Monday, March 17, 2008

Cubans Too Have a Bit of the Blarney

According to Irish folklore, the first Irishman was a Spaniard named Milo who sailed in a barrel from Iberia to [H]iber[n]ia. Recent DNA genome testing has revealed the legend to be true. As Bryan Sykes writes in his book Blood of the Isles (2006), "the genetic evidence shows that a large proportion of Irish Celts, on both the male and female side, did arrive from Iberia at or the same time as farming reached the Isles." Moreover, linguists also now believe that the Gaelic language (Goidelic) is derived from Euskadi (the Basque language).

The largest Irish migration prior to the Great Potato Famine of 1848 was to Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Irish, who were awarded Spanish citizenship on arriving in Spain as persecuted Catholics, joined the Spanish army's Hibernian regiments and became Spain's best soldiers and most famous generals. Many of these were posted in Cuba and married into the island's aristocracy, establishing our own great Irish-Cuban families (the O'Farrills, the O'Reillys, the Kindelans, the Madans, the Duanys, the O'Gabans, the Coppingers and the O'Naughtens).

Four Captains General of Cuba were of Irish origin (Nicolás Mahy; Sebastián Kindelán; Leopoldo O'Donnell and Luís Prendergast). On the other end of the social scale, some 378 Irish laborers contracted in New York built Cuba's first railroad in 1835. They also hold the distinction of staging the island's first strike. Most remained in Cuba because Spain refused to repatriate them.

In Cuba's Wars of Independence, the most famous of the many Irishmen who fought for our freedom was Canadian-born General William A.C. Ryan, who after a short but brilliant career as inspector and chief of calvary in Camagüey was captured aboard the American vessel Virginius and executed by the Spanish at age 30; and Captain "Dynamite Johnny" O'Brien, owner of the steamer Bermuda, one of the most daring and successful gunrunners to Cuba who also safely transported General Calixto García there.

Also of Irish extraction was the poet Bonifacio Byrne, whose "Ode to the Cuban Flag" is the most famous Cuban patriotic poem.

Eamon de Valera, Father of the Republic of Eire, was the Brooklyn-born son of a 19th century Cuban émigré and an Irishwoman.

The Irish returned the favor with Ernesto Guevara y Lynch (how appropriate!) but we shall forgive them that this day.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!


Ms Calabaza said...


“Here's to a long life, and a merry one; a quick death, and an easy one; a pretty girl, and an honest one; a cold beer - and another one!”

Have a great St. Patrick's Day!

Agustin Farinas said...

wasn't a guy named O'Donnell the architect or builder of the Morro Castle in Havana? I remember something from Cuba's History to that effect. Is this true?
Happy St. Patrick's Day to all of our friends on the RCAB!

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


You are right. The lighthouse on Morro Castle was built by Captain General Leopoldo O'Donnell in 1843.

Charlie Bravo said...

There are many things that hold the Irish and Cubans very close together:
Look at an archetypical Irish and try not to be amazed that he looks like a "gallego colora'o" or look at a "black Irish" and try not think that the looks are those of a fair skinned Cuban with black jet hair.
Then Ireland and Cuba are the only two islands in the world devoid of any poisonous or dangerous beast. The two islands were green, emerald green, until fidel castro burnt the fields of Cuba down to that unfamiliar shade of ashen green, greyish-yellow and lime-brown. The Irish, like modern day Cubans, were not considered either white or refugees in this country.
There's nothing more Irish of Scottish than the bagpipes. There's nothing more Galician than the gaita, therefore a Gallego is called a "gaito". All about and around the norther coast of Spain the bagpipes are part of the sonic landscape.... and one morning in Cuba I was taking a sunny nap in the malecon, when I was woken up by the sound of the bagpipes. It was a guy I knew since childhood. Black. His Gallego grandfather played the gaita in every function of el Centro Gallego, and his "negrito" was an accomplished learner.... One can hear a gaita in the song "en todas partes" (everywhere) of the album with the soundtrack of Habana Blues (available at
Then you have the African component. Yes, there are some African genes in Ireland. The Roman legionaries that stayed behind in Ireland were African. We know the story of the African that became Cuban. Both the Irish and the Cubans are fiercely independent and in both islands foreigners never feel foreigner. To put the last touch in the cake, nobody knows if Atlantis was in Cuba or in Ireland. Well, nobody knows for sure where it was....

Anonymous said...

more about the irish and cuba

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


The real black Irish are to be found in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Like the gallegos to whom you compare them, the Irish had a penchant for black women and have left a numerous progeny on those islands. Like the gallegos, also, they did not disown their mixed-race children or sell them into slavery like the English.

Ms Calabaza said...

I find a lot of similarities between Irish and Gallego food. I have a great recipe book Culinaria de Espana which illustrates and explains where the recipes originated from. The ones from northwest Spain could easily be eaten in an Irish Pub...for instance; caldo gallego, lamb stew, shepherd's pie, chorizo (bangers) and not to mention all the seafood from the coast...

Vana said...

Happy St Patrick's Day! to all my friends here and to the Irish, great post Manuel as always I learned something, like how linked we are to the Irish, I had no clue!

Agustin Farinas said...

While we are on this subject, the surname "Moran" is pretty common to both Spain and Ireland. Remember the deceased notorious ganster "Bugsy" Moran? He was a member of the Irish gangs.
I heard many times the name "el Gallego Moran" while I lived in Cuba during my youth. And while I lived in New YorK City, I was friends with an Irish guy from work, by the last name of Moran.
During one St. Patrick's day celebration after he had downed a few, he talked about one of his ancestors who had swimmed ashore after the Spanish Armada floundered off the coast off Ireland. According to his tale, after hereached the shore, he decided to stay, and ended married an Irishwoman and never went back to Spain, hence the origins of his surname. I found the story very credible since I had my own input on the surname from that period of my life in Cuba, and was familiar with the surname Moran of Spanish origin.
If I remember correctly from my ancient history, the early Spaniards were from Celts and Iberians origin. Perhaps there is the link of the bagpipes connection we all know about between Spain and Ireland.

Anonymous said...

And the contemporary Irish have risen from misery to incredible prosperity. May we follow our Irish cousins soon!
Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone.

Mamey Verde for a day

Esteban Colvert said...

Wow MAT! Once again I'm impressed.
I know I've got a lot of Cuban in me (since my parents were born there) but there may be some Irish too? That may explain my penchant for mulatas (but they have be "rica")! I'm printing this and taking it to my parents while I have Mojitos with green O'Douls chasers (I'm not that Irish). To all the good people here have a fun and safe San Patricio's Day.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Mamey Verde:

You are absolutely right. Before 1959, Cuba led Ireland (Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal) in all indices of social-economic development (we won't even mention the Eastern bloc countries). Now, Cuba is decades behind even Albania.

Anonymous said...

Charlie: An aside...I just answered your request from 3/16/08 re. the cruel onslaught against the soccer players who opted not to go back to Castro's zoo. Sadly, the idiots who criticize or make fun of the players are Cuban too.


carlos miller said...

This is a great post with some great comments.

As I've mentioned before, I spent 18 months in Dublin in my late 20s and I will always carry a piece of Ireland in my heart.

I had settled in Ireland after traveling for more than six months throughout Europe, including several months in Spain.

I was drawn to Ireland because of its literary tradition, its appreciation of the arts and most of all, its people.

The connection between Ireland and Spain goes back centuries. The Galicians and Asturians are actually Celtic in origin, which is why they have "el gaita", their own version of Celtic bagpipes.

I managed to pick up a few Gaelic phrases in Ireland, what they call "Irish" for it is a different language than the Gaelic spoken in Scotland or Wales.

I was always fascinated by the common greeting, "Conas ata tu", which means "How are you".

The similarities to "Como estas tu" are striking.

The Mexicans also have a very strong connection with the Irish, much of it stemming from Los San Patricios brigade in the Mexican-American War. These were Irish immigrants who deserted the U.S.Army to fight with the Mexicans.

They had been persecuted in this country because they were Catholics. And they had been oppressed by the English for so long, that they did not want to partake in the oppression of Mexicans.

And speaking of El Gaita, one of my favorite photographs I've ever taken was of a Cuban Gaitero with El Moro in the background.

You can see this photo by clicking on my name in this comment because Blogger doesn't allow me to post the actual link.

I ended up treating this guy to beers all night. We still communicate via email.

Sully said...

i was just looking for information about the similarities between irish and mexican culture and read your post. there is at least one book written that asserts that irish missionaries traveled to mexico at the end of the 6th century. all i know is, every irish person i know loves tequila, including myself.

Anonymous said...

Captain General Leopoldo O'Donnell, 1st Duke of Tetuan 1st Count of Lucena, 1st Viscount of Aliaga, Grandee of Spain,He was of Irish paternal descent, a descendant of Calvagh O'Donnell, chieftain of Tyrconnell, Ireland

Anonymous said...

Eamon de Valera father wasn't Cuban but Spanish.

Anonymous said...

Eamon de Valera father wasn't Cuban but Spanish.

Armando H. Corbelle said...

Don't forget the scholar and writer, Carlos Eire.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


You can be both Cuban and Spanish. In the 19th century, when Spain ruled Cuba, all Cubans were legally Spaniards. That did not change until independence in 1902 when Cubans were given the choice of either retaining their Spanish citizenship or adopting Cuban citizenship.

As recently as 2008, Spain awarded Spanish citizenship to the grandchildren of Spaniards and their descendents, which literally "grandfathered" nearly 3 million Cubans. Ethnically, of course, more than 90% of Cubans (even those who are not white)are of Spanish ancestry, and at least 50% are exclusively of Spanish ancestry.

Very little is known about Eamon de Valera's father. One fact which is undisputed is that he immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba.

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