Very shortly Athy will be paying host to a contingent of young Athletes from South America. To be more precise they will travel from a country regarded as the longest and narrowest in the entire world. Chile has been described as a ribbon on the west coast of South America, stretching from its border with Peru to Tierra del Fuego and the windswept seas around Cape Horn in the south.
Think of the magical sounding names encountered in our school days, names which once heard were never to be forgotten. Valparaiso, the largest sea port in Chile, has an unforgettable ring to its name in the same way as those other exotic place names, Timbuktu and Katmandu.
Like its near neighbour Peru, Chile’s official language is Spanish, a throw back to the Spanish invasion of both countries in the 1530’s. Almost 300 years of Spanish rule left the Chileans not only the European language of their conquerors but also their religion - Catholicism. Today, Chile and Peru, at one time part of the Inca empire which gave the world monumental architecture and the peerless Machu Picchu, are struggling hard to overcome economic difficulties while continuing to strengthen their fragile hold on democratically elected governments.
The Irish diaspora has provided some extraordinary examples of the involvement of Irish men and women in the affairs of foreign countries. Chile succeeded in breaking off the link with Spain as a result of a revolution led by an Irish Chilean whose father arrived in the South American country in 1764. Ambrose O’Higgins was a young Irish engineer who achieved fame in Chile after he devised a scheme of building waterproof shelters in the Andes which allowed his adopted country to provide a postal service all year around where previously the highlands were cut off for several months each year. Ambrose’ son was Bernardo O’Higgins, the man who liberated Chile from Spanish rule following the revolution of 1818. He organised the Chilean freedom fighters following earlier defeats at the hands of the Spanish and used bases in nearby Argentina for that purpose. In January 1817 O’Higgins marched his men over the Andes into Chile to attack the Spaniards in and around Santiago. The feat of getting so many men across the forbidden mountain range which separates the west coast of Chile from the jungle on the east was reminiscent of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. The Spanish were defeated and Santiago, the capital of Chile, was taken by the revolutionaries. Further battles resulted in the ending of almost 300 years of Spanish rule. Chilean independence was finally achieved in 1818.
Bernardo O’Higgins was instrumental in democratising the country which he had freed from Spanish control but inevitably he fell foul of the Church and the powerful families which continued to hold influence and control there. He left Chile and went to live in Lima, capital of neighbouring Peru. It was there he died in 1842, the same year as the local Workhouse in Athy opened its doors for the first time. His body was returned to Chile 24 years later and today O’Higgins is honoured as the hero of Chilean independence. He is remembered in the street names of Chile while several schools and public parks have been named after the man whose Irish born father first arrived in Chile in 1764.
O’Higgins is not the only Irish connection with the South American country which like its neighbour Argentina played host to many Irish emigrants during the 19th century and later. None of them so far as I can ascertain came from Athy but my search for an Athy connection continues. In the meantime let us not forget the famous story “Robinson Crusoe” written by Daniel Defoe which he loosely based on the experiences of one Alexander Selkirk who in the early 1700’s was shipwrecked on the Juan Fernandez Islands, which lie in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Valparaiso. With literary connections of that sort we can surely have affinity with the Chileans who will be our guests in Athy prior to the Special Olympics.
I have not visited Chile but I recently spent some time in Peru with which country Chile shares so many common features, not least of which is the Andes which stretches like a spinal cord through the centre of both countries. Both Chile and Peru are peopled, by and large by Spanish speaking Catholics who are principally engaged in farming, fishing and the extraction of minerals. By all accounts however Chile is a more prosperous country than its colourful neighbour Peru.
I don’t know how many Chilean visitors Athy will pay host to but I am sure they will be given a warm Irish welcome and one which they will treasure for a long time to come. I only hope they bring a good supply of Chilean wine with them because if they don’t they will be astonished at the prices charged in this country of ours for wines produced in Chile and readily available there at very low prices.
In response to a number of phone calls following last weeks article on Joe Greene and the Kilkea lockout I will print the words of Kevin Fingleton’s song, “The Lockout” next week.