EPIC Perspectives: The Irish in Peru

The CHQ Building and EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum will welcome some very special visitors to Dublin to this June. Fifteen Pucará Bulls (Toritos de Pucará) crafted by Peruvian artisans will go on display in Liffey Corner with thanks to the Embassy of Peru in Ireland.

The bulls are important symbols of Peruvian cultural identity and are associated with prosperity and abundance. The collection of Pucará Bulls embarked on a world tour last year and have already visited Buenos Aires, New York, Montreal, Berlin, and Tokyo. Here at CHQ their upcoming visit has inspired us to reflect on the extraordinary stories that have connected the histories of Ireland and Peru.

Ambrosio O’Higgins (1720-1801)

Ambrosio O'Higgins

Ambrose Higgins was born in Ballinary, Co. Sligo in 1720. He grew up during a period of Irish history when Catholics were subject to dire persecution under the oppressive Penal Laws. At age 30, Ambrose emigrated to the southern Spanish port city of Cádiz with ambitions of improving his lot. He joined Irish merchant enterprise ‘Butler Trading House’ and set sail to Latin America for the first time in 1756, visiting Argentina, Chile, and Peru. However, it was in the Spanish military, rather than commerce, that Ambrose would achieve fame and fortune.

A Catholic monarchist and conservative, Higgins became Governor of Chile in 1788 where one of his greatest achievements was contributing to the abolishment of the encomienda system (the forced labour of Indigenous people). He became known as Don Ambrosio and began adding an ‘O’ before Higgins during this time. In 1795 Ambrosio O’Higgins became the last Viceroy of Lima, achieving the highest royal official in colonial Spanish America at the time. He is buried in the Jesuit Church of San Pedro in Lima. His son, Bernardo O’Higgins, who Ambrosio chose not to acknowledge in his lifetime, would later become a revolutionary figure in neighbouring Chile and one of the country’s founding fathers.

Roger Casement (1846-1916)

Roger Casement (c) Alamy

Roger Casement, one of Ireland’s greatest human rights activists and revolutionaries, made a significant impact to the lives of the Indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon. Between 1910-1911, while Casement was serving as British Foreign Consul, he travelled to the Putomayo Amazon on the borders of Peru and Colombia to investigate human rights atrocities in the rubber trade. Casement’s investigation found the Peruvian Amazon Company was committing heinous crimes including the torture, rape, and exploitation of Indigenous people. According to Irish missionaries who continue working in the region today, Casement remains an important and respected historical figure for local people.

In 2010, Peruvian Nobel Literature Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, published a novel inspired by the life of Roger Casement entitled ‘El sueño del celta’ (The Dream of the Celt). Research for the novel was based on the diaries kept by Casement during his ground-breaking human rights investigations in the Congo and the Amazon.

The Order of the Sun of Peru

President Michael D Higgins is awarded the Order of the Sun of Peru with President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru (c) Luis Guillen, The Irish Times

In 2017, President Michael D Higgins became the first Irish leader to make an official state visit to Peru. During his visit, President Higgins was awarded Peru’s highest honour – the Order of the Sun of Peru, el Orden del Sol de Perú. At the time, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski acknowledged his Irish counterpart’s “interest in the defence and promotion of human rights, peace, democracy and inclusive citizenship, as well as culture”. Michael D Higgin’s tour of Peru also included visiting Ambrosio O’Higgins’ grave, and the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the life of Roger Casement at the Torre Tagle Palace in Lima.

Michael D Higgins was not the first Irishman to receive the Order of the Sun, however. In 1821, John Thomond O’Brien, also known as Don Juan O’Brien, was awarded the same honour for his military leadership in Peru’s campaign for independence. O’Brien was born in Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow in 1786, but he spent most of his life in South America. O’Brien took part in wars of independence in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Peru alongside José de San Martín, Simón Bolívar, and other prominent political figures of emancipation. His post-war career saw him involved in silver mining and shipping. He was buried with full military honours in Mendoza, Argentina.

Visit the CHQ Building and EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum to uncover more fascinating links between extraordinary Irish emigrants and Latin American Countries. The Pucará Bull exhibition is free to visitors from June 9th-13th, 2023.

Amano Miura, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum

Futher Reading:

Abrose O’Higgins by Eoin Butler in The Irish Times
John Thomand O’Brien in the Dictionary of Irish Latin American Biography
John Thomand O’Brien by Tim Fanning, The Irish Times
Michael D Higgins in Peru, Dan Collyns, The Irish Times
Michael D Higgins in Peru, Ryan Nugent, Independent.ie
Roger Casement and the Amazon by Sorcha Pollak, The Irish Times
El Torito de Pucará, PeruRail Blog
Pucara Bulls, Setours