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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 22 April 2021

Soldiers, sailors, diplomats: The forgotten Irish who changed Latin America

In this extract from his book Paisanos, Tim Fanning tells the story of army officer Alexander O’Reilly.

IT’S NOT TALKED about often – the fact that Irish men and women played a role in the emergence of the independent republics of Latin America. Tim Fanning has uncovered their tales from the 18th and 19th century in his book Paisanos, which was released this year. Among the stories he tells are those of Camila O’Gorman and Eliza Lynch, along with Ambrose O’Higgins, who became the Viceroy of Peru. In this extract from the book, he writes about Alexander O’Reilly, an army officer from Co Meath, who helped transform Spain’s army.

In the light of the threat from militarily superior hostile powers, and the humiliating losses that resulted from defeat in the Seven Years’ War, the Spanish crown’s priority in the second half of the eighteenth century was the modernisation of its armed forces and defensive fortifications.

Though many Irish engineers and soldiers took part in this project, it was an army officer from County Meath, Alexander O’Reilly, who made the greatest contribution to transforming Spain’s army into a modern, well-disciplined fighting force. Richard Wall may have been at the centre of the Irish community’s political network, but it was his compatriot O’Reilly who was respected as one of the shrewdest military brains in Spain.

From solid soldiering stock – his grandfather, John O’Reilly, was a colonel in the army of James II and had fought at the Siege of Derry in 16891 – Alexander O’Reilly was born in the townland of Moylagh, near Oldcastle, County Meath, in 1723.

His father, Thomas O’Reilly, sent him to Spain to join the army, along with his brothers, Dominic and Nicholas. Thomas’s eldest son, James, inherited the family farm. Alexander was only a child when he was commissioned in the Hibernia Regiment in the 1730s as a cadet – his two brothers also joined the regiment – and 19 when, on 8 February 1743, he and 13,000 Spanish and Neapolitan troops faced the 11,000-strong Austrian and Sardinian army at the village of Camposanto in the north of Italy during the War of the Austrian Succession.

When night fell, both sides were forced to withdraw from the field. However, amid the smoke from the guns and the encroaching darkness, many units lost their way and headed towards enemy lines. Unable to move because of a badly wounded foot, O’Reilly spent an agonising night on the field of battle and was bleeding profusely. As dawn broke, an Austrian soldier came across the wounded Irishman and prepared to kill him. Unable to move, O’Reilly made a decision that saved his life.

Pretending that he was the son of a Spanish grandee, the Duke of Arcos, he pleaded for his life with the soldier, claiming that his father would pay a substantial ransom for him. Instead of being consigned to history at the end of an Austrian bayonet, he was taken prisoner and brought before an Irish officer serving in the Austrian army. In a display of sympathy towards a fellow-Irishman, and perhaps impressed – if not convinced – by O’Reilly’s ingenuity in saving his skin, the officer released him.

The story of escape

O’Reilly was lucky to be alive; the Hibernia had lost 297 men during the battle. On his return to Spain he was the toast of Madrid; the Duke of Arcos found the story of his escape particularly amusing. The well-polished anecdote, and the limp that was to remain with O’Reilly for the rest of his life, helped create an aura of mystique around the young Irish officer.

In 1753, having attained the senior rank of sargento mayor, O’Reilly was seconded to the Austrian army as a military observer. Europe was at war once again, and O’Reilly was given the mission of examining the capabilities of one of the best fighting forces on the Continent, the Prussian army. What he saw on the battlefields of Germany left a lasting impression, most of all the discipline with which the Prussians both attacked the enemy and withdrew from engagements.

He was especially taken by the figure of Frederick II. In a report written from Prague in December 1758 he wrote of the Prussians:

Their Brandenburgers and Pomeranians are the best soldiers in Germany. These men are tall, solid, hardened by work, properly trained as soldiers from the cradle, with a discipline in every sphere that is superior to that of every other army; the skill, fearlessness and perseverance of their monarch, and the impression he makes on their morale, are advantages that are difficult to overcome.

Keen military mind

O’Reilly’s reports demonstrated his keen military mind, and in 1761 the king gave him the opportunity to put his recommendations into practice by creating a special post for him: assistant-general of the infantry.

O’Reilly overhauled antiquated military practices, from manoeuvres on the battlefield to the system of pay, and relentlessly imposed the type of discipline he had seen practised in the Prussian army.

O’Reilly’s stature in the Spanish army was growing, prompting veneration and jealousy in equal measure. Luis de las Casas was a 17-year-old junior officer from the Basque Country when he served under O’Reilly in Portugal.

He wrote of O’Reilly that he was ‘able to inspire in me love for the King, zeal for his royal service, an inclination for a military career, much respect for the fulfilment of my duties, integrity and some knowledge of commanding and disciplining units’.

Resenting the foreigner

But there were also those within the court who were increasingly resentful of the king’s closeness to a foreigner. In the 1760s, O’Reilly was part of a military commission sent to the Caribbean to strengthen Spain’s defensive capabilities.

The British had captured Cuba from Spain during the Seven Years’ War, but the island had been returned during the peace negotiations that ended the hostilities.

O’Reilly rebuilt Cuba’s defensive fortifications and made extensive recommendations about improving the local economy, including a suggestion that Irish settlers be introduced. He argued that Cuba needed a permanent garrison comprising Spanish officers and troops, regularly relieved and supplied from Europe and reinforced at times of war.

Until this point the island had been defended by a handful of veteran soldiers, who often deserted. The commission also recommended the establishment of well-trained militias to supplement the professional soldiers.

The plan was approved, becoming the basis on which Charles III reorganised the army and militias throughout Spanish America. O’Reilly’s efforts in Cuba and Puerto Rico, of which he was appointed governor in 1765, resulted in royal decrees on the organisation of Spain’s armed forces in Panama (1772), Peru (1793) and New Granada (1794). O’Reilly was given the responsibility for implementing these reforms throughout the Caribbean.

In 1765 the king awarded him membership of the prestigious Order of Alcántara, and in 1766 he was named inspector-general of infantry, a post he would hold for 20 years.

Ruthless in Louisiana

O’Reilly had proved himself a brave soldier in northern Italy, had shown his understanding of military theory in Germany and had demonstrated his ample organisational capacity in Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean, but it was in Louisiana that he earned his reputation for ruthlessness.

France had ceded Louisiana to Spain at the end of the Seven Years’ War, but its mostly French settlers were not keen on their new masters and in 1768 ejected the first Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa. It was with the mission of reasserting control on behalf of the Spanish crown that, in 1769, O’Reilly, now in his forties and a lieutenant-colonel, sailed from Spain with about 3,000 infantry and cavalry and 50 cannons in a fleet of more than 25 ships.

O’Reilly’s flagship, the Volante, arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi in July. Weighing anchor near the fort of La Balize to await the fleet’s stragglers, O’Reilly despatched one of his officers to deliver a message to the French governor of New Orleans, informing him that he had come to take possession of the city and province of Louisiana on behalf of the king of Spain, and that any opposition would be punished. The arrival of the Spanish fleet threw New Orleans into turmoil, and three of the city’s prominent citizens returned with the Spanish officer to plead for clemency. Determined to set an example, O’Reilly ignored their protestations.

The Spanish force sailed upriver to New Orleans, disembarking in the city with great ceremony. The French flag was lowered and the Spanish flag raised. After a solemn mass at which a Te Deum was sung, O’Reilly watched his soldiers parading through the city in a deliberate show of strength. The following day he summoned nine of the principal citizens of New Orleans to a banquet and after the meal had them thrown into jail. He also ordered the arrest of another three men. Five of them were sentenced to death by hanging, and scaffolds were erected in the city. However, a hangman could not be found, so they were shot by firing squad. Another five men were sentenced to life in prison in Havana, while the remaining two were acquitted.

The French settlers began calling the new Spanish governor ‘Bloody O’Reilly’ – a nickname that endures in New Orleans to this day. A French historian of Louisiana, François de Barbé-Marbois, described O’Reilly as a barbarian, who ‘indulged in acts of violence and ferocity, which he mistook for prudence and firmness,’ and claimed that there were those in the Spanish court who were secretly outraged by the killings but had not thought it wise to disagree publicly with their governor for fear of looking weak.

Yet O’Reilly had achieved his aim of restoring order to Louisiana; and if there were those in the Spanish court who disapproved of his actions, the king did not. In 1770 Charles appointed him inspector-general of the colonial army and militias, and in 1771 he was created Count and Viscount of Cavan.

The young Irish soldier who had spent the night shivering on the battlefield of Camposanto and wondering if his last hour had arrived was now Count O’Reilly. It was the pinnacle of his career.

Paisanos is published by Gill Books and out now, priced at €24.99


About the author:

Tim Fanning

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