The unruly assortment of volunteers from Ireland, who had joined Bolivar's War of Independence against the colonial Spanish, quickly found that their capacity for alcohol, their incapacity for discipline and a single common denominator of language placed them collectively (and very loosely) in a "British" Legion with straggling English, Welsh and Scottish mercenaries of war.
Throughout Venezuela's and South America's liberation history you'll find more records of the Irish than the Brits. One thousand men of the (clearly defined) IRISH LEGION landed on Margarita Island in August 1819. And two thousand one hundred more Irish soldiers reached Venezuela in organized Irish regiments during the next years. Twelve thousand were to follow in their footsteps to secure liberty for South America from brutal Spanish colonialism.
It's clear Bolivar was glad to have the fighting Irish on his side; fresh from the bloody battlefields of Europe, survivors of the Napoleonic Wars. Bolivar appointed a Dr. Thomas Foley (from County Kerry) as Inspector General of his Military Hospitals. Another Kerry-man, Arthur Sandes, rose to the rank of Brigadier-General under Bolivar and became a military legend remembered well in Quito, Ecuador. Bolivar, in fact, may have owed his life to an Irish Lieutenant Colonel, William Ferguson, who died defending The Liberator from his political enemies. Ferguson died during a murder attempt against Bol�var (September 25, 1828) but the Liberator had already left the San Carlos Palace by the time the brave Irishman showed up. Not knowing that Bolivar had already managed to flee, Ferguson bravely decided to attack the rebels and was shot to death.
Daniel Florence O'Leary, from County Cork (his mother was from Belfast) gained Simon Bolivar's highest esteem, was appointed Bolivar's personal Aide-de-Campe and as Bolivar's military and political strategist, also rose to Brigadier General. O'Leary's memoirs are an extraordinary compilation of eyewitness accounts, personal correspondence and documents which provide the best historical insight into Venezuela's and South America's Independence period ... O'Leary's writings, published in Caracas by his son, fill 34 volumes!
The independence struggle in faraway Venezuela had already touched traditional chords in Ireland, which had always sent its sons to serve and fight in foreign wars. The Irish Friends of South American Independence threw a fund-raising banquet on July 19, 1819 and eager young Irish men volunteered by the hundreds to join the Irish Legion for faraway adventure.
But, many of the Irish to reach Venezuelan shores, scarcely made it off the ships that carried them on the 4,500 miles voyage to South America. Bolivar had only $1,000 in his treasury and could not pay for their food or uniforms, much less to arm them for the battles in which almost all of them would subsequently lose their lives.
Clothing and medical supplies were almost non-existent and many of the fair-skinned Irish succombed to the harsh tropical sun, starvation or unknown disease. They lived in flea-invested shacks on the shores of Margarita Island and dysentry, typhus and yellow fever took their toll. Irish Captain W. J. Adam in his "Journal of Voyages" (Dublin, 1824) dramatically describes the crisis lived in Juan Griego during September, 1819: "Two of our Officers (Davis and Jones) died, and were buried with military honors in the sands: many others were lying a prey to wretchedness and want, without beds, proper nourishment, medicine or care.
Ten to twenty Irishmen per day were being buried in the sands of Margarita's Juan Griego and at Playa El Agua, many of the bodies simply crammed into wooden barrels. In seven months, five hundred and fifty (550) Irish soldiers died ... and that was before any battle had begun!
Later they were to be used as an amphibious raiding force, baiting Spanish royalist garrisons along the Venezuelan and Colombian coasts, drawing their attention away from Bolivar's inland campaign. In one assault, on Riocacha, the royalists were right royally routed and the Irish Legion flew its flag -- bearing an Irish Harp -- high over Riocacha's fortress and the Irish-occupied town. Under the leadership of General Mariano Montilla the Irish Legion was force-marched across the Guajira Peninsula towards Maracaibo but were all but wiped out in an attack by Guajira Indians, armed by the Spaniards, who lay in ambush. The Spanish cruelly stood and watched Irish soldiers burn to death after torching their rearguard Headquarters, some Indian huts.
The Irish Lancers, under the command of Colonel Francis Burdett O'Connor (from County Cork), brought up last-minute assistance with two field guns and a company of sharp-shooters. O'Connor himself led a charge against an enemy force estimated at 1,700 and sent the Spaniards fleeing. The feat was itself remarkable since the supposedly light cavalry didn't have so much as a horse among them....
Finding their valor and fighting prowess generally unappreciated by General Montilla many of the surviving Irish soldiers demanded to be returned home to Ireland. When Montilla tried to starve them into submission, the soldiers ransacked towns and villages, looting valuables and drinking all the alcohol they could find. Fires were started and Riocacha's fort was blown up, the town virtually razed to the ground.
"The soldiers," Montillo wrote, "have combined dishonor with barbarity, for they have requited friendship and kindness of the people of Riocacha by setting fire to the town."