Cleveland Irish: Los Irlandeses
By Francis McGarry
Michel-Rolph Trouillot was one of my professors at the University of Chicago. His work influenced my pedagogical approach. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History is a book that led me to focus on Cuban History and Santeria for my masters. Although my geographical focus has changed what I have learned about history and my approach to historical research can be traced to Professor Trouillot’s work.
That being said, it is joyous occasion when the past and present collide. My first visit to Havana was just after Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to travel to the island. I stayed in an apartment building on Calle Bernaza just blocks from the El Capitolio. A building that was built in 1926 by an American firm for 17 million US dollars.
To the naked eye, it is a replica of the Capitol building in DC. Technically it a meter more in each direction than it’s mirror image in Washington. Today, it has members of the Cuban army positioned at each corner of the building. It was built on land that was a railroad terminal.
Railroads in Cuba have a history that dates to the 1830s. The first railroad in Cuba was built with the sweat of the Irish, especially Irish Catholic laborers, who provided labor for the early phases of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad and the Erie Canal. Irish Catholic were recruited in the states by contractors for the Cuban railroad. The contractors were not hesitant to use the network of the Catholic parish to assist in the recruiting.
These were the same Irish who made their way to the Flats in Cleveland. Canal workers who were familiar with hard labor and public works. The Cubans were betting on that experience to assist with their first railroad. The Cubans made a few bets on this endeavor.
The Spanish Consul was convinced that the Irish would be more than willing to accept the Cuban proposition. Spain believed that the African slaves in Cuba were “infinitely happier” than wage laborer in America, particularly the Irish Catholics.
The Spanish Colony and Slavery for the Irish
The Spanish colony would provide a society where the Irish Catholic could profess their faith without repercussions. Cuban elite also endeavored to change the demographics of the island.
The Haitian Revolution made Cuba and Cuban sugar plantations the destination for the vast majority of African slaves. 19th century Cuba imported more African slaves than the United States imported in totality. The Irish had not yet become “white” in America, but in Cuba they would do.
In 1835, the Spanish hired four vessels to transport the Irish, which numbered up to 2,000. Los Irlandeses was the term applied to the laborers regardless of ethnicity, even English and German laborers were called los Irlandeses. They joined Cuban prisoners, freed Afro-Cubans, enslaved Africans, Cimarrones (runaway slaves) and Canary Islanders on the construction of the railroad from Havana. That would prove to be problematic.
The Irlandeses were paid a wage, 25 pesos a month, as were the other laborers who were considered free in Cuba. Therein lies the rub.
The Irish Americans were indebted for their passage and provisions. Medical fees, food costs and clothing were additional costs for the wage laborers. Advances on pay and no paid sick days created a relationship were sixteen-hour workdays in unsafe and unsanitary conditions did not sit well with the Irish. Food was rationed based on status, free or enslaved, but was insufficient for all parties involved.
The Cubans attempted to keep all workers segregated but that did not prevent worker riots. The military was utilized to suppress the riots and work desertions. Thing is the Cubans did not do all their research. The Irlandeses were also veterans of the Canal Wars in America and were well aware of techniques of resistance. As Aunt Irene would say, “You get what you get.”
The Spanish Consul thought they were getting laborers who would change the phenotype of Cuban society and build a railroad. Railroad contractors thought they were getting experienced laborers who they could force to work by withholding wages, access to food and medical care. The Irlandeses thought they were getting a square deal.
The Irish stopped work, destroyed tools and rioted with knives and anything available. The Spanish military was employed to end the social unrest.
Those Irish who left the railroad were arrested and sent back to work after being fined for desertion and the cost to bring them back to the railroad or to jail for debt. Those who did finish their contracts found that they did not make enough money to book passage back to America. They appealed to the American Consul in Havana. Very few received funding to sail to New Orleans.
The Spanish responded to requests for repatriation with attacks on the Irlandeses as “worthless, lazy, disease-ridden, drunkards…” Cuban railroad executives looked to the Canary Islanders and then Chinese labor, similar to the railroads in America.
The Irish laborers proved to not be as exploitable in a context prone to rebellion. Free Afro-Cubans and enslaved Africans rebelled in the 1812 Aponte Rebellion and again in the La Escalera Conspiracy in 1844.
This was a failed experiment for the Cuban railroad, which I road for the first time from Havana to Santiago de Cuba some twenty years ago, before I crossed paths with Professor Trouillot. He taught to look at historical events on the global, national and local levels because events exist in each of these spaces. The Irlandeses illustrate this approach.
They first had to leave the island of their birth and come to America. Their welcome was canal work and then railroad work. Some settled in cities like Cleveland and tried to make an existence working on the docks. Others made the choice to go to places like Cuba and give it a go.
My life seems so simple compared to those men and women, the Irish, los Irlandeses. I continue to learn of their lives and their influence the lives we live. I was a passenger on the railroad they help build even though I had no idea at the time. In some way they contributed to the fact that the best pizza in Havana is in Chinatown.
For additional reading please see Dr. Margaret Brehony’s work, Free labour and ‘whitening’ the nation: Irish migrants in colonial Cuba. She also curated the international exhibition The Irish in Latin America.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is an assistant principal and history teacher. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.