CULTURE History of Chile

Longread: the Irish in Chile – O´Higgins and the Independence War

Brian O´Sullivan is an expert on the O´Higgins region, running O´Higgins Tours. In a series of guest blogs, he writes about “the heart of Chile”: Rancagua and the Central Valley. Today in part three, O´Sullivan picks up on another theme: Irish immigrants in Chile – O´Higgins, Mackenna and the Independence.

The Irish community in Chile consists of Irish-born immigrants in Chile and their descendants. The number of Irish immigrants resident in Chile today is very small; 140 according to the 2002 census, but Chileans of Irish ancestry are estimated to number up to 120,000. Historically, the Irish in Chile have played a highly influential role in the country’s development and came second only to the Basques in the military effort during the war of independence.

The Wild Geese

At the time of the first waves of Irish immigration to South America, Ireland was under British occupation, and Irish immigration to Chile in larger numbers generally began with the remnants of “The Wild Geese”.

The Wild Geese is a term used broadly in Irish history to refer to Irishmen from the Gaelic Catholic nobility who left Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to serve in foreign Catholic armies in the wake of the sectarian “penal laws” and general oppression, persecution and discrimination they faced in their homeland on the part of the then Protestant-dominated British government occupying Ireland at the time.

Spain, with its staunchly Catholic monarchy and many colonies in the New World, presented a particularly attractive option, and many went there in search of the protection and opportunities Catholic affinity provided there.

Following training in Spain, many were later sent to Latin America to work in the colonies, and from there they later sent for relatives and friends back home.

Immigrants from the Irish working classes began arriving later, typically on either Spanish vessels or British boats working for the “Informal British Empire” (territories not controlled by Britain but within their sphere of influence through trade, construction and British emigration, examples of which included Valparaiso, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina) or as part of a government-sponsored industrialisation program to recruit Irish tradesmen initiated by fellow Irishmen Ambrosio O’Higgins, Viceroy of Peru and Juan Mackenna, Governor of Osorno. They included masons, carpenters, shoemakers and blacksmiths.

Bernardo O´Higgins and the Carrera brothers

Bernardo O´Higgins

Bernardo O’Higgins was the locally-born illegitimate son of Ambrosio O’Higgins and Isabel Riquelme, a criolla from a prominent family of Basque origin in Chillán. He was a leader in the Chilean war of independence and is considered the “Founding Father of Chile”. He grew up in southern Chile but was later sent to Lima and then London to study.

It was there that he first became attracted to independence movements in Latin America and joined the Masonic Lautaro Lodge. His father died in 1801, acknowledging his paternity on his deathbed and leaving him land near Los Angeles. Shortly afterwards, O’Higgins returned to Chile and began the life of the local landed gentry. He was later elected to the local council.

O’Higgins joined the revolt against the Spanish government and pushed for the formation of a national junta to govern Chile autonomously, and was elected as a representative.

However, the independence movement was deeply divided along political and family lines. His rivals, the Carrera brothers seized power on various occasions in different coups, and rivalry between the two factions grew and O’Higgins was initially only appointed to a minor military position (although he had received relatively little formal training, he had been instructed militarily by Juan Mackenna, mainly on cavalry use).

Battle of El Roble

In 1813, the Spanish sent an expedition under General Antonio Pareja to retake Chile. On hearing of the upcoming invasion, he prepared his militia for battle and defeated the Spanish Royalist forces at Linares, resulting in his promotion to Colonel. O’Higgins was renowned for his bravery on the battlefield and during the Battle of El Roble, he took command after Jose Miguel Carrera retreated, and despite being injured, endeavoured to pursue the fleeing royalists, giving one of his most famed battle cries:

“Lads! Live with honour, or die with glory! He who is brave, follow me!”

For his courage, the junta in Santiago passed the military command to O’Higgins from Carrera, who had fled the battlefield and was subsequently captured by Spanish forces. O’Higgins then appointed Mackenna as Commander General.  A short time later, Carrera escaped, and on return to Santiago, overthrew the junta in another coup out of opposition to O’Higgins’ appointment and sent Mackenna into exile.

O’Higgins and the Carreras later even fought each other on the battlefield, but temporarily buried the hatchet with the news that Spanish forces under General Mariano Osorio were advancing on the capital from Concepción.

O’Higgins rode south to reinforce Luis and Juan José Carrera to try to repel the invasion near Rancagua, while Jose Miguel Carrera stayed put in Santiago. A detachment led by Juan José was guarding the entrance to the city. On sight of the massive royalist army, they fled into the town to make their stand there. Luis went back to Santiago. O’Higgins chose to reinforce Juan José in the city.

Battle of Rancagua

The rebels were greatly outnumbered and routed, and José Miguel Carrera refused to send desperately needed reinforcements during the battle and left them to their fate. At one point, Luis Carrera was seen returning to the city with his troops, but suddenly retreated at the last moment. O’Higgins managed to escape with a few of his men and fled to Santiago.

After the Battle of Rancagua, the feud between the Carreras and O’Higgins literally reached murderous proportions. O’Higgins discovered that Jose Miguel Carrera had given the order for Luis to retreat. Carrera claimed that an attack would have been easily driven off, as Luís Carrera’s men had been mostly unskilled and poorly armed militia. O’Higgins didn’t accept it and was furious.

The return of O´Higgins

José San Martin

O’Higgins, the Carreras and Manuel Rodríguez and other rebels went into exile in Mendoza, Argentina. There, they were received by José San Martin.

Like O’Higgins, Mackenna, Simón Bolívar and many other independence figures all over Latin America, San Martín was a fellow member of various shadowy brotherhoods and lodges working towards South American independence, and O’Higgins was welcomed.

The Carreras were not so welcome. They were a thorn in the side of the Lodge for their purely Chilean goals of liberation as opposed to the Lodge’s more Pan-American focus, and allegedly, San Martin saw José Miguel was a potential rival. O’Higgins, José Miguel’s rival, enjoyed a protection and influence in the lodge that the Carreras didn’t and the Carreras were forced to flee to Buenos Aires where they plotted against O’Higgins. All three were later arrested on various charges and sentenced to death by officials, all of whom were members of the Lodge.

In 1817, O’Higgins and San Martín returned to Chile in a renewed effort to drive the Spanish out. They were victorious at the Battle of Chacabuco. They were not so fortunate in their next battle at Cancha Rayada, however, but overall victory was finally consolidated at the Battle of Maipú. O’Higgins was then given the title, position and power of Supreme Director of Chile.

The Battle of Maipú

He ruled for six years, during which he founded the military academy and navy. He also proposed liberal and democratic reform and sought to abolish aristocracy which was not well received by the powerful criollo landlords.

He had also offended the Catholic Church and these actions lost him the support of Chile’s businessmen.  An earthquake and financial hardships in the country further complicated his government and a new constitution introduced in 1822 proved unpopular.

The statue of Bernardo O´Higgins in Rancagua

In 1823, he was deposed in a coup led by his former closest ally and comrade at the Battle of Rancagua, Ramón Freire. He later went into exile to Peru where he remained for the rest of his life. He died of cardiac complications in 1842 at the age of 64, ironically as he was making plans to return to Chile.

There is a statue of him today in the central plaza of Rancagua, commemorating his heroic charge through a Spanish blockade during the Battle there. There is also a monument to him in Dublin, Ireland.

Juan Mackenna – the military genius

Mackenna, who had been a close friend to his father, was a confidant of Bernardo O’Higgins, and is accepted to have been the real military genius behind Bernardo O’Higgins campaign successes during the War of Independence.

Juan Mackenna

Following Chile’s 1810 declaration of Independence, he joined the Patriot Army and was tasked by the first Chilean government with preparing the country’s defences and the Chilean army’s equipment. He also created and trained the Chilean Army’s Corps of Military Engineers. The following year he was called to the defence committee of the new Republic of Chile, and in 1811 was appointed governor of Valparaíso.

However, due to the litany of internal coups and purges within the fledgling government, he would spend the next few years alternating between prestigious military positions and pariah status as a political prisoner or exile according to who had temporarily gained the upper hand at the time.

Mackenna was a staunch ally of Bernardo O’Higgins, as he had been to his father before him and was also a fellow member of the Lautaro Lodge. This put him at odds with the Carrera brothers, who were bitter political rivals of O’Higgins and had already crossed swords with the Lodge. As a result of political infighting with José Miguel Carrera and his brothers who had taken power, Juan Mackenna was removed from his position and taken prisoner to be placed under house arrest, confined to the estate of his wife’s family for two years.

Once O’Higgins put an end to José Miguel Carrera’s brief dictatorship and re-established his power base, he appointed Mackenna as Major-Chief-of-State and sent him south to fight the General Antonio Pareja and his pro-Spanish Royalist army. There, he fought and distinguished himself in various battles, the most noteworthy of which was the Battle of Membrillar in 1814, a major victory for the Chileans, which temporarily all but wiped out the royal forces. In recognition of this historic feat, he was promoted to Brigadier General and Commander-General of the Forces of Santiago by Bernardo O’Higgins.

The death of Mackenna, in a duel with Carrera in Buenos Aires

Unfortunately, another Carrera smash-and-grab for power in the form of a coup d’état (this time instigated by Luis Carrera) led to his being banished to exile in Argentina in the same year.  He was killed in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1814 by Luis Carrera himself in a shotgun duel (for which the Lautaro Lodge later exacted revenge by having all three of the Carrera brothers executed). Luis Carrera’s sidekick in the incident was fellow Irishman Admiral William “Guillermo” Brown, “Father of the Argentine Navy” and a national hero of Argentina, although the circumstances of his involvement remain unclear.

Post Independence Immigration

Post-Independence immigration was more sporadic. Catholic emancipation in the British colonies and the independence of the USA saw English-speaking countries in North America, Australia and New Zealand and even England itself soon prevail as more viable and enticing opportunities and the flow of Irish emigrants then shifted towards these countries instead.

Also, with Chile’s independence all but fully consolidated, the quintessential Irish immigrant to Chile-the Catholic aristocrat turned refugee and Spanish-trained military official in the service of the Spanish crown-quickly became a dying breed.

Nonetheless, Irishmen continued to arrive, albeit in smaller numbers. Many arrived in Chile working for the “informal” British Empire, which had taken a strong foothold in Chile with the influence and trade brought by British immigrants, particularly in the Pacific port of Valparaiso. Others arrived with the development and expansion of the nitrate trade, but there were also businessmen, mining industrialists in the north and sheep-farmers in Patagonia, as well as teachers, missionaries and physicians.

Migration in Chile: The influence of the Basques

The Irish Community in Chile today

Many Irish Chileans today are sheep farmers in the Magallanes Region, and Punta Arenas has a large Irish foundation first established in the 18th century. Irish-Chileans have also featured prominently in politics, arts, entertainment & literature, and of course, the military.

Regrettably, despite the Irish surnames and thus Irish origins of many of the victims of South American dictatorships, Irish governments and their diplomatic and consular services, misinterpreting the key Irish foreign policies of diplomacy and neutrality, shamefully failed to speak out or protect their descendants in Chile and Argentina during “the dirty wars” and “disappearances”, despite many other European governments voicing their concern and opposition. Ireland did, however, accept a limited number of Chilean refugees in 1974.

Bernardo O´Higgins Bust in Dublin

Nonetheless, the history of the Irish in Chile has of course influenced relations between the two countries. There is a monument to Bernardo O’Higgins in Dublin and Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, revered historian and grandson of Juan Mackenna himself visited Ireland, as did another Chilean direct descendant of his Luis Valentín Mackenna, who personally presented a museum in County Monaghan with a bust of Juan Mackenna. In 2010, for Chile’s bicentenary, the Irish postal service issued postal stamps commemorating O’Higgins and Mackenna.

Famous Irish-Chileans ex-presidents and leaders.

Below is a (non–exhaustive) list of famous Chileans past and present of Irish ancestry, many of whom are descendants of those named above.

  • Bernardo O’Higgins, supreme director of Chile, commemorated throughout Chile.
  • Patricio Aylwin, the first post-dictatorship President of Chile. His son Miguel was also the Irish Honorary Consul.
  • Carlos Ibáñez, twice president of Chile 1927-1931 and 1952-1958.
  • Germán Riesco, a lawyer from Rancagua who served as President from 1901-1906.
  • Juan Luis Sanfuentes, President from 1915-1920.


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