Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Walking Tour of Irish Havana

The coat of arms of Havana 
With three castles it has a resemblance to the Dublin city coat of arms, also with three castles. There are many curious and fascinating links between the two island nations of Ireland and Cuba

Estudio, Trabajo, Fusil (Study, Work, Rifle)
This ubiquitous logo can be seen throughout Cuba of Julio Antonio Mella, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Julio was the son of an Irish woman named Cecilia McPartland and Che's Irish grandmother was Anna Isabel Lynch. Of the three most honoured Cuban heroes who died in the 20th century, two are of Irish descent
El Capitoilio
Built in 1929 it was the seat of government before the revolution. Inside is the world's third largest indoor statue, The Statue of the Republic. The building was designed by Cuban architects Raúl Otero and Eugenio Raynieri. Construction was overseen by the U.S. firm of Purdy and Henderson.
Villanueva station site
Behind the Capitolio, to the west and near the entrance to Havana’s China Town is a curious collection of rusting locomotives, too heavy to easily move. They remain there as a testament to the original usage of the Capitolio site as the Villanueva Railway Station. Irish labourers were contracted to help build Cuba’s first railroads alongside other poorly paid bonded workers. The brutal working conditions and insufficient food sparked a strike lead by the Irish and Canary Islander workers which was violently suppressed. Upon completion of their employment, those that survived (as many died of hunger and exhaustion) found themselves abandoned without resources to leave Cuba. More information about the building of Cuba’s railways and restored locomotives can be viewed at the Havana Rail Museum, located at the Cristina Station which replaced the Villanueva Station in 1912.
Partagas Cigar shop

Perhaps the most famous Irish-American to visit Havana for the notoriously wild nightlife before the revolution was John F. Kennedy when he was a senator in 1957. Later, as America's president during the height of the cold war, Kennedy imposed an embargo of Cuban goods and banned American travel as he viewed Cuba a satellite of the Soviet state but not before acquiring a large quantity of quality Cuban cigars for his personal use.
Smoking lounge at the old Partagas cigar factory
At the old factory is a shop that sells many varieties of cigars including Kennedy’s favorite Petite Upmanns. Many tourists from all over the world savour premium cigars in the leather chairs of the shop’s elegant cigar lounge but very few are from the United States. Decades after the cold war and the fall of the Soviet Union the embargo remains in place and travel to Cuba is still severely restricted for American citizens.
Parque Central
The hub of activity in Havana is at the city's central park. Here men gather to passionately debate baseball at all hours of the day. The Centro Gallego and the Centro Asturiano both face the park, built by Cuba's two dominant immigrant groups the Galicians and the Asturians. Galicia and Asturias are considered Celtic nations. The grandeur of these two buildings and their important location in the heart of Havana demonstrates the influence these immigrants had in shaping the island’s culture. Recent genetic tests of the people of Northern Spain show links to the Irish and the other Celtic cousins of the Atlantic rim nations. The tradition of folk music and dance from Asturias and Galicia was exported to the Spanish colony of Cuba. The gaita is a Spanish bagpipe and today in Havana there are many gaita players and dance groups which preserve the tradition of their Celtic ancestors.

Centro Gallego
The magnificent building overlooking the west side of the park is the Great Theatre of Havana built in 1915 as the Palacio del Centro Gallego (Palace of the Galician Centre). The leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and his brother Cuban President Raul Castro are sons of Galician immigrant, Angel Castro.

Centro Asturiano
Cubans of Asturian descent celebrate Dia de Asturias on September 8 every year. They commemorate the Asturian patron saint Our Lady of Covadonga. The battle of Covadonga in 722 was pivitol and the start of the Reconquista. Moorish invaders from Northern Africa had conquered most of Spain, but faced fierce resistance from the celtic tribes of Asturias. The Asturians, despite being outnumbered won the battle of Covadonga. It was the beginning of the end of the Moorish occupation of Spain and the country would subsequently return to christendom.
Gomez Block 
The Manzana de Gomez is a shopping centre built in 1910 in the style of the popular European shopping arcades. Two large open-air pedestrian walkways in the interior on the ground level intersect in the middle of the structure. At the intersection is a bust of the Cuban hero Julio Antonio Mella who was the son of an Irish woman named Cecilia McPartland.
The Hotel Telegrafo
This blue and white hotel at the corner of Paseo de Prado and Neptuno is where Irishman Ed Donovan moved the furnishings and contents of his entire bar from Newark, New Jersey when prohibition shut down all the drinking establishments in the United States. Prohibition was a boon for the entrepreneurs of the liquor, beer and wine trade in Cuba. Donovan wasn’t the only Irishman to move his bar. Another Irish-American Pat Cody moved his popular New York saloon, Jigg's Uptown Bar and operated various establishments in Havana.

The Paseo del Prado
Havana's famous promenade reaches from Parque Central to the Malecon seawall. The Prado is guarded by majestic lions cast from melted down cannons recycling the weapons when they became obsolete. From here is visible El Morro lighthouse across the harbour entrance. It was once called O’Donnell’s Lighthouse after Captain General Leopoldo O'Donnell,a relative of Red Hugh O'Donnell . At La Punta fortress, in front of the Morro Castle you can read on a plaque the poem Mi Bandera (My Flag), written by Bonifacio Byrne, born in Matanzas, whose Irish ancestor was a tailor from Offaly County.
Federation of Asturian Associations in Cuba (FAAC)
Many mansions were built on the Prado, Havana's most elegant neighbourhood in the 19th century. Now restaurants are often located in these buildings. Beside the Parque Central Hotel is the Asturian Federation building and inside are two restaurants that serve authentic Asturian food and the famous sidra (bubbly cider) that is the famous drink of Asturias. The Pipers of Havana, the official pipe band of the Asturian Federation practice their pipes on the upper floors every Saturday morning. The band plays music of the traditional music of Northern Spain and their repertoire also includes some Irish and Scottish tunes.
Pipers on the Prado
The Prado is a popular place, especially on weekends when vendors sell artworks and the promenade fills with brightly coloured paintings and sculpture. The Prado is also a place for music. This photo is of the Banda de Gaitas de La Habana, (The Pipe Band of Havana).
The Sevilla Hotel
This hotel on the Prado was the setting for the 1959 movie “Our Man in Havana” filmed shortly after the Cuban Revolution. The hotel was purchased by Canadian John McEntee Bowman and re-opened as the Sevilla-Biltmore. It was operated by Irish-American Charles Francis Flynn. The hotel has a fascinating history replete with gangsters, glamorous socialites, famous actors and actresses. The hotel was a favorite hang-out for members of organized crime who controlled much of the city’s gambling and nightclubs. These establishments catered mostly to Americans. Ambitious plans to raze much of Havana’s historical areas to build new hotels and casinos were thwarted by the revolution. As well as the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who left Cuba on January 1, 1959 when the victory of the rebel forces was imminent, so too fled the members of the mob. They relocated their dubious enterprises to Nevada, and the present day Las Vegas provides visitors some insight into what might have become of the cherished UNESCO heritage site of Havana had history been different.
Granma Memorial

Granma Memorial. The original boat “Granma”, which transported 82 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba is on display in a glass enclosure visible from the street. Notables on this boat were the Cuban revolutionary heroes Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara, the latter fighter being of Irish descent. His grandmother Anna Isabel Lynch was from Galway, Ireland. Che’s father later stated famously "the first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels.”

Iconic images of Mella, Cienfuegos and Guevara
On the side of a building north of the Museum of the Revolution are the images of 
Mella, Cienfuegos, and Guevara. Their images can be seen throughout Cuba. Of these three most popular Cuban heroes who died in the 20th century, two are of Irish descent (Mella and Guevara). 

Hotel Palicio O’Farrill 
This boutique hotel is operated by the the Habaguanex group which has beautifully restored the palace of the O'Farrill family , orignially from County Longford, Ireland. The O’Farrill family became vastly wealthy as sugar and slave traders. The incredible opulence of what once was a private family home has been preserved with a careful restoration overseen by the Department of Architecture Office , run by city historian Eusebio Leal. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually in the impressive interior courtyard with celtic musicians of Havana.

Old Havana jail
The jail with a view across the water of the La Cabana fortress, both symbols of Spanish military rule of Colonial Havana. Many Irish names were represented in the Spanish military force as Spain hired them as soldiers for their skill and determination. The soldiers were respected and often gained high rank. In 1598 Diego Brochero de Anaya wrote the Spanish King Philip III:
"that every year Your Highness should order to recruit in Ireland some Irish soldiers, who are people tough and strong, and nor the cold weather or bad food could kill them easily as they would with the Spanish, as in their island, which is much colder than this one, they are almost naked, they sleep on the floor and eat oats bread, meat and water, without drinking any wine.” Four Governors, the Captains General of Cuba were of Irish origin: Nicolás Mahy, Sebastián Kindelán, Leopoldo O'Donnell and Luís Prendergast.

The Seminario de San Carlos
In this seminary was a professor of Irish descent, the priest and doctor Juan Bernardo O'Gaban, who was born in Cuba in 1782. On both sides of the main doors are busts of the respected educators and philosophers of the seminary, José Agustín Caballero and Félix Varela. Felix Varela, a humble Cuban priest born in 1788 was later known in life as the “The Vicar to the Irish”. A brilliant polymath gifted in science, music and languages, Varela learned the Irish language so he could better minister to the poor Irish immigrants of New York City. He found himself in exile and fled to America when Spain issued a death warrant after he published his views advocating the independence of Cuba from Spain. Varela championed causes benefiting the poor, and urged for the abolition of slavery and his memory is honoured today as an early advocate for conscientious social reform.

A bust of Felix Varela
The beloved priest was known as the "Vicar to the Irish" in New York. Varela is being considered for canonization as a Catholic saint
Havana Cathedral
The Cathedral was built by the Jesuits, one from Ireland named Thomas Ignatius Butler.Ireland is inextricably linked to Cuba through shared religious history as persecuted Irish Catholics sought refuge in Spain and were awarded citizenship by the sympathetic Spaniards, settling there and leaving Irish descendants, some of whom colonized the island of Cuba.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) is the now Havana’s maritime museum. It was built to defend against pirates. There are many fascinating tales of the pirates of the Caribbean. One story is of the female pirate Anne Bonney, who was born in County Cork, Ireland. She was the lover of pirate “Calico Jack” and together they plied the seas plundering ships. Some say that Anne lived in Cuba briefly, long enough to have a child She left her son there to be raised by friends and returned to piracy with Calico Jack, until he was hung in 1720.
Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
Once the residence of Leopoldo O'Donnell, Irish captain general of Cuba in the 1840s. O'Donnell was a descendant of Red Hugh O'Donnell of Donegal, Ireland who led a revolt against the English occupation of Ireland at the turn of the 17th century.

Interior courtyard of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales The building is now the city museum. 
O'Reilly Street
At Tacon and O’Reilly Street you will see a plaque under the street name in English, Irish and Spanish "Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope: Cuba and Ireland” acknowledging the parallels in the histories of Ireland and Cuba in their struggle to be free from foreign domination. Irish revolutionary and third president of Ireland Eamon De Valera was born to an Irish- American mother Catherine Coll and it is believed his father Juan De Valera was Cuban , another interesting link between the two island nations. O’Reilly St. was named after Alejandro O'Reilly, an Irish born soldier from Spain who gained high rank and was second-in-command in Cuba. After the British successfully sieged Havana he enacted sweeping reforms once Havana was again under Spanish rule. Never again would Britain rule Cuba. The Spanish military rule of Havana continued until the War of Independence. One Irish-American scofflaw who aided the revolutionary forces during the struggle for Cuban Independence was a sea Captain named Johnny "Dynamite" O' Brien, a New Yorker of Irish descent nicknamed after the dangerous cargo of ammunitions he would deliver to the rebel forces. He successfully evaded capture by the frustrated Spanish forces and died an old man in America after a life full of adventure and exploits. From Canada William O’Ryan also joined the fight for Cuban liberation from Spanish rule.
Plaque on O'Reilly St. in English, Irish and Spanish "Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope: Cuba and Ireland". Running parallel to O'Reilly is Obispo, Old Havana's popular commercial street. At 67 Obispo was born Julio Antonio Mella a founder of the Cuban Communist party. His mother was Irish born Cecilia McPartland and he is regarded as a hero in Havana.
Plaza Vieja
At Plaza Vieja is the former home of Pedro Pablo O'Reilly, son of Alejandro O'Reilly. It is now Havana's popular micro-brewery the Taberna de Muralla where beer is served in unique tall containers chilled with an inner cylinder filled with ice. On the second floor of the building is a workshop where craftsmen build and restore musical instruments such as violins and cellos.

Paladar Las Estaciones
Las Estaciones at 254 Armagura St. is a favorite place for visiting celtic musicians. It is a paladar which is an independently owned and operated restaurant as opposed to the larger state-owned establishments. As well as weekly celtic music sessions, the Cuban pub hosts celtic musicians on special occasions such as St. Patrick's Day, Tartan Day and during Havana's April festival CeltFest Cuba.
Celtic music sessions in Old Havana
Monday and Wednesday evenings at 8pm, the paladar Las Estaciones, at 254 Armagura St, holds celtic music sessions. Cuban fiddlers and pipers (gaita and uilliean) welcome visitor musicians to their open sessions.

The Havana Hilton
This hotel is now named the Habana Libre and it was used as the headquarters of the rebel government after the Batista regime fell. Maureen O'Hara stayed at the nearby Capri Hotel when she was filming the movie "Our Man in Havana". In her biography " 'Tis Herself" she wrote "When we arrived in Havana on April 15, 1959, Cuba was a country experiencing revolutionary change. Only four months before , Fidel Castro and his supporters had toppled Fulgencio Batista... Che Guevara was often at the Capri Hotel. Che would talk about Ireland and all the guerilla warfare that had taken place there. He knew every battle in Ireland and all of its history. And I finally asked, "Che, you know so much about Ireland and talk constantly about it. How do you know so much?" He said, "Well, my grandmother's name was Lynch and I learned everything I know about Ireland at her knee." He was Che Guevara Lynch! That famous cap he wore was an Irish rebel's cap. I spent a great deal of time with Che Guevara while I was in Havana. Today he is a symbol for freedom fighters wherever they are in the world and I think he is a good one."

On the side of the Havana Libre in Vedado, is a mural "All for the Revolution" with the national Cuban heros Mella, Guevara, and Cienfuegos. The first two, Mella and Guevara, are of Irish descent. 

Irish memorial at Calle 21 and Calle I, Vedado
The lower plaque reads "They sacrificed their lives for the freedom of Ireland" written in Spanish and Irish with the names:
Bobby Sands
Francis Hughes
Raymond McCreesh
Patsy O’Hara
Joe McDonnell
Martin Hurson
Kevin Lynch
Kieran Doherty
Thomas McElwee
Michael Devine

Plaque inscription
Close up of the memorial to the Irish hunger strikers with words of Fidel Castro.

Memorial wall to Mella 
Near the University of Havana where students wait for bus transportation is a wall of photos commemorating the life of Julio Antonio Mella (McPartland) who died at the young age of 25. Julio as a student leader became a great threat to Cuban president Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship. Mella was arrested and after his release from jail he fled to Mexico. There he gathered support for his plans of an armed invasion against Machado. Mella was assassinated before he could enact his plan. Three decades later Fidel Castro, who admired and emulated Mella, launched an armed invasion from Mexico and defeated Fulgencio Batista a later Cuban dictator. Thus the lives of Mella and Castro show remarkable parallels.

Memorial commemorating Julio Antonia Mella 
This bust of Mella, the half-Irish Cuban hero, is near the University of Havana. Fidel Castro states in his autobiography that he made his decision to revolt against the corrupt American-backed Batista regime when contemplating the political situation of Cuba while sitting on the university steps. Castro admired how Mella resisted Spanish and American imperialism and how Mella championed the independent Cuban identity. Absurdly a sign "America Gym" advertising a business was visible behind Mella's monument. The juxtaposition of the sign near the memorial to Mella led Castro to his decision to resist Batista and all forms of American imperialism.

Obelisk containing the ashes of Julio Antonio Mella
Murdered at only 25 by political enemies, the young leader inspired many Cubans with his opposition to repression. Fidel Castro once said: “Nobody was ever able to do so much in such a short lifetime.”

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón 
Gates to the Colon Cemetery in Vedado, Havana. Here is possibly the most fascinating place in the most interesting city of the Caribbean. Vast, with 140 acres of impressive monuments and tombs, here lies the stories of thousands of Havana's most influential citizens.

Grave of Mary McCarthy Gomez (Colon cemetary)
Mary McCarthy Gomez Cueto was born in St. John’s Newfoundland in 1900 and passed away in Havana at the age of 108. She met Pedro Gomez Cuento as a young music student in Boston. They married and settled in Havana in 1923, where they were part of the glamorous social swirl of the era. Pedro built her a mansion in an exclusive area of Havana and named it “Villa Mary”. Pedro died in 1951 but before his death he deposited a considerable fortune and expensive jewellery (including three gold rosaries) in the First National Bank, Boston. The account was frozen by the American government embargo and Mary could not access it. Although the embargo immediately impoverished Mary, she chose to remain living in Havana while her wealthy neighbours fled. When others urged her to leave, she steadfastly stayed put as she did not want to abandon her adopted Cuban son Elio. Gradually the abandoned mansions were converted to embassies and diplomatic residences and Mary would earn money by giving piano lessons to children of the ambassadors and envoys. She became the darling of the embassy set and was often invited to official functions and would attend in elegant attire, charming the diplomatic personnel.
When asked why she didn’t return to Newfoundland and renounce her Cuban citizenship so she could have access to the Boston bank account the United States government had frozen she simply replied that Canada was too cold for her.
She lived on the modest pension from the Cuban government as a retiree until the American government relented and allowed her access to her account for medicines, but only 96$ a month.
For 50 years, instead of leaving and resuming her millionaire lifestyle, Mary stayed in Cuba with her Godson Elio Garcia by her side and is now is reunited with her beloved Pedro in death, buried with him at the Colon cemetery.
 — in Havana, Ciudad de la Habana.

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