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Jazz Caliente: The Irish in Cuba

A Cuban flag waves in front of El Morro Castle in Havana, 2008
(AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
A Cuban flag waves in front of El Morro Castle in Havana, 2008.

For St. Patrick's Day, Jazz Caliente takes a brief look at the long, rich history of Irish people in Cuba. 

Even the most iconic sight in Havana's harbor, the towering lighthouse at Morro Castle, was once known as the O'Donnell Lighthouse.  It was named in 1844 for Leopold O'Donnell, the Captain General and Governor of Cuba.

Notable Irish family names in Latin Jazz include Terry (saxophonist and percussionist Yosvany Terry), and  Flynn (pianist Frank Emilio Flynn).  

O'Farrill is probably the most-recognized Irish surname for Latin Jazz fans, primarily because of Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill, the prominent composer, arranger, conductor and proponent of Cuban jazz.  The name is well-established in Spanish-Cuban aristocracy; O'Farrill shows up in the history of most Havana family lines that can claim titles and nobility.

How did it happen?

Portrait of Alejandro "Bloody" O'Reilly by Francisco José Goya
Portrait of Alejandro "Bloody" O'Reilly by Francisco José Goya

Many Irishmen left their English-dominated homeland in the 1700s to become mercenaries, and good number of them ended up in the Spanish military.  If they rose to officer status and pleased the monarch, they often were rewarded with land and a title.

Alexander (later Alejandro) O'Reilly joined the Spanish Infantry at age 10.  His career of defending the Crown's conquests and repressing uprisings in Louisiana, Puerto Rico and Cuba earned him the sobriquet "Bloody O'Reilly."  There are still plenty of O'Reilly surnames in and around Havana.

Some Irish came to Cuba as slaves, and more came from the US in the late 1800s to build the railways used by the sugar plantations.  The 1,000 kilometer trans-Cuba railroad constructed in 1902 was built in large part by Chinese and Irish labor.

Irish soldiers, sailors, merchants, counts and laborers all contributed to the well-mixed culture of Cuba.

This week on Saturday Caliente, we'll hear music from Bill O'Connell's Latin Jazz All Stars and Chico's son Arturo O'Farrill with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.  

Enjoy this sample of Chico O'Farrill's artistry, and watch out for that green beer.  

Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m.  The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.