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 the English Army and joined the Spanish Army. Some of these men were stationed in Puerto Rico and remained there after their military service to Spain was completed. During the 18th century men such as Field Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly and Colonel Tomas O’Daly were sent to the island to revamp the capital’s fortifications. This led to an influx of Irish immigration to the island. In 1797, the appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Ramón de Castro, ordered the expulsion of the Irish from Puerto Rico which led to protests from the local people of the island. Many Irishmen survived the witch hunt created by Castro and continued to live in Puerto Rico.
The Spanish government modified the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 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 Puerto Rico. These settlers were instrumental in the development of the island’s sugar industry which was vital to the island’s economy.
After Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain as a consequence of the Spanish-American War, many soldiers of Irish-American descent stationed in the island intermarried with the locals and established their homes there. 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 and politics.
Irish in the service of Spain
During the 16th Century the Irish, who were mostly Catholic, were suffering many injustices from the English authorities who were Protestant. William Stanley, an English Catholic, was given a commission by Queen Elizabeth I to organize an Irish regiment of native Irish soldiers and mercenaries. The main idea was to get rid of these men because the English authorities wanted them out of the country. They were sent to fight 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 with the regiment. The Irishmen who fled the English Army to join the armies of other foreign nations became known as “Wild Geese.”
Among those considered “Wild Geese” was Alejandro O’Reilly, an Inspector-General of Infantry for the Spanish Empire who as a military reformer became known as “The Father of the Puerto Rican Militia” and Colonel Tomas 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 militia”, took a very complete census of the Island, and again 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 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 invasion of Puerto Rico in 1797. O’Reilly’s civilian militias had become known as the “Disciplined Militia.” O’Reilly was later appointed governor of colonial Louisiana in 1769 where he became known as “Bloody O’Reilly.”
Colonel Tomás O’Daly joined O’Reilly in Puerto Rico in the quest of 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 fellow Irishman Miguel Kirwan became 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. He married a local Puerto Rican girl, Maria Gertrudis de la Puente and had three children, Isabel, Manuel, and Demetrio. O’Daly joined an 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’s children. Jaime O’Daly was named Director of the Real Fabrica de Tabaco (Royal Tobacco Factory) in Puerto Rico by the Spanish Crown.
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, a friend 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.
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 a local Puerto Rican girl and lived 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,” 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, was sent 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.
Miguel Conway, Patricio Fitzpatrick, Felipe Doran, Jaime Kiernan, and Antonio Skerret, were also commercial farmers around northern Puerto Rico. Their properties covered areas from Toa Baja in the northeast to Luquillo in the east. 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).
Irish influence in Puerto Rico’s sugar and tobacco industry
Irish immigrants played in instrumental role in the island’s economy. One of the most important industries of the island was the sugar industry. Besides Tomás O’Daly whose plantation was a success, other Irishmen became successful businessmen in this industry, among them Miguel Conway, who owned a plantation in the town of Hatillo and Juan Nagle whose plantation was located in Río Piedras. 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 and the Quinlan family established two tobacco plantations, one in the town of Toa Baja and the other in Loíza.
Expulsion of the Irish from Puerto Rico
On February 17, 1797, the appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Brigadier Ramón de Castro, received the news that Great Britain had invaded the island of Trinidad. Believing that Puerto Rico would be the next British objective, he decided to put the local militia on alert and to prepare the island’s forts against any military action. After the Puerto Rican and Spanish victory against Great Britain in what is known as the Battle of San Juan of 1797, Castro became suspicious of all English-speaking European foreigners believing that they supported the anti-Spanish military campaign 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.
Many of the people in Puerto Rico, among them Treasury official Felipe Antonio Mejía, were outraged at Castro’s actions and came to the defense of the Irish. Soon their views became known to the Spanish Crown where they condemned Castro’s pronouncement as legally unjustified and economically counter-productive. Eventually, the majority returned to the island including the O’Dalys, Dorans, Kiernans, Quinlans and Skerrets. In 1823, brothers Robert and Josiah Archbald, imported and introduced to Puerto Rico the island’s first steam operated mill, which they used in their Ponce sugar plantation.
Royal Decree of Graces of 1815
By 1825, the Spanish Empire had lost all of its 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. This time the decree was printed in three languages — Spanish, English and French — intending to 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. Free land was offered to those who wanted to populate the islands on the condition that they swear their loyalty to the Spanish Crown and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church.
Among the Irishman who received free land was Angus McBean. McBean became involved in the cultivation of the sugar cane and had a 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.
The O’Neills arrived in Puerto Rico from Spain and other locations in the Caribbean, among them the islands of Tortola and St. Croix. 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 O’Neill y Chabert. All, with the exception of Tulio Luis, were born in Puerto Rico where they established their families.
Irish Potato Famine
Many economic and political changes occurred in Europe during the latter part of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Hundreds of farm workers abandoned their work in agriculture 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 attended their farmlands suffered the consequences of the widespread crop failure 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. Starvation was widespread in Europe.
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, among other places, the Caribbean. One of the islands that many Irish emigrated to in large numbers was Puerto Rico. Being a Spanish colony, the island had a primarily Roman Catholic population, as opposed to the Protestant majorities of most of the colonies of the British Empire and the United States at the time.
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. Unlike their counterparts who settled in the United States in close knit communities, both the Irish immigrants and migrants in Puerto Rico intermarried with Puerto Ricans and adopted the language and customs of the island, thereby completely integrating themselves into the society of their new homeland.
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.
Irish influence in Puerto Rican and popular culture
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 is the Secretary of State of Puerto Rico. Mr. 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. 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.
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 prominent 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. His grand daughter, Isabel Cuchí Coll, was a journalist, author and the Director of the “Sociedad de Autores Puertorriqueño” (Society of Puerto Rican Authors), 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.
Among the members of the O’Neill family whose contributions to Puerto Rican culture are evident today are Hector O’Neill, politician and Mayor Ana María O’Neill an educator, author and advocate of women’s rights. 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); Deborah Carthy Deu — Miss Universe 1985 and Laurie Tamara Simpson — Miss Puerto Rico (1987).
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. 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. 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.
Common Irish surnames in Puerto Rico
The following are common surnames in Puerto Rico of the first Irish settlers:
Surnames of the first Irish families in Puerto Rico