Ireland & Cuba: Entangled Histories

Conversation with Margaret Brehony on her research on the Irish presence on the island.

By Hugo Luis Sánchez (IPS)

Cover of the book Ireland and Cuba Entangled Histories

HAVANA TIMES – If someone were to say the land of the Irish is also the sea, they wouldn’t be wrong at all. If they added that, like many island people, they travel with their island in tow and cannot and do not want to part with it, equally our subject would have hit the mark.

In Cuba, in addition to that portion of land surrounded by the sea making the Irish feel at home, we also shared having a powerful enemy as a neighbor. Here the United States, there the United Kingdom and such prepares you.

In any case, they also found a promising horizon according to records of their presence on this Caribbean island. Walking through Old Havana it’s easy to run into O’Farrill Street, named after the first recorded Irishman to come in 1722. Likewise, if we leaf through the Havana phone book we might come across O’Bourke, an O’Callaghan, O’Halloran…

PhDs Margaret Brehony and Nuala Finnegan, both from the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the National University of Ireland in Cork, refer to this distinctive seal in their collection of essays Ireland and Cuba: Entangled Histories. They are written with little or no angles, nothing doctored, and therein lies the book’s greatest uniqueness.

The book talks about anti-slavery movements, ethnic whitening processes, women in the Irish diaspora, the slave trade… The following is our conversation with Margaret Brehony about a slice of history that interweaves both islands.

Margaret Brehony is a member of the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the National University in Cork Ireland. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee

Hugo Luis Sanchez: Ireland and Cuba Intertwined Histories, 2019, comprises a total of seven essays. These include “José Martí: The Forgotten Portrait of Oscar Wilde” and another on James O’Kelly, author of the classic “La tierra del mambí”, this time in his role as a war correspondent in Cuba. What are the details of the work?

Margaret Brehony: The publication of this book was the brainchild of Director of the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Onedys Calvo Noya and the Irish Ambassador, Barbara Jones, to mark the celebration of twenty years’ diplomatic relations between Ireland and Cuba. I was thrilled to be able to collaborate with Dr. Nuala Finnegan of University College Cork in compiling this collection of bilingual essays, published by the prestigious publishers Boloña. It is the first book dedicated to historical relations between Ireland and Cuba. This interdisciplinary collaboration brings different perspectives from Cuban and Irish writers to a little-known subject.

What’s new about it?

The investigation of what is an entangled history, or a history of migration from Ireland to Cuba is new in the historiography of Cuba and Ireland. However, the contributors here have studied important Irish personalities and different Irish migrations and settlements in Cuba particularly in the colonial period.

This demonstrates some important parallels between the two islands – colonial pasts, Independence struggles and our postcolonial experiences. We also share migration processes which present us with an opportunity to better understand how the past still influences us today.

Now, Brehony travels back to Havana captivated, as she defines it, in continuing the investigation. What does this second season focus on? And, assuming you are Irish and, in the most intimate order, outside of all statistics and conscientious analysis, what did the Irish see in Cuba? What did Margaret Brehony see and why these particularities, why Cuba in this volume?

In this second stage of my research, funded by the European Union and the Irish Research Council, I aim to extend the investigation of Irish settlement beyond Havana to other parts of the island such as Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

What are the peculiarities of this project, it sounds very interesting

The project studies processes of gender, race, and culture in the Caribbean from the perspective of Irish migration to Cuba in the nineteenth century.

The approach is multidisciplinary crossing history with sociology, heritage studies, and digital humanities. Based on archival sources in Cuba and Ireland, this is a new study of migration and white colonization strategies in a time of slavery in Cuba.

The researchers collecting previously unseen and endangered manuscript documents about Irish cultural heritage in Cuba. They will be assembled together for the first time in an open access digital archive called “Cuba-Ireland Digital”. 

Tell us what Cuba-Ireland Digital will entail?

This web archive will also be an educational platform accessible to a wide audience of historians, students, researchers and teachers, creatives such as film/documentary makers and writers, museums, heritage centers, libraries, diplomats and cultural programs.

O’Reilly Street. Plaque in Spanish, English and Irish linking Cuba’s struggle with Ireland’s

And what does it all mean to you?

For me, as an Irish researcher, I am immensely grateful for this opportunity to have the support of the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, and the City Historian’s Office in Havana.  We are indebted to the National and Provincial archives in Cuba with access to their collections which hold rich documentary sources and information about the connections between our two countries. 

Read more interviews in Havana Times here.

2 thoughts on “Ireland & Cuba: Entangled Histories

  • Are there enough pubs in Old Havana to support an “Irish Walking Tour”?

  • For quick insight into Irish and Irish American links to Cuba, go here

    A longer summary is here

    Irish Walking Tour of Old Havana

    Irish Presence in the History of Cuba by Rafael Fernández Moya

    Support for Cuban independence by Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien, an Irish American smuggler of weapons and troops by film maker Charles O’Brien

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