A reminder of the first Irish in Andalucia. SUR
The Irish in Andalucía: Catholic exiles, nobles and wine merchants
St Patrick's Day

The Irish in Andalucía: Catholic exiles, nobles and wine merchants

490 years ago, Irish Catholics started emigrating en masse from the British Isles. Spain, and especially Andalucía, was a preferred destination, giving rise to Irish connections that remain today

Alekk M. Saanders

Saturday, 16 March 2024, 12:22


The Act of Supremacy of 1534, which created the Anglican Church and severed ecclesiastical ties with Rome, forced many Irish Catholics to flee from religious and political oppression.

The common Roman creed served to justify their being received in areas governed by the Spanish monarchy. Lots of them sought exile in Andalucia, or rather in the main cities of Seville, Malaga, Huelva, and especially Cadiz. At the time Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María had become important centres of the Indian market following Columbus's discoveries.

Warmly welcomed

Andaluсia is believed to have given the Irish a warm welcome. Apparently, their Roman Catholic status contributed to the locals' perception of them not as foreigners but as refugees under the protection of the Spanish monarch, supported at various times by alms and private pensions.

In addition, the legendary ideological allusion of common descent, based on the belief that Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland, derived from Iberia/Hiberia, the name of the peninsula on which Spain is located, is thought to have played a role. Either way, the common Catholic religion was mainly used as an argument to strengthen and improve the position of the Irish in Andaluсía.

Their Roman status apparently contributed to the locals' perception of the Irish not as foreigners but as refugees under the protection of the Spanish monarch

The Irish were also favoured in their financial activities. Various decrees issued by the Spanish monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries determined the assimilation of the Irish in Spain and particularly in Andaluсía. For example, in 1680 Charles II granted the Irish the status of Spaniards, placing them on a par with the rest of the Crown's subjects, a measure ratified by his successor Philip V in the first year of his reign.

In 1749, Irish Catholics who had lived in the country for more than ten years or married a Spaniard were granted the right to trade and royal consent to own land.


Lands had been lost by some Irish noble families in Ireland. The harsh penal laws imposed stripped many nobles of land, titles and the possibility of studying or pursuing a military career if they did not renounce the Catholic religion.

Among the families that decided to settle in Andalucía, were the Butlers. The roots of this powerful noble family go back to 12th-century Ireland. They held power over much of Ireland until the 1730s when one of its members, William Butler Langton, moved to Cadiz. Members of the Butler family are still in this Andalusian city and the rest of Spain, as well as in other continents, without forgetting their origin in the Celtic country.

Descendants of the Butlers, a powerful noble Irish family in the Middle Ages, are still in Andalucía and the rest of Spain

Cadiz paid tribute to another Irishman, Alexander O'Reilly, by naming one of its streets after him. The military reformer was born in Ireland but made his prominent career serving the Spanish Empire in the second half of the 18th century. He died in Cádiz in 1794.

For his much appreciated services to the Crown of Spain, O'Reilly was ennobled as Conde de O'Reilly (Count of O'Reilly), and granted a coat of arms. Cadiz is also represented by another Spanish military officer with Irish roots - Raimundo María de Sotto y Langton, 2nd Earl of Clonard. His original Irish surname 'Sutton' became Spanish as De Sotto.

Liaising with local people

Historians say that group cohesion based on similarities and kinship, the ability to mobilise resources and to create inter-community ties, determined the integration of the Irish into Andalusian society.

The Irish were known for tending towards endogamy, marrying within the same family, to secure inheritance and perpetuate a commercial firm. However they also sought mixed marriages with the elite of the host cities to advance their socio-economic interests and provide some stability.

A prime example would be the story of William Garvey. This Irish aristocrat married an Andalusian woman, Sebastiana Gómez Jiménez. The marriage obviously helped him to become one of the most important wine producers; he eventually founded one of the largest bodegas in Jerez de la Frontera and named it after St Patrick.

Irish social activism was visible, not only in the building of chapels, but also in the sponsorship of hospitals and urban improvements

Also named after St Patrick was a school in Seville for Irish students. In Malaga, the church built by Eduardo Huelin, a local businessman who first improved workers' housing conditions in the city (the neighbourhood in Malaga bears his name), was named in honour of San Patricio (St Patrick).

The choice of saint is no coincidence; Huelin came from a mixed family with Irish roots. Incidentally, Irish social activism was visible, not only in the building of chapels, but also in the sponsorship of hospitals and urban improvements.

The church of San Patricio in Huelin, Malaga.
The church of San Patricio in Huelin, Malaga. M. Fernández

In a variety of fields

Spanish-Irish economic relations strengthened from the 16th century at such a great rate that already at the beginning of the 17th century Irish merchants began to demand the appointment of their own consul to represent their interests in Puerto de Santa María, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and Cadiz. There was also notable support and cooperation in Andaluсía among the Irish merchants based in Seville, Cadiz, Huelva and Malaga.

In Spain, the Irish mainly specialised in certain sectors of trade, where some families sought to become suppliers to the Crown. However, in Andalucía, the Irish were not only merchants, but also moneylenders, tax agents, shipbuilders and shipowners. Many were engaged in small-scale manufacturing and worked in local governments as well as in military service.

An example is Henry (Enrique) MacDonnell (born to an Irish family), who was a Spanish admiral noted for his participation in several sea battles including the Battle of Trafalgar off the Andalusian coastline.

Irish-born Roman Catholic prelate Michael Fitzwalter served as auxiliary bishop of Seville from 1596 to 1601.

Thinker and poet Joseph Blanco White (born José María Blanco y Crespo in Seville, to Irish ancestry) was a colourful representative of the cultural Irish community in Andalucía.

Reporta un error en esta noticia

* Campos obligatorios