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In Che Guevara’s Veins Flowed the Blood of Irish Rebels

From Cuban solidarity with IRA hunger strikers to Irish support for the Nicaraguan Revolution, a shared anti-imperialist cause has forged a deep bond between Ireland and Latin America.

A set of stamps released by Ireland's post office in 2017 in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Che Guevara's death.

“In my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels,” once proclaimed Ernesto Guevara Lynch, father of the legendary Che Guevara, who was proud of his Irish roots and how his family built a new life in Argentina after fleeing Ireland during the Cromwell era.

Rebellious Irish blood was essential during Latin America’s emancipatory struggles — and it remains so today. Latinos and the Irish have been fighting imperialism together since the nineteenth century, when Irish immigrants, fleeing the famine and oppression caused by the British Empire, found in Latin America a new battleground to challenge the cruelty of colonialism.

The Irish and their descendants contributed to the formation of many of the new Latin American republics, such as in Chile with Bernardo O’Higgins or those Irish present in the Bolivarian army. The converse is also true — recall the Irish-Argentine Eamon Bulfin: it was he, born in Buenos Aires, who raised the Irish Republican flag at the General Post Office during the Easter Uprising in 1916.

Che, the Irish

The most famous “Irish representative” and central character of the Cuban revolution was Ernesto “Che” Guevara: his Celtic ancestors, the Lynches, suffered at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, the man who overthrew the monarchy and instituted his own control of England for several years.

Members of Che’s family fled Ireland and went to Spain, later leaving for Argentina, while the country was still a Spanish colony. Che’s great-grandfather even fought in the War of Independence against Spain in the middle of the nineteenth century. Like many other members of the Irish diaspora, the Lynches had important ties to their ancestral lands, although Che only ever spent one day in Ireland.

On that day, an Aeroflot flight to Havana from Moscow was diverted at Shannon Airport. The plane stopped to refuel but was unable to take off due to the fog. During his brief visit, Che said he was proud of his Irish ancestry and Irish connection, declaring that the Irish had overthrown the British Empire, referring to the Irish War of Independence, waged from 1919 to 1921.

Cuba

These ties were not just in ancestral history. Fidel Castro became a revolutionary during his time as a student political organizer at the University of Havana, inspired by Julio Antonio Mella, a well-known founder of the Cuban Communist Party.

The militant Mella was exiled to Mexico after becoming a threat to the bloody dictatorship of Cuban president Gerardo Machado. There, he mobilized with other communists. Mella’s mother, Cecilia McPartland, was born in Ireland — meaning one of the greatest heroes in Cuban history, who inspired Cuban revolutionaries during the 1950s, was of Irish descent.

A mural depicting Che Guevara in Bogside, Derry, in Northern Ireland. (Mary Crandall / Flickr)

In 1981, when Irish Republican prisoners were in the middle of a historic hunger strike against the British state, it was Fidel Castro who once again sided with the oppressed.

The hunger strike was the result of a five-year battle between Irish nationalists and the British autocracy, which broke out after Margaret Thatcher stripped Republicans of their status as political prisoners. Led by Bobby Sands, an elected MP and member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the prisoners began, one by one, to refuse food. Ten strikers, including Sands, eventually died of starvation. Riots broke out in Northern Ireland, with thousands protesting indignantly.

Thatcher wasn’t moved, but Castro was. The Cuban met Gerry Adams in 1981, then leader of Sinn Féin (“We ourselves” in Irish Gaelic), the centenary Irish leftist party for independence, and spoke with passion about the republican cause:

In speaking of international politics, we cannot ignore what is happening in Northern Ireland. I feel it is my duty to refer to this problem. In my opinion, Irish patriots are writing one of the most heroic chapters in human history,” he told the audience of Republicans.

They ask only for something as simple as the recognition of what they actually are: political prisoners . . . Let tyrants tremble before men who are capable of dying for their ideals.

The Sinn Féin leader traveled to Cuba the same year and inaugurated a monument in honor of the ten killed in the hunger strike. Aaron James Kelly, Irish coordinator of the Network in Defense of Humanity, commented:

There is justifiable, demonstrable merit to the commemorative plaque that adorns La Calle O’Reilly in Havana with the words “two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.” Cuba and Ireland have both experienced the damage wrought by empires.

Cuba, in keeping with its peerless internationalism and humanitarianism across the whole planet, was a crucial supporter of the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland, and indeed is now a key friend of the Peace Process and the next stage of that struggle.

In particular, the solidarity shown during the Hunger Strikes and in their wake by the people of Cuba was and is remarkable in its unbreakable commitment. On the Irish side, it is working-class, anti-imperialist and Irish republican movements that have reciprocated that solidarity.

Unlike the success of the Cuban Revolution, which I would regard as the most important of all revolutions in the last century because of its prophetic anti-colonial ethos and the world importance of its guiding values and subsequent actions, the War of Independence in Ireland was a stalled or arrested revolution that was eclipsed by reactionary forces. Not only because of the continued presence of British rule in the northern state but also so because of the hegemony exercised by fascists and conservatives in the southern state.

The lure of the US and the EU (imperialists, in other words) is strong and it is particularly despicable that people from an island that was deliberately starved by the British empire during An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger or Famine) now gladly, and perversely in the name of a degradation of the words “human rights,” support US imperialism and its use of starvation as its weapon of war in the illegal, criminal blockade of Cuba.

Reagan’s Visit to Ireland

Sometime in 1979 or 1980, Ronald Reagan was on the campaign trail for the 1980 US presidential election. In California, Reagan met then–Irish ambassador to the United States Seán Donlon, the latter striking up a conversation about the roots of the presidential hopeful’s name.

“You must be Irish,” Donlon told Reagan. “What part of Ireland do you come from? . . . With a name like Reagan, you have to be Irish.” Reagan, however, had sold himself to the American population as a WASP.

Recalling his conversation with the future president, Donlon later claimed that “when I told Reagan coming up to the election that his roots were definitely Irish, not English, he asked if that information could be kept quiet until after the election . . . He didn’t want to change his package at the last minute.”

Four years later, in the midst of sponsoring brutal counterinsurgency operations across Central America, Reagan came to Ireland on an official visit. A number of Irish groups had planned “round-the-clock pickets” against Reagan’s policies on nuclear weapons and his support for the Contras in Nicaragua. So concerned was the Irish government about a hostile reception for Reagan that it introduced new legislation just ninety minutes before his arrival, and then using it to round up thirty protesters from outside the US ambassador’s residence.

When the president arrived at Shannon Airport, he was immediately greeted by picketers. And once in Dublin City, a group of nuns led by the Sisters for Justice Convent “carried a coffin inscribed with the names of three American nuns slain along with a Catholic lay worker by national guardsmen in El Salvador” in 1980. The group also handed a petition to the Irish Foreign Affairs Department, signed by twenty thousand people in solidarity with the people of Central America.

Reagan, who had once renounced his Irish roots, found a country more than prepared to renounce his brutal policies in Latin America.

Roger’s Country

On the morning of Good Friday, 1916, Roger Casement was captured at Banna Strand, Kerry, holding almost two thousand rifles destined for use in Ireland’s Easter Rising against the British occupation. Casement had been a Knight of the Realm and longtime senior diplomat at the British Foreign Office, dismaying his captors with what they saw as treasonous behavior.

Condemned to death for his actions, Casement made a speech from the dock that resonated across the world. Speaking of the use of Irish soldiers during World War I, Casement proclaimed:

If small nationalities were to be the pawns in this game of embattled giants, I saw no reason why Ireland should shed her blood in any cause but her own, and if that be treason beyond the seas I am not ashamed to avow to it or to answer for it here with my life.

Where all your rights become only an accumulated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours — and even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them — then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.

Casement’s strident anti-imperialism had not only percolated during Ireland’s struggle for independence. Just six years earlier, Casement had been dispatched to the Putumayo — then a disputed territory on the Amazonian borders of Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia — to investigate the alleged crimes of the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), a British-owned rubber enterprise.

According to reports in the English magazine Truth, the PAC had “forced the pacific Indians of the Putumayo to work day and night without the slightest remuneration except the food needed to keep them alive,” and had used a group of Barbadians (British subjects) to allocate coercion. These tales of slavery-like conditions found particular resonance in Britain, and Casement, a British consul in Rio de Janeiro, was sent to investigate.

In the Putumayo, Casement encountered a horrific space of colonial exploitation; he estimated that forty thousand indigenous people had died since the beginning of the PAC’s rubber collection.

Though serving the British Crown, Casement viewed the struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Putumayo in comparable terms to those of his homeland, Ireland. Upon meeting a slave owner in northwestern Peru named Andres O’Donnell, Casement wrote: “To think that a name so great should be dragged so low!”

Indeed, Casement’s decision to pit himself on the side of “the colonised” — whether in the Congo, the Putumayo, or elsewhere — would seal his fate; he was hanged at Pentonville Prison, London, on August 3, 1916. More than a century after his death, however, Casement is still remembered across the Putumayo. When Father Brendan Forde from Clontarf first traveled to southern Colombia a century later, he was reportedly addressed by locals as: “Padre Brendan from Ireland, Roger’s country.”

This sharing of struggles, revolutions, and revolutionaries between Latinos and Irish is not just historical. The Irish parliamentarian representing South Down, Chris Hazzard, is one of those who maintains this bridge between both peoples from within his party, Sinn Féin.

Asked why it is important for Latinos and Irish to support one another, he responded:

Internationalism has always been at the core of Irish republicanism; indeed, Irish republicanism itself is a product of international ideas and influences. We have always been proud to stand firmly against colonialism and imperialism in Ireland and across the world, including Latin America. Sinn Féin proudly continues to promote that radical tradition today. International solidarity and our ongoing international work are a key component of our struggle for national liberation. Throughout the history of Ireland’s independence struggle, Irish revolutionaries have both given to and received from others much solidarity in the common cause of national and social liberation.