“Cuba and Ireland, two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope,” so reads a plaque at the corner of the streets O’Reilly and Tacon in Old Havana, Cuba.

Havana, the most fascinating city in the Caribbean, has long drawn artists, architecture aficionados and history buffs.  Cuba and Ireland are forever connected with a shared past, and a walk-through Old Havana, where brightly painted classic cars rumble through the streets, rewards the curious with many interesting sights.  O’Reilly Street was named after Dublin-born Alejandro O’ Reilly, one of the Wild Geese – the name given to Irish soldiers who served in foreign Catholic armies after the defeat of the Irish Jacobite soldiers in 1691. Irish Catholics sought refuge in Spain after the Williamite War in the 17th century and were awarded citizenship by the sympathetic Spaniards. The Cathedral of Havana was built in the 18th century by the Jesuits, one of whom was named Thomas Ignatius Butler of Ireland. Today, this gorgeous Baroque building is the dominant structure on the Plaza de la Catedral, the square that is often filled with costumed entertainers and fortune-tellers.

Many Irish names are represented in Cuba’s Spanish military as Spain hired Irish soldiers for their skill and determination. For a long time, Spain had no fewer than four regiments of Irish soldiers. In 1598, Diego Brochero de Anaya wrote to the Spanish King Philip III to recommend Irish soldiers. “That every year Your Highness should order to recruit in Ireland some Irish soldiers, who are people tough and strong, and nor the cold weather or bad food could kill them easily as they would with the Spanish, as in their island, which is much colder than this one, they are almost naked, they sleep on the floor and eat oats bread, meat and water, without drinking any wine.”

Spain had to defend Cuba, not only against invasion by other European countries seeking to colonize the Caribbean, but also against the troublesome pirates that plundered ships of the Spanish crown. Of those intriguing stories, the legends around the female pirate Anne Bonney are among the most captivating. It’s thought that Anne was born at the turn of the 18th century in Ireland. She later moved to the New World with her family and abandoned the life of a proper lady to become a pirate. She lived in Cuba long enough to give birth to the child of her lover, the pirate “Calico Jack” Rackham.  It’s said that Anne left her child in Cuba and resumed her life as a buccaneer with Rackham until he was captured and hanged in 1720.

Alejandro O’Reilly proved to be a competent leader in the Spanish army and was made Inspector General in Havana when Spain regained control of Cuba following the successful British siege of 1762. The siege was a humiliating defeat for the Spanish and, to regain control of Cuba, Spain was forced to surrender the colony of Florida to Britain. General O’Reilly organized Cuba’s military forces, in particular the Black and Mulatto Militias. He redesigned Havana’s defenses and began the construction of the Cabana Fortress to protect the port of Havana. Never again would Britain rule Cuba. A canon firing ceremony is re-enacted every evening at the fortress by soldiers dressed in period costume. Locals set their watches to the thundering boom of the cannon at exactly 9pm every evening; the time when the city gates used to close in colonial Havana.

In 1784, Spain reclaimed Florida after a force of 600 men from the regiments Rey, Dragones and Hibernia left Havana to re-take possession. The Hibernia regiment consisted of Irishmen.

At the entrance to Havana’s harbour there is a lighthouse, once called O’Donnell’s lighthouse after Captain General Leopoldo O’Donnell who gained high rank in the Spanish army.  The lighthouse is part of the Morro Castle Fortress and there visitors can read on a plaque the poem Mi Bandera (My Flag), written by celebrated Cuban poet Bonifacio Byrne, whose Irish ancestor was a tailor from Offaly County in Ireland. His poem states that only the flag of Cuba should be displayed here and that it should never fly alongside the flag of a foreign power as Cuba is a proud, free and independent nation.

Havana boasts many historical town squares called plazas. The Plaza de Armas featured prominently in the city’s military history and, facing this square, is the Captain General’s Palace where Leopoldo O’Donnell once lived. In front of this beautiful, restored building, which is now a museum, is a wooden street, built to dampen the sound of the passing horses and carriages.  To the south of Plaza de Armas lies the Plaza Vieja. The former home of Pedro O’Reilly, Alejandro O’Reilly’s son, faces this square. Now restored, it houses Havana’s popular microbrewery, Taberna de Muralla, where chilled beer is served in tall vessels that contain an inner cylinder of ice that ingeniously keeps the beer cold in Havana’s heat. The Cuban Government’s official tourist company Habaguanex operates this tavern as well as many historical hotels and restaurants in Old Havana.

Habaguanex is a division of the Havana Historian’s Office. Dr.Eusebio Leal is the City Historian and under his direction the preservation and restoration of Old Havana have high importance. These enormous efforts have been acknowledged internationally and Havana is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The second floor of the Taverna de Muralla is used as a luthier workshop and fine musical instruments are made and repaired here by skilled craftsmen.  The Pedro O’Reilly abode is impressive, but even more so is the former home of the Havana O’Farrills, originally from County Longford in Ireland. Standing on Cuba St., the Hotel Palicio O’Farrill is now a boutique hotel but was once the palace of the O’Farrills. The family moved to Havana in the early 18th century and became vastly wealthy as sugar and slave traders. The incredible opulence of this former family home has been preserved with a careful restoration overseen by The City Historian’s Department of Architecture. Here, I heard a lecture on Cuba’s Irish links by Sr. Rafael Fernández Moya, a Cuban researcher, whose impressively detailed work can be found in his 2007 paper, The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba, and which is the basis for much of this article. Every St. Patrick’s Day, the culture of the Irish immigrants to Cuba is celebrated with Irish music and dance at the O’Farrill hotel.

The American-Irish in Cuba and Eamon De Valera’s mysterious paternal Cuban links

Of course, not all the Irish who found their way to Cuba were rich like the O’Farrills, and some found themselves on the island in impoverished circumstances. The Capitolio is Havana’s former seat of government, and it looks remarkably similar to the Washington D.C. Capital building. Behind the Capitolio is a curious collection of rusting locomotives, too heavy to easily move. They remain there as a testament to the original use of the Capitolio site as the Villanueva Railway Station, built in 1839. Irish labourers were contracted from New York to help build Cuba’s first railroads, alongside other poorly paid bonded workers. The brutal working conditions and insufficient food sparked a strike led by the Irish and Canary Islander workers which was violently suppressed. Upon completion of their employment, those who survived – and many died from hunger and exhaustion — found themselves abandoned without the resources to leave Cuba.

The slums of New York City where the Irish railway workers had been recruited were ministered to by a humble Cuban-born priest named Felix Varela, regarded in America as “The Vicar to the Irish”.  He escaped persecution in Spain by fleeing to America after he published his views advocating the independence of Cuba. A brilliant polymath gifted in science, music and languages, Varela learned the Irish language so he could better minister to the poor Irish immigrants of his New York City parish. A bust of Varela stands at the entrance to the San Carlos Seminary near Havana’s Cathedral, and he is being considered for canonization in the Catholic Church.

The Cubans who fought the War of Independence against Spain at the end of the 19th century found sympathetic supporters in New York. Cuban independence hero Jose Marti lived in New York when he was in exile and there he garnered much support for his cause of Cuban independence. Marti returned in 1895 and fought and died in the War of Independence.  Marti is memorialized in monuments throughout Cuba as a martyr and a national hero. Like Marti, other Cuban exiles in America dedicated themselves to Cuban independence.  An organization in New York called Junta Cubana recruited volunteers to fight the Spanish forces. One Junta Cubana recruit was Irish Canadian William O’Ryan, who died in the conflict, and is honoured by Cuba for his bravery.

Another fascinating story concerns an Irish American scofflaw who aided the revolutionary forces during the struggle for independence. Sea Captain Johnny “Dynamite” O’ Brien, a New Yorker of Irish descent, got his nickname after he delivered the dangerous cargo of 60 tons of dynamite to rebels in Cuba. He evaded capture by the Spanish forces and died an old man in America after a life of adventure.

Possibly the most intriguing link to the Irish immigrants of New York and Cuba is the story of Irish revolutionary leader and third president of Ireland, Eamon De Valera. De Valera was born in New York in October, 1882, and it is speculated that his father, Juan De Valera, emigrated from Matanzas, Cuba, a town east of Havana. At the time of Eamon’s birth, Cuba was still a Spanish colony and Cubans were considered Spanish citizens, so biographical information stating that Eamon De Valera’s father was Spanish does not necessarily contradict this theory. Modern DNA science could provide some answers if Cuban relatives of De Valera are found. Until more evidence is uncovered De Valera’s paternal heritage remains a historical mystery.

The prohibition laws of 1919 shut down Irish-American Pat Cody’s New York bar, causing Cody to move his saloon, Jigg’s Uptown Bar, to Havana. America’s Law of Prohibition was a boon for other entrepreneurs of the liquor, beer and wine trade in Cuba. Irishman Ed Donovan moved the furnishings and contents of his entire bar from Newark, New Jersey to the Hotel Telegrafo, the blue and white hotel at the corner of Paseo de Prado and Neptuno.

Tourism flourished in Cuba from the 1920s until the Cuban Revolution in 1959 as visitors patronized gambling and drinking establishments that catered to American demand.  After the Cuban Revolution, the casinos operated under the new government, but it was an uneasy coexistence. Casino bosses found they could not intimidate or bribe the new leaders. The new rebel government had more important priorities than the gambling industry and they launched a national literacy campaign as over 40 per cent of rural Cubans could not read or write. Instead of military brigades the new government organized literacy brigades of educated volunteers of all ages.

Many teen and pre-teen volunteers, too young to fight in the rebellion that overthrew the dictator Batista, instead threw themselves into the literacy work, and by the end of 1961 Cuba had achieved an astounding 96 per cent literacy rate. On September 29th that year, the Miami News recorded that the last of Havana’s gambling casinos had closed after Castro announced his plan to clean up the city.

“He warned dealers in the vice they face stiff penalties and told them to “go to Miami if they want. We will even pay their plane tickets,” the paper reported.

The revolution thwarted plans by the mafia to build new casinos in Havana.  Many historical buildings had been destined for demolition to make way for the glitzy high-rises before the mob was forced to abandon the city.  The Cuban capital would have been drastically altered had history been different.

Perhaps the most famous Irish-American to sample Havana’s wild nightlife before the revolution was John F. Kennedy, who visited as a senator in 1957.

Later, as President during the Cold War, Kennedy imposed an embargo on Cuban goods and banned American travel as he viewed Cuba as a satellite of the Soviet state, but not before he’d acquired a large quantity of Cuban cigars for his own use. At the old Partagas cigar factory there is a shop that sells many varieties of cigars, including Kennedy’s favourite Petite Upmanns.  Tourists from across the world savour premium cigars in the leather chairs of the shop’s elegant cigar lounge, but few are from the United States.  Decades after the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union the embargo remains in place, and travel to Cuba is still severely restricted for American citizens.

Cuba’s Celtic warriors, Fidel Castro, Julio Antonio Mella and Che Guevera

Just four months after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the movie, Our Man in Havana, was filmed in the city using the Sevilla Hotel as a setting. The hotel was once owned by Canadian John McEntee Bowman and operated by Irish-American Charles Francis Flynn. It still stands today and has a fascinating history, featuring gangsters, glamorous socialites, famous actors and actresses, many of whom can be seen in the photos that adorn the walls of the hotel’s upper-floor bar. While in Cuba, Irish actress Maureen O’Hara met Che Guevara.

Born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, son of Ernesto Rafael Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna, the iconic revolutionary hero’s grandmother was Ana Isabel Lynch from Galway, Ireland.  Che’s father famously stated, “The first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels.” Che talked to O’Hara, impressing her with his knowledge of Ireland’s struggle for independence. In her memoirs, Tis’ Herself, O’Hara remarked, “That famous cap he wore was an Irish rebel’s cap. I spent a great deal of time with Che Guevara while I was in Havana. Today he is a symbol for freedom fighters wherever they are in the world and I think he is a good one.”

The leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and his brother, Cuban President Raul Castro, are sons of Galician immigrant, Angel Castro.  The principalities of Galicia and neighbouring Asturias, now part of Northern Spain, are considered Celtic nations.  The impressive Great Theatre of Havana that faces the city’s Central Park was once the Galician Centre. Opposite the Great Theatre, facing the other side of the park is the equally impressive Fine Art Museum, which was originally the Asturian Centre. The size and elegance of these buildings, constructed during the first quarter of the 20th century at the height of Spanish immigration, show that Galicia and Asturias were the dominant immigrant groups at the time.  In Havana, the traditional music of Asturias and Galicia is celebrated by several pipe bands and dance groups that preserve the ancient customs of their Spanish Celtic ancestors.

Recent research confirms the genetic link between these people of Northern Spain and their Celtic cousins, the Irish. Fidel Castro showed his affinity with the Irish Republican prisoners opposed to British rule when he erected a memorial to the Irish hunger strikers of 1981. The plaque, in a park at Calle 21 and Calle I in Vedado Havana, reads, “They sacrificed their lives for the freedom of Ireland,” written in Spanish and Irish.

As well as monuments to 19th century Independence hero Jose Marti, the three other Cuban heroes most honoured with memorials in Cuba are the 20th century freedom fighters Julio Antonio Mella, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. The profile images of these three men, who all died young, can be seen in the ubiquitous logo on walls, billboards and other signage throughout Cuba, alongside the words, Estudio, Trabajo, Fusil, meaning, Study, Work, Rifle.  Two of these three Cuban heroes were part Irish.

Fidel Castro became a revolutionary during his time as a student political organizer at Havana’s university. Castro admired and emulated the 1920’s university student leader Julio Antonio Mella, who fled in exile to Mexico after he became a threat to Cuban president Gerardo Machado’s bloody dictatorship. Mella’s mother, Cecilia McPartland, was born in Ireland, thus one of the greatest heroes of Cuban history who inspired the Cuban revolutionaries of the 1950s was of Irish ancestry. His remains are entombed in a monument in front of Havana’s University.

From Mexico, Mella planned to launch a rebel attack against Machado, but the 25-year-old was assassinated before he could enact his plan. A generation later, the students of Havana University vigorously opposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, a military strongman who, like the previous dictator Machado, was supported by the U.S. Government. Castro, with a law degree from Havana University, launched several lawsuits against the Batista administration. When legal attempts to oppose the corrupt regime failed, Castro organized a group of fighters and launched an attack on the heavily armed Moncada Barracks. The bloody attack failed with many casualties, and Castro and the other rebel survivors were imprisoned. Once released, in historic parallel to the life of Mella, Castro fled in exile to Mexico. From Mexico, along with 81 other revolutionaries, he launched an attack on Batista in a boat called the Granma.

A bust of Mella can be seen inside La Manzana de Gomez (the Gomez block) facing Havana’s Central Park. Built in 1910, the building was once full of bustling shoppers, all seeking the fine imported goods demanded by Havana’s upper-classes. The five-story building’s interior boasts two diagonal open air pedestrian walkways with the bust of Mella at the intersection. Foreign businesses and shops were closed after the revolution and replaced by state-owned enterprises.  Now the stores are eerily half-empty, and pigeons roost on the upper floors that show decades of decline. A walk through the interior of the block reveals that it looks like a set in a post-apocalypse movie.

Vegetation sprouts from cracks in the concrete and pounding tropical storms have left their mark with broken windows and crumbling masonry.  But it would be a mistake to assume that the once grand building has been forgotten. Plans are underway to restore the structure and convert the empty upper floors into modern hotel accommodations.  The Saratoga Hotel and Parque Central Hotel are evidence of the accomplishments achieved through the vision of the Historiador’s office.

Habaguanex and the Historiador’s office face the challenge of satisfying the ever-increasing demand for visitor accommodation, while retaining the charm and character of Old Havana through restoration rather than demolition. When the United States finally drops its travel ban there will be a flood of American visitors to Cuba, the proud and independent island nation located less than 100 miles from Key West, Florida.  Havana’s history and culture are the greatest commodities the city of Havana has to offer the world.  And part of that history is the story of the Irish diaspora to the New World; echoes of the past that still reverberate in the cobblestone streets and old buildings of historic Havana.

~ Story by Maria Watson