Sunday, November 25, 2018

Review: Paisanos by Tim Fanning

A review of "Paisanos: the Irish and the Liberation of Latin America" by Tim Fanning could literally be a book in itself. The subject matter to hand it is so vast that to encompass it all in detail would invite a series of books not just one tome. Fanning attempts to give readers a broader focus, highlighting the important events and leaders, whilst covering the Spanish colonies in central and southern America during the early 19th Century, and the significant role the Irish played in the independence movement.  And he has managed to convincingly do so.

We begin the the Irish exiles of the 16th and 17th Centuries - the Wild Geese - who settled in Spain and France (not to be confused with the Flight of the Earls in 1607 - which I guess could be the precursor to the flight of the geese). The battle of Kinsale, 1601, fought during the Nine Years War of 1594-1603, marked a turning point in Irish history. The political power of the Gaelic nobility was broken, royal (English) authority in the kingdom was enhanced, though Ireland still remained strategically important for other European powers, especially Spain and, later, France. Thus, when political, social and religious changes at home caused many Irish to migrate, temporarily or permanently, they headed for Habsburg and Bourbon territories. 

At first, the role was one of support for Spanish rule in its fledgeling colonies. Irish migration to the Spanish empire, from 17th-century Hapsburg Spain to 18th-century Bourbon Spain, from Europe to the new World, from Madrid, Brussels or Cadiz to Havana, Lima and Chile was complex. Even though Ireland did not form part of this empire, the contribution of Irishmen and Irishwomen to this multinational empire was remarkable. 

Through army careers and the concession of nobility titles, Spanish kings placed the Irish exiled lords and gentry in an advantageous position on a par with the nobility in the early modern Spanish world. Imposition of orthodox Catholicism within the Spanish realms implied the social inclusion of certain ‘nations’ such as the Irish and the exclusion/repression of other groups who were not assimilatable into that society – Jews, Moriscos and Gypsies. Not all Irish migrants were soldiers, nor were they all men; not all obtained honours and integration and; even for the Irish nobility, assimilation could be difficult. 

Having said that, the Irish did play a key role in the military, religious, mercantile and commercial, and literary life, especially in the 18th Century where "... it was possible for an Irishman from a humble background to succeed in the New World against the odds...". The adaptability of the Irish, driven both by financial need and a healthy spirit of adventure, supported Spanish colonial activities as well as later providing a foil against them.

And it was in the second phase that the relationship between Ireland and Latin America, drawing upon a shared history of struggle against colonialism, developed into support for the independence movements. And there were times when Irishmen (and women) fought on both sides, against each other. 

Never has lasting political change occurred so rapidly over such a large area as in Latin America in the sixteen years from 1809. Moreover this sudden transformation was entirely unforeseen. These regions lived without major upheaval for three centuries under authoritarian Spanish rule, until the recent ideals of the American and French revolutions have led some to dream of change. In other parts of South America, the Irish were playing key roles in the independence of the likes of the viceroyalties New Spain (the West Indies and the mainland down to Panama and Gutalmala); New Granada (Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador); New Peru (Peru, most of Chile and western Bolivia); and lastly, La Plata (eastern Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and the southern tip of Chile). Even then, their role did not necessarily stop there as these new nations often imploded with civil wars of their own.

And it is here that we are introduced to the famous San Patricios, Irishmen who fought against America during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. In the wake of the famine in Ireland, thousands emigrated to America, and an Irish Brigade was raised to support the US encroachment into Mexico. One can only speculate on why the troops deserted prior to the war beginning; however they went on to play an important role, making their last stand at the battle for Mexico City in 1581 where today they are still remembered as heroes.

The final part of the story is the integration and settlement of those Irish - a wrap up of  how and where they ended up, and the fate of their descendants - did they remain or return to Ireland's green pastures to embark on a new wave of revolution in the 20th century.

I found this to be a compelling history if the Irish diaspora in Latin America. And there is plenty contained within to encourage a more indepth study of this period. I was not wholly conversant with this particular part of Irish history - and often wondered what happened to those other "Wild Geese" - though I was familiar with the fate of the Irish who migrated to both the USA and Australia and their contributions. My mind boggled at the vast resources available online for the enthusiast to delve further (so much further) into this topic. This is a worthy addition to any library whose focus is Irish history - I know it will find a place in mine.

Further reading:

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