John “Don Juan” O’Brien: An Irishman in South America

The hot summer sun beat down on 72-year-old John (Don Juan) O’Brien as he slowly mounted the wooden platform in the Plaza de Armas in Lima, Peru. The Cathedral of Lima (below-left) loomed above the plaza that 28th of July, 1858, just as it had on the same day in 1821. On that day, O’Brien had stood proudly next to General José de San Martín, the great hero of the successful revolutions against Spain in southern and central South America.

O’Brien’s mind must have wandered back to that glorious day when he had stood behind the general with a group of San Martin’s leading officers as Peru’s independence was declared in front of an enthusiastic crowd. For San Martin, now known as the “hombre necesario,” the indispensable one, of South America’s liberation, and for O’Brien as well, this moment was the pinnacle of his life. In the Engish speaking world, Bolívar has far overshadowed him, but many believe San Martin’s contribution to liberation was more important.

Now, 37 years later, O’Brien related to the crowd as he began his speech, that only three of the sixteen men who stood behind San Martin that day were still alive. In his last years, O’Brien gave much of his time and energy to the building of statues and monuments commemorating the great men who had brought independence to the continent with just a few thousand men.

“Were not Chile and Peru completely occupied by the Spanish when San Martin, with only 3,200 men crossed the Andes, liberated Chile, and established the independence of Peru? And is it not ingratitude to forget such a great hero? But no, Peru must remember and do justice to the men who established her nationhood,” he told the cheering crowd.

And the man who had lived and fought through those battles with San Martin could not help but get in one shot at what he thought was the unfair exalting of Bolívar far above San Martin. “The merits of Bolívar were great in respect to Peru,” he said, “but those of San Martin were colossal.” And the old soldiers could be forgiven if those reading between the lines might also allow some of the credit for those glorious days to flow down on one of San Martin’s most loyal and trusted aides: John Thomond (Don Juan) O’Brien.

(José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar at the Guayaquil Conference.)

John Bryan was born on June 23, 1786, in Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow. Later, in South America, Bryan changed his last name to O’Brien; a more impressive one, in Irish history. He would also add the middle name of Thomond, after the western Ireland region that had been ruled over by the O’Brien clan, just in case anyone was unsure of the branch of the O’Brien clan to which he “belonged.”

The Bryan family was one of the few Catholic families that hung on to enough money during the days of the repressive Penal Laws to stay in the middle class into the last 18th century when many of those laws were moderated or repealed. John’s father, Martin, was probably involved in the textile business and provided well for the family. So young John had a better life in Ireland than most Catholic children of the time.

(Left: Baltinglas Abbey.)

Though little is known of his early life, John likely got a decent education. An event that may have affected his decisions later in life was the short “gold rush” in Wicklow in 1795. Though it was shortly clear that the gold deposits were not huge, some of the talk about it compared it to far-off place where there was a gold rush at the time: Peru. It may well be that the stories that young John heard about this exotic land fired his imagination and help to later inspire his emigration.

The most significant event of his childhood would have been the 1798 Rising. The Bryan family, no doubt anxious to protect their position of relative privilege, did not support the United Irishmen. Wicklow country was a hotbed of United Irish support, however, and neighboring County Wexford saw some of the hardest fighting of the Rising. How much effect that experience had on the 12-year-old John he never said, but perhaps it later made him look favorably upon revolutionary ideas.

(Right: The badge of the United Irishmen.)

When Martin Bryan died in 1805, John’s future, as the 2nd son, was uncertain. The eldest son, Laurence, took over the family businesses. John departed Baltinglass when he was 25, but not before he had apparently squandered all the money his father had left him and more, causing his brother to have to sell off some property to pay off John’s debts.

John likely felt he needed to move on to make his fortune at 25. Exactly where he went when he left is uncertain. He told one biographer that he traveled directly to South America, but some historians believe he traveled to Great Britain and joined the Royal Artillery, deserting after serving for less than a year. Whichever is true, he convinced Laurence to help him out again, giving him a 25,000 peso ($6400) line of credit to use to get into the textile business in the new world. He later claimed that he was also motivated by a desire to contribute to the struggle against Spain’s rule there. Perhaps it was; he would not be the first young man inspired by the thoughts of military adventures in faraway lands.

Whatever the exact circumstances of his departure, he probably arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil some time in 1811. He was very lucky that he arrived at all. This first of what would be many trips across the Atlantic ended in disaster for most of the passengers when the Portuguese ship went down in a storm near the island of Fernando Po off the coast of West Africa. Only a few survived, including John, perhaps because he was still young and physically fit. Getting to the island was just half the battle, however. The only civilization on the island, Santa Isabel (now called Malabo), was miles away and now John also had a severe fever. But he managed to survive to head out later on a British ship.

There was more “adventure” to come, however. At 6-foot 2-inch, very tall in those times, and said to be well-built and quite handsome, John would be something of a womanizer most of his adult life, and it would sometimes get him in trouble. This time it was a shipboard romance with the daughter of a Quaker. Her father arranged to have him transferred off to a Brazilian ship in the mid-Atlantic. After all that, he finally arrived in Rio and then moved on to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

When his early business attempts did not pan out well, and with his younger brother, James, there to take over the family business, John was looking for something more. Now calling himself John Thormond O’Brien, he decided to attempt to join the mounted grenadier regiment of José de San Martin in 1813. This decision set him on the path that brought him fame around the world, though never the fortune he hoped would go with that. He later wrote that he “resolved to dedicate myself to the cause of liberty, and devote my life to the defense of the rights of the South American people.” Whether he was quite as dedicated at that time is debatable, but he certainly would dedicate many years to that cause over the rest of his life.

O’Brien’s first action came during the Seige of Montevideo in 1814. The siege was made possible by the actions of another Irishmen, William “Guillermo” Brown of Foxford, Co. Mayo. Brown, who is considered the “Father of the Argentine Navy.” He commanded a makeshift fleet that defeated the Spanish fleet that was blockading Buenos Aires. His victory allowed the Argentines to successfully capture Montevideo. O’Brien performed admirably as an aide to General Miguel Soler during the siege. This resulted in him being promoted to command of the personal escort of the army commander, General Carlos María Alvear.

(Right: Admiral William "Guillermo" Brown.)

O’Brien became worried by some of Alvear’s behavior, however, and resigned his commission. He was not disillusioned with serving in the military itself though, and soon rejoined San Martin’s grenadiers in Mendoza. San Martin was there beginning the organization of his legendary “Army of the Andes.” He planned to march directly over the Andes to liberate Chile from the Spanish. Chile had been liberated in 1810, but then retaken by Spain in 1814. He then planned to march north to assault the center of Spanish power in South America, in Lima, Peru. Also in Mendoza and allied to San Martin was Chilean leader Bernardo O’Higgins, whose father was born in Ireland.

The training and recruiting of the Army of the Andes would take many months. O’Brien once again showed himself to be an excellent officer during that time. In early 1816 he was assigned to guard a vital pass in the Andes and successfully drove off an attempt by Spanish loyalists to pass through it. Though he lost no men in the fight, eleven of his twenty-five man would die of hypothermia or altitude sickness before they were relieved in July. This shows just how brutal the conditions were on the route San Martin planned to use to attack Chile.

(Left: General José de San Martin.)

Back in Mendoza, O’Brien thoroughly enjoyed the days the army spent there. He became a well-known guest at the many parties and balls to which San Martin’s officers were invited. He was also known to enjoy the company of many beautiful women during that time and apparently would sometimes discuss his conquests with other officers. One such contact nearly ended in disaster when he commented about one such young lady who was, unknown to O’Brien, related to another officer, Juan Lavalle, who would later be an Argentine leader. Lavalle challenged O’Brien to a duel with sabers.

Before the date of the duel, O’Brien realized the lady in question was not the one related to Lavalle. But affairs of “honor” being what they were in those times, he did not reveal this to Lavalle and the duel was held as planned. Luckily, their duel ended when O’Brien sustained a wound on his right wrist. So honor was served, and it’s likely O’Brien then told Lavalle of the mistaken identity.

O’Brien also made a name for himself in Mendoza in a way that uniquely enamored him to the native population. His “hobby” was going into the bullfighting ring as a matador. It may well have been around this time that he started to be known as “Don Juan” O’Brien.

(Right: John "Don Juan" O'Brien in all the splendor of his prime.)

O’Brien used the time in Mendoza to raise himself in San Marin’s esteem. When San Martin needed to meet with the Pehuenche tribe in the Andes for safe passage of his army, he sent O’Brien to set up a meeting and to help persuade them.

The Army of the Andes started their epic march of that mountain rage in January 1817. The army crossed the Andes in four different places, with the main body split between Los Patos Pass, where San Martin commanded the largest group, O’Brien being with him as an aide, and the remainder of the main body through Uspallata Pass. Commanded by Juan Gregoriao de las Heras. It took the army about 25 days to make the arduous trek across the mountains.

The exact numbers in San Martin’s army are not known, but it ranges from a low of 3500 to a high of 6000. Whatever the exact number, the lack of oxygen at the highest altitudes took a terrible toll on the soldiers. As many as a third of them may have died or been disabled.

(Below: Generals José de San Martín (left) and Bernardo O'Higgins (right) during the crossing of the Andes.)

Having beaten this formidable natural “enemy,” the rebels were ready to fight. They descended on the Spanish royalist army at Chacabuco, Chile, north of Santiago, on February 12th. Though O’Higgins attacked too early, San Martin’s plan still worked and the royalists were thoroughly routed. O’Brien performed splendidly in delivering San Martin’s orders around the battlefield and was with O’Higgins and participate with his men in the charge that began the rout. During the final part of the battle, he captured the royalist standard.

San Martin then showed his great confidence in O’Brien by putting him in charge of the pursuit of the Spanish commander, Maroto. Though he was not able to catch up with him, he did come upon a bag containing 25,000 pesos. Back in Santiago, he gave this money to the new Chilian government, though he had a right to a portion of it. He would later regret that decision.

As the rebel army entered Santiago, San Martin was offered the leadership of the new government but declined and it was offered to Bernardo O’Higgins, who accepted. San Martin still had work to do to the north in Peru.

(Below: Bernardo O'Higgins)

San Martin then returned to Argentina looking for arms and ships for his planned assault north. That O’Brien accompanied him shows how important he now was to the general. Returning then to Santiago, O’Briens found he was now a minor celebrity and took full advantage of that, as a “man about town.” Chilean history Vicuña Mackenna wrote that O’Brien had two passions, “battles and good-looking women.”

Before San Martin could head north, there were still royalists holding out in southern Chile to be dealt with. After a momentary setback at the battle of Cancha Rayada, they ended the royalist threat with a victory on April 4, 1818, at Maipú. O’Brien once again lead a successful cavalry charge; this time against the royalist Burgos regiment that was some considered the turning point in the victory. He was once again sent in pursuit of the Spanish leader, Osorio, and again failed. But this time he captured a suitcase full of Osorio’s papers that proved to be valuable. Among them were names of traitors to the rebels' cause in Santiago. San Martin later burned those lists, which O’Brien considered one of his most magnanimous gestures.

O’Brien was now a certified hero of the revolution. The Chilean government awarded him a silver medal and O’Higgins gave him Chile’s Legion of Merit and he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. San Martin told O’Brien that “no soldier in the whole of his army was so well deserving” .of the honors he received.

San Martin once again took time to resupply and recruit his army in Chile before departing for Peru in August 1820. They went by boat in a fleet commanded by Scottish Admiral Thomas Cochrane. Sailing aboard the frigate Áquila, O’Brien again performed bravely in the face of danger when a fire broke out below in the gunpowder-filled ship. When most of the crew ran on the deck, O’Brien and two others ran below and put the fire out, avoiding disaster. The army landed in Huacho, north of Lima.

(Left: O'Higgins and San Martin celebrating the victory at Maipú.)

The fighting in Peru was particularly brutal, with many civilians slaughtered by the royalist. But their brutality only increased the opposition to their rule in the countryside, building up the ranks of the “montoneras,” the local guerrilla forces. In late July, the royalist abandoned Lima, but the war continued. In what would turn out to be one of his last battles, O’Brien was nearly captured several times during a desperate retreat from royalists on Mt. Puruchuco as he commanded the rear guard. The end of Spanish colonial rule was in sight. It took a little longer for the Spanish to be driven out of Peru. O’Brien would not be there at the end.

(Below: San Martin proclaiming the independence of Peru on July 28, 1821, in Lima, Peru.)

In 1821, O’Brien was granted leave to visit Ireland, something he had wanted to do for some time. First, though, San Martin gave him the very prestigious job of visiting the liberated counties of South America with all the flags and banners that had been captured from the royalists. This cemented his position as one of the major heroes of the liberation wars.

The remainder of O’Brien’s life would be spent in many different pursuits he hoped would make him rich. Though he would never succeed, no one would say that later life was ever boring. One of the first ventures he got involved with was a scheme to recruit a large number of Irish to come to Argentina and later to Chile. O’Brien was now well-known in Ireland and England for his exploits with San Martin. While back in Ireland he met with and supported Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation efforts, further increasing his esteem among the Irish population.

(Below: José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar at the Guayaquil Conference on July 26, 1822, where San Martin ceded control of his army to Bolívar.)

Unfortunately, O’Brien was unable to persuade the British government to support his plans, the first of many post-revolution disappointments for him. Still, he had put the idea into the heads of many Irishmen and women who would later emigrate. In September 1824 he traveled back to Argentina. When his attempts to rejoin the Argentine army were refused, O’Brien traveled to Peru in early 1825, where Simón Bolívar now commanded his forces combined with San Martain’s. Bolívar had completed the victory over Spanish colonialism at the Battle of Ayachcucho on December 9, 1824.

Bolívar put O’Brien on his staff, making him one of the few officers who served with both of the heroes of South American liberation. A long-time member of Bolívar's starff was Corkman Daniel Florence (Florencio) O'Leary. O’Brien then accompanied him on a triumphant tour through the south. Seeing many mines becoming active again after the end of the war, O’Brien saw another opportunity and got Bolívar to give him a 25-year lease on an old mine in Laykakota. The mine was flooded and there were years of work ahead to make it profitable again.

O’Brien traveled back to Ireland again in 1828. While there he made a side trip to Brussels for a visit with his old commander, San Martin. San Martin had just lost his wife, and his health was failing, but no doubt reminiscing with his old comrade for a few days was a pleasant interlude for him. Returning to Buenos Aires, O'Brien did a lot of fundraising for the cause of Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. In March 1829 he wrote to O’Connell telling him it was his “fixed determination to use all my influence in these countries, even to Chile and Peru."

(Below: A drawing of Gongo Soco mine in 1839.)

With none of his attempts at getting rich paying off, O’Brien began a new and adventurous “career” as an explorer and gold prospector in one of the most inhospitable places on earth: the Amazon basin. He was now in his mid-40s and had lived a very hard life with all his military exploits, but many had commented before on his boundless energy. And so he sailed upstream into the Amazon, a place from which many never returned.

Visiting the Gongo Soco mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil, which was run by Cornish miners, an elderly miner told O’Brien a story of a fantastically rich gold area in the Paucartambo Valley in far reaches of the Amazon in eastern Peru. Like so many men before and since he was gripped with “gold fever” for several years to come.

(Below: A photo of the upper Amazon basin in the 1860s.)

Over his years looking for the “big strike” in the Amazon basin, O’Brien would become of the foremost collectors of the plants and animals of this vast region. According to “The British Packet” in 1833: “Probably it might be said of Colonel O’Brien, that no one has traveled so much of South America.” During his travels, O’Brien would collect samples of flora and fauna of the South American jungles and other areas and send them back to Great Britain. He also played an important part in the introduction of alpaca wool in Great Britain.”

Many of the natural history museums of the time in Great Britain and Ireland were displaying the samples he brought out of the jungle with him. He used that money to finance his further explorations, always hoping to find that “golden valley.”

The politics of South America in the years after liberation were very unstable, which often interfered with the commercial plans of O’Brien and others. In 1835 he got militarily involved again in Peru when he served as an aide to General André Santa Cruz of Bolivia in a war with Peru. He was said to have had two horses shot out from under him in the decisive battle at Yanacocha. Santa Cruz presented him with a captured banner in honor of his bravery during the battle.

(Right: General André Santa Cruz.)

The 50-year-old O’Brien now appears to have attempted to settle down in Lima. He married 16-year-old Manuela de la Herrán y Leon, which was as not that unusual in South America at the time, as repulsive as it may seem today. Manuela would very shortly give him a daughter, Isabel, but his plans to settle down were once again disrupted by the political upheaval of the times. Chile and Argentina were very suspicious of the ambitions of Santa Cruz, who now ruled the combined Peru-Bolivia nation. In 1837, he asked O’Brien, who was a hero in Arentina, to deliver a diplomatic document to the Argentines while on his way back to Europe again.

The new Argentine leader was Juan Manuel de Rosas, whom O’Brien knew and thought was a friend. Soon after arriving in Buenos Aires, however, his “friend” had him thrown into Cuna prison. He would spend nearly seven miserable months in that hell hole. At one point it appeared Rosas was going to execute him, though he had not been charged with anything.

O’Brien was finally released on December 24, 1837. He recalled having to be carried to a carriage “as if I was a child,” near-death with pneumonia. He departed for England in March 1838 and would not return to Europe for several years.

On O’Brien’s return to Ireland in December, he got the kind of hometown hero reception that must have warmed his heart in spite of all of his trials and tribulations since the end of the liberation wars. The Dublin Evening Post called him "one of our most gallant countrymen." While there he helped Daniel O’Connell raise money again, this time for the repeal of the Act of Union. He also visited San Martin, now living in Paris,  for the last time.

(Left: The elderly General San Martin.)

O’Brien lived for a time in Baltinglas and wrote to O’Higgins that he was “quite happy in my native land.” But soon his thoughts returned to South America. In September 1841, bought a sheep farm in Uruguay, rather than Argentina, hoping to avoid problems with Rosas again. But Argentia and Uraquay were involved in constant disputes, along with internal disputes within Uraguay.

The farm, near the town of Las Minas, might well have been a success, but the political instability of the region thwarted his ambitions once again. On February 12, 1844, catastrophe struck when his farm and all his livestock was seized by the mayor of Mataojo de Solis Grande. It may have been because of perceived support by O’Brien of a rival Uruguayan faction or, as O’Brien believed, at the behest of Rosas. Whichever the case, he had lost everything.

O’Brien sailed back and forth across the Atlantic six times in the next five years, desperately trying to get the British government to use their influence to get his losses repaid by Uraguay. In 1849 he gave up that quest and after that spent time in Chile and Peru, where was still looked on with favor. He managed to obtain a pension from both countries, keeping him from becoming destitute.

One of O’Brien’s passions in his last years was promoting the erection of monuments to the men and events of the now-famous wars of liberation around South America. He spent as much time as possible in a small cabin he had constructed in the hills above Santiago. Above the door, he had a plaque that said “O’Brien’s Castle.”

(Right: Plaque in Baltinglas, naming O'Brien a hero of the South American independence wars.) 

John “Don Juan” O’Brien died at the Irish College in Lisbon on June 1, 1861, while attempting to return to South America after another trip home. He was entombed in Prazeres Cemetery. His long struggle for fortune and fame was over. He had never achieved the fortunes he dreamed of, but fame he did have, at least in his own times. Chilean historian, Pablo Figueroa tried to get O’Brien’s body returned to Chile at the time but failed.

If O’Brien was forgotten by most in Ireland in the years that followed, he was not forgotten in South America. In 1935, the Argentine government succeeded in getting his remains returned to Buenos Aires. He was met there by the President and members of his cabinet, which would have pleased him greatly, and reinterred in Recoleta cemetery. Then in 2017, his remains were moved again, to the city of Medoza, and reinterred with military honors at the "El Plumerillo" Historical Field in the town where San Martin had formed the army that had played such a large part in liberating South America. On Saturday, September 16, 2006, South American descendants of O’Brien visited his hometown of Baltinglass to unveil a plaque in his memory.

Before he left it for the final time, O’Brien put up another plaque on his little cabin in Chile that said: “Here rests the heart of General John O’Brien.” He had suffered much frustration in his attempts to get rich in South America in the post-liberation decades, and yet this shows that General John “Don Juan” O’Brien never lost his love and affection for South America and its people.

RELATED LINKS:

“Don Juan O'Brien:  An Irish adventurer in nineteenth-Century South America” by Tim Fanning

San Martin - Wikipedia

Bernardo O'Higgins - Wikipedia

Westmeath Immigrants to Argentina

O'Brien's Gold Prospecting

Guillermo (William or Liam) Brown

Daniel Florence (Florencio) O'Leary

The Irishman Who Was a Major Player in Chilean Independence (O'Higgins)

St. Patrick's Day in Chile

Guillermo MacLoughlin: Introduction of an Irish-Argentinean to the Group

Anthony Dominic Fahy, Irish Chaplain of Argentina

Viva Irlanda! Transcript from Live Chat with Jim Goulding About the Irish Influence in Latin America

"John O'Brien" song by the Wolfetones (youtube)

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Comment by The Wild Geese on April 19, 2022 at 2:12pm

Wolfetones: John O'Brien ... with lyrics

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