Scottish Military Migration to Spain". Trinity College Dublin. 2008-11-29. Retrieved 26 May 2008. 
  3. ^ Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña
  4. ^ "The Celtic Connection". Retrieved November 29, 2008. 
  5. ^ Alejandro O'Reilly 1725-1794, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  6. ^ SAN PATRICIO PLAZA EXPANDS; All Business News, Retrieved December 2, 2008
  7. ^ a b c Joining many other freed Irish Indentured Servants, Papists and Colonists in Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico, ca. 1650-1800, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  8. ^ Irish and Puerto Rico, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  9. ^ Cruz Monclova, Lidio, Historia de Puerto Rico en el Siglo XIX, 3 vols., Ed. U.P.R., Río Piedras, 1958; 1972; 1974)
  10. ^ Negroni, Héctor Andrés (1992). Historia militar de Puerto Rico (in Spanish). Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario. ISBN 978-84-7844-138-9. 
  11. ^ a b Emerald Reflections, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  12. ^ Remembering the Past, Retrieved November 29, 2008 Archived March 4, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ Abercromby's Siege, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  14. ^ a b Irish Indentured Servants, Papists and Colonists in Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico 2, ca. 1650-1800, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  15. ^ Real Cédula de 1789 "para el comercio de Negros", Retrieved November 29, 2008
  16. ^ "Slave revolts in Puerto Rico: conspiracies and uprisings, 1795-1873"; by: Guillermo A. Baralt; Publisher Markus Wiener Publishers; ISBN 1-55876-463-1, ISBN 978-1-55876-463-7
  17. ^ Clan Abba Forum, Retrieved March 21, 2009[dead link]
  18. ^ Archivo General de Puerto Rico: Documentos, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  19. ^ Woodham-Smith (1964), 32-33. According to Woodham-Smith, "the unreliability of the potato crop was an accepted fact.
  20. ^ a b Irish eyes smile on Puerto Rico - thanks to a Hilltown couple, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  21. ^ Why Spanish Harlem Celebrates St. Patrick's Day
  22. ^ El Nuevo Dia 1
  23. ^ El Nuevo Dia 2
  24. ^ El Nuevo Dia 3
  25. ^ "Figuras Historicas De Puerto Rico, Vol. 2" ; Eitor: Adolfo R. Lopez; Page 5 and 6; 2000. Publisher: Editorial Codillera, Inc.; ISBN 0-88495-188-X.
  26. ^ "Tras las Huellas de Nuestro Paso"; by: Ildelfonso López; Publisher: AEELA, 1998
  27. ^ Héctor O'Neill repasa su trayectoria en Guaynabo
  28. ^ Biografias
  29. ^ "Make Your Life Prime Time: How to Have It All Without Losing Your Soul"; author: Maria Celeste Arraras; page 26; Publisher: Atria Books; ISBN 1-4165-8581-8; ISBN 978-1-4165-8581-7
  30. ^ (Spanish) Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular. Biografías: Deorah Carthy-Deu.
  31. ^ "Latin queen has Irish flair". Chicago Sun-Times. June 11, 1986. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  32. ^ Irish Bars and Pubs in Puerto Rico, Retrieved November 29, 2008
  33. ^ The 18th century Irish community in Puerto Rico

External links[edit]