Alejandro ‘Bloody O’Reilly’: A Military Might

In the context of religious and territorial wars of past centuries, the exploits of Irish soldiers and officers are well chronicled by military and other historians. As professional soldiers they preferred to put their swords at the disposal of different European monarchs rather than fight for the colonisers who had overrun their country. They fought for the French, Austrian, Prussian, Spanish, Italian and Russian armies and others too. Irishmen or their descendants became influential figures in many countries achieving distinguished military and wider careers that have left an indelible mark in the annals of world history.International Newspapers
O’Reilly (O Raghailligh) was one of the most numerous names in Ireland, especially in Co. Cavan. The head of this important sept was chief of Breffny O’Reilly. Up to the sixteenth century the location of the ancient territory of Breffny (Breifne) was Cavan and west Leitrim. Like others they suffered greatly for their Catholic faith during penal times losing land and extensive property.
The Irish army of King James II lists thirty-three O’Reilly officers under the command of a Colonel Edmond O’Reilly and sixteen under the command of a Colonel Mahon. Amongst notable Irishmen, Alejandro O’Reilly is chronicled for his presence in the Spanish Caribbean.* He became Spain’s man in Havana where he first landed on 3 June 1763. In 1764 he recommended Irish emigration to Cuba as a tonic for that island’s sluggish economy and in 1765 he reorganised Puerto Rico’s defences in collaboration with his compatriot Colonel Tomas O’Daly, chief engineer in San Juan.
Descendants of O’Reilly have been in Cuba for over two centuries where, as Counts of Castillo and Marquis of San Felipe Santiago, their lineage is to be found in the archives of Havana. A main street in old Havana is Calle Orely marking the place of his arrival. There are streets in Madrid, Barcelona and Cadiz with the name. It was an O’Reilly of the St. Patrick’s Brigade in Mexico who induced Texas in the 1840s to join the USA.*
Alejandro ‘Bloody O’Reilly’ (1722-1794)
He was born at Baltrasna, Co. Meath where a military tradition ran in the family. His grandfather John O’Reilly was a colonel in the army of Catholic James II whose regiment ‘Reilly’s Dragoons’ fought at the siege of Derry and in other battles. His wife was Margaret O’Reilly of Co. Cavan and they had five children. Their youngest child Thomas was Alexander’s father who married Rose McDowell of Co. Roscommon. They had four children of whom the youngest was Alexander, later called Alejandro.
Thomas O’Reilly left Ireland with his family and settled in Saragossa where Alexander was educated. Aged only eleven, Alexander joined the Spanish army as a cadet in the famous Hibernia regiment, formed in 1710. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant in 1739 the year that war broke out with Britain and Austria. He fought for Spain against Italy where he was badly wounded leaving him with a permanent limp, a particular identifying feature.
In 1757 he transferred to the Austrian army where he distinguished himself against the Prussians at Hochkirchen in 1758. The following year he entered the French service and assisted at the battle of Bergen in 1759 and the taking of Minden and Corbach. War having broken out between Spain and Portugal, he re-entered the Spanish service, was made lieutenant general and defeated the Portuguese before Chaves in 1762.
The advent of an English army, under John Burgoyne, checked the Spanish successes and the Peace of Paris in 1763 deprived O’Reilly of an active military career. In 1765 he saved the life of the Spanish king Charles III (r.1759-88) in a popular tumult in Madrid. He reorganised the Spanish army and is said to have given it a Germanic discipline. A personal humiliation was the disaster of an ill fated attack which he led on Algiers in 1775. It was later immortalised by the British poet, Lord Byron (1788-1824) who wrote … “Is it for this that General Count O’Reilly, who took Algiers, declared I used him vilely ? Count O’Reilly did not take Algiers … but Algiers very nearly took him”. The one volume Works of Lord Byron, 3rd edition, printed in 1837. When hearing the shots of the Moors, a trembling O’Reilly said in Spanish ‘iAy, que me meo !’…‘Oh, I’ve pissed myself !’
At a time when many Irishmen held high positions for the Spanish crown, O’Reilly’s selection to command the expedition to attack Algiers caused jealousy amongst the Spanish officers who felt foreigners were becoming too influential. Not daring to reinstall him in the government of Madrid, King Charles III (1716-88) appointed O’Reilly as Governor of Cadiz and Captain-General of Andalusia holding extensive military and civic powers. There is much biography and bibliography about this Irishman in the service of Spain. His portraits are in the Municipal Museum of Cadiz and the Louisiana State Museum.
Count Alejandro O’Reilly was ennobled by the Spanish king, Charles III, and obtained a coat of arms. Dubbed as ‘a monster of fortune’ he retired on a modest pension. He had such high regard for his Irish heritage that, not long before his death, he sent home 1,000 guineas to have an Irish genealogist set out his pedigree for him. Aged 72, he died in Cadiz on 23 March 1794 and is buried in the parish church of Bonete in Castile-La Mancha, Spain.
A Military Might
Colonised by France in 1682, under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Louisiana was ceded part to Spain and part to England. New Orleans became the capital of Spanish Louisiana when French and Creole residents frequently rebelled against the Spanish rule requiring the constant presence of Spanish troops in the city. Led by local political leaders, merchants and German, Acadian and French farmers and planters, these rebels appealed to the French crown to resume control of Louisiana. France, however, assured Spain that it would support whatever measures were necessary to reoccupy and pacify the colony.
Forced from office, on 1 November 1768 Louisana’s first Spanish governor sailed out of New Orleans and it was Irish born General Alejandro O’Reilly who defeated the revolt. With over 2,000 prime troops he disembarked at New Orleans with an impressive show of strength and ceremony in August 1769. He immediately arrested thirteen rebel leaders and proclaimed amnesty for all other colonials who agreed to sign oaths of loyalty to the king of Spain. Following a trial, O’Reilly freed one of the thirteen leaders and sent six to jail in Morro Castle at Havana. He found the remaining six guilty of treason and sentenced them to death by hanging, even though one man had already died before the trial. On 25 October 1769 Spanish soldiers executed the five ringleaders by firing squad.
He was appointed Governor of Louisiana in 1769 and made a count in 1771. In the service of Spain some colonials and scholars have referred to Louisiana’s second Spanish governor as ‘Bloody O’Reilly’ for his execution of the 1768 rebellion leaders. He became a notorious public figure, admired or envied by many of his peers while amongst the ordinary people he was largely scorned as a figure of hate and ridicule.
Viewed by others as liberal and enlightened, Alejandro O’Reilly established law and order, developed major infrastructure, forbade begging and provided for the poor to be housed and fed. Irishmen of the Hibernia regiment who went with him to New Orleans were Charles Howard who remained in America and who distinguished himself in Spanish Florida and Louisiana, Arthur O’Neill who was an outstanding soldier and negotiator with the Indians and Maurice O’Connor who remained in charge of militia.
Ita Marguet
Note : Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. It follows published articles about Ireland and its connections to the wider world (2004-2012). *Irish in the Caribbean : Servants, Labourers and Landlords (August 2011) and *Irish in Mexico : Battalion of Saint Patrick (September 2011) are the subject of separate texts by Ita Marguet.