Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date




JUAN McKENNA (1771-1814) & BERNARDO O'HIGGINS (1778-1842)
Chile, October 1813. As dawn broke across the mist-shrouded riverbanks, the Royalists launched their surprise attack. Nearly twenty Republicans were killed in the opening minutes. Hundreds more, including the Republican commander Jose Carrera, took to their horses and fled, abandoning the artillery to the enemy. The battle of El Roble looked certain to be a tremendous victory for the Royalists who sought to reassert Spanish control over the troublesome Latin American colony of Chile.

However, even as the Spanish commanders congratulated themselves, a division of two hundred Republicans had regrouped further up the river. At their head was Bernardo O’Higgins, a 35-year-old landowner whose father, an Irishman, had once been the most influential man in Chile. Riding at O’Higgins flank was another Irishman, John McKenna, known as Don Juan, who had been living in Chile for the past sixteen years. Holding his gun high in the sky, O’Higgins dramatically rode along the Republican line, roaring "Lads! To me! Live with honour, or die with glory! The one who is brave is the one who follows me!"

And with that the Republicans charged, saved their artillery, trounced the Royalists and won the battle. When the Chilean junta, or government, learned of the events of El Roble, they issued orders for the dismissal of Carrera and the appointment of O’Higgins as commander-in-chief of the Republican army. Juan McKenna, the man from Monaghan, was appointed his second-in-command.

O’Higgins and McKenna knew each other like brothers. John (Juan) McKenna, the elder of the two, was born in 1771. Willville House, his birthplace, is a handsome structure which still stands amid 40 acres on the outskirts of Monaghan, close to St Macartan’s Cathedral. His father Billy (pronounced ‘Bully’) was a direct descendant of the McKenna chieftains who ruled over the land known as ‘McKenna Country’ in North Monaghan for over 500 years.

In 1782, just months after the American colonists defeated Britain in their War of Independence, eleven-year-old John was dispatched to Madrid in Spain to stay with Count Alejandro O’Reilly, his mother’s cousin.[i] The Count was one of the most successful of Ireland’s ‘Wild Geese’. Having left Ireland for Europe in his youth, the Count became Inspector-General of Infantry for the Spanish Empire. He also served two years as Governor of Louisiana when it was a Spanish colony.

In Spain, John became Juan and, under Count O'Reilly’s patronage, began his studies at Barcelona’s Royal School of Mathematics. From 1785 to 1791, he studied military engineering at the city’s Royal Military Academy. During this time, the young Monaghan man was appointed a cadet in the ‘Regiment Irlanda’ of the Irish Brigade in the Spanish army. He saw his first action defending the ancient Mediterranean city of Ceuta against the Moors.

In 1794 Lieutenant Juan McKenna advanced into the Pyrenees with the Royal Regiment of Engineers. This was part of a massive army dispatched by the Spanish king under the 72-year-old Count O’Reilly, now a Field Marshall, to defend the border against a French attack. However, while the Count dropped dead en route, his young cousin showed his mettle on the Catalonian battlefields and was promoted captain. He also befriended José de San Martín, the future liberator of Argentina, with whom he would later serve.[ii]

In October 1796, McKenna left Spain for Latin America, nearly all of which then belonged to the Spanish Empire. He made his way from Buenos Aires across the Andes to the Peruvian capital of Lima where he was introduced to the septuagenarian Viceroy of Peru, a fellow Irishman called Ambrosio O'Higgins.

O’Higgins was born in Ballynary on the eastern shores of Lough Arrow, Co. Sligo, in 1720. His great-grandfather Sean Duff O'Higgins was Lord of Ballinary and had married a daughter of the Royal House of O'Conor of Ballintober Castle. However, the O’Higgins had fallen from grace with the collapse of Catholic Ireland in the early 1690s and Ambrosio’s parents were mere tenant farmers. They relocated east to the Langford Rowley estate at Summerhill, Co. Meath, during Ambrosio’s childhood.

In 1751, Ambrosio left Ireland for Cadiz where he spent four years working in a trading house established by fellow Irishman William Butler, the ancestor of many Butlers in Spain. (iia) By the late 1750s he was operating as an itinerant trader in South America. He made his commercial breakthrough when he used his knowledge of the landscape to oversee the establishment of a reliable postal service across the Andes, linking the remote backwaters of 18th century Chile to the Spanish stronghold of Buenos Aries. He soon became one of the vital cogs in Spain’s Latin American administration, simultaneously winning the respect of the Araucanian Indians by his benevolence.

In 1788, he became Governor of Chile. Dramatic improvements to the Chilean infrastructure followed as roads, bridges, docks, dykes and new towns mushroomed across the colony. In 1796, O’Higgins – now 1st Marquis of Osorno – was promoted to Viceroy of Peru, the second richest colony in the Spanish Empire.

Shortly before he took office, O’Higgins appointed 25-year-old Juan McKenna as Governor of Osorno. This 16th century Spanish colonial town in the extreme south of Chile had been in ruins for nearly 200 years, having been destroyed by the indigenous Huilliche people. The young engineer from Monaghan was instructed to rebuild Osorno and this he did with considerable flair, with storehouses, mills and a grand new road through dense forests to the port of Puerto Montt.

The Marquis of Avilés, who had succeeded O’Higgins’ as Governor of Chile, greeted McKenna’s improvements with less enthusiasm, fearing that O’Higgins and McKenna were attempting to establish a breakaway Irish colony.

Avilés’ fears were unfounded. Both McKenna and O’Higgins remained loyal to the Spanish crown. However, Avilés was also increasingly anxious, and rightly so, about O’Higgins’ illegitimate son, Bernardo.

Bernardo O’Higgins never met his father and grew up with his mothers’ family, the Riquelme’s, one of the most powerful dynasties in Chile. She was only sixteen when 57-year-old Don Ambrosio impregnated her. The Irishman swore he would marry her but that never came to be, perhaps because he was not considered of suitably high class.

Nonetheless, Ambrosio exerted sufficient influence to have his son sent to school in London where he studied history, the arts and, most importantly, gained an understanding into what drove the American colonists to fight for independence.

By the time Bernardo returned to South America, he had become a passionate Liberal (of the old British style) and was dedicated to the idea of an independent Latin America.

In 1801, Ambrosio died, leaving Bernardo a large hacienda and estate in Chile. The young man duly took on his father’s name (for the first time) and became a gentleman farmer, representing his locality on the Chilean council. He also became close friends with McKenna, learning much about engineering from his late father’s friend.

In 1809, McKenna moved to Santiago and married 18-year old Josefa Vicuna Larrain. He also became an ally of Jose Miguel Carrera, the most powerful man in Santiago.

However, the previous year, Napoleon had seized control of Spain. France duly claimed ownership of the Spanish Empire. By 1810, the Chilean elite had formed a government, or junta, which declared it would self-govern the colony, albeit in the name of the imprisoned Spanish king.

Deep divisions arose between Chile’s Royalists and those who felt the Spanish monarchy was superfluous. A further schism evolved between those seeking independence. O’Higgins led a Republican faction who were eager to carry the torch of freedom to all of Spain’s colonies. However, Carrera believed independence should be of a more localized and specifically Chilean nature. Tempers reached boiling point in 1812 when McKenna, loyal to O’Higgins, fell foul of Carrera and was banished from Santiago.

In 1813, the Spanish government sent an army to Chile to reassert Madrid’s authority. The Chilean Republicans, or Patriots, quickly formed an army under Carrera as commander-in-chief. McKenna was recalled from exile, appointed General of Artillery and placed in charge of military engineering. O’Higgins, who had retired to his hacienda with poor health some months earlier, rallied a local militia and also advanced to the front-line.

O’Higgins probably enjoyed his most memorable moment when he delivered his ‘Braveheart’ like speech at El Roble.

McKenna’s greatest triumph took place six months later when he commanded a Republican division in a successful defence against a far superior Spanish Royalist army at Membrillar.

As commander of the Republican Army, O’Higgins negotiated a truce with the Royalists. However, the disgraced Carrera then staged a coup, seized control of the junta, exiled McKenna and defeated O’Higgins in a skirmish.

With the Republican thus split, the Royalists resumed their attack and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Patriots at the battle of Rancangua.

Both Carrera and O’Higgins fled to Argentina where they remained for three years. Their enmity was considerably increased when Carrera’s youngest brother Miguel gunned down 43-year-old Brigadier Juan McKenna in a duel in Buenos Aires on 21st November 1814.

In 1817, O’Higgins, accompanied by General de San Martín (his old school friend) and John Thomond O’Brien of Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow (San Martin’s aide-de-camp), mounted a victorious campaign against the Royalists.[iii]

O’Higgins duly became first president of the Republic of Chile. His term was essentially successful as markets, courts, colleges, libraries and hospitals sprang up. As well as marked improvements in both farming and the military, he founded the Chilean Navy and the Chilean Marine Corps.

However, his rule was overshadowed by his failure to intervene when Luis Carrera was arrested and executed under deeply suspicious circumstances. For many Chilean households today, O’Higgins culpability in the killing of his fellow revolutionary hero remains as contentious as de Valera’s supposed role in Collins’s assassination is here.

By 1822, O’Higgins’ radical policies had antagonized both the church and the nobility. Faced with imminent bankruptcy, he borrowed a million pounds from Britain. This coincided with an earthquake on a par with the one that brought Chile to its knees in February 2010. Chile’s conservatives ousted him in a coup in early 1823. Summoned before the junta, O’Higgins rather epically bared his chest and offered his life but the junta simply saluted him and sent him into exile.

O’Higgins had planned to return to his father’s ancestral home in Ireland until introduced to Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary. Bolívar’s government granted him two haciendas near Lima where he and his family then settled. In 1842, the National Congress of Chile voted to allow him to return home but he had a heart attack en route and died in Lima that October, aged 64. His remains are today to be found in the Crypt of the Liberator in Santiago

Both McKenna and O’Higgins continue to be revered in Chile, not least on their postage stamps. Santiago’s main thoroughfare is the Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins while its finest boulevard is the Avenida Vicuña Mackenna. Bernardo’s name is also recalled by a national park, a village, several Chilean Navy battleships, the main research station in Antarctica and the bank, Banco O’Higgins, as well as a monument in Dublin’s Merrion Square.


[i] Juan McKenna’s mother was Eleanora O'Reilly. She was the daughter of Philip O'Reilly and Margaret Browne. (Burke, John and John Bernard Burke. A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, London: Henry Colburn, Vol II, 1847. pp. 968-973; and National Archives of Ireland, Dublin. Wills T9962(19), Philip O'Reilly, 18/04/1771.) Alexander (Count Alejandro O'Reilly) was the son of Thomas O'Reilly and Rosa Mac Dowell (Kearney Walsh, Micheline. "Spanish Knights of Irish Origin", Vol IV pp 016-019). A close connection between Eleanor and Alexander has yet to be established; they were certainly 12th cousins 3 times removed but a closer kinship is strongly suspected.

[ii] Field Marshall O'Reilly is buried in the parish church in Bonete, Spain. A street in Cádiz still honors his name.

[iia] William Butler arrived in Cadiz (probably from Galway ) around the year 1731. There is also reference to an Antonio Butler from Clonmel based in Cadiz at this time. Derek Bedson (a Canadian descendant of the Cadiz Butlers ) published an article in Volume 1 Number 3 (pages 188 / 191 ) of the Journal of the Butler Society in which he mentions that the information about Ambrosio 0'Higgins working for Butler came from a reference in The Irish Ancestor I, 83. See also Journal 3:4 (1994),'Butler Testamentary Records in Cadiz' by Brian Foley (p.484-99) and in the 1997 Journal, 'Butler Testamentary Dispositions in Cadiz' by Brian Foley (p.150)

[iii] John Thomond O’Brien (1786-1861), army officer and entrepreneur, was born in 1786 in Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, son of Martin O'Brien and Honoria O'Connor. See: http://www.irlandeses.org/dilab_obrienjt.htm

With thanks to Grace Moloney of the Clogher Historical Society, Patrick MacCionnaith, Melosin Lenox-Conyngham, David John Butler and Dr. David Butler.