Our educated guess is that Dr. Theodore Thaddeus Dominic O’Kelly came to Guatemala around 1696. He might be a surgeon from the ranks of the Jacobite Army that fought in Aughrim. According to his account, he was an Ulsterman born in Loughgall (County Armagh) around 1658.

In 1699, Dr. O’Kelly participated in the campaign against the last Mayan Kingdom of Itzá, located on the Island of Flores of Lake Petén Itzá. Two columns of Guatemaltecos advanced from the south, and another column of Yucatecos from the north, and converged on the lake. The Mayans managed to destroy one of the southern columns, only to allow the Yucatecos to build barges and attack their capital on the island. At the sound of the first gun it is reported that the islanders swam to safety on the mainland, abandoning the city. The Guatemalans came days after this skirmish.

Right then, the trouble started for the rookie conquerors. They had the city, but no food. They were 300 leagues away from any supporting city either north or south of them. They were surrounded by a dense tropical forest swarming with angry Mayan forces. Their lines of supply were broken, and new diseases started to erupt among the soldiers. General Melchior de Mencos asked Berrospe, the Guatemalan Governor, to send farmers, so the available land could be tilled. Berrospe sent more soldiers, only adding more mouths to the already dwindling supplies. In this context, surgeon O’Kelly writes the following appeal.

Surgeon Master’s Appeal

I, Theodore O’Kelly, surgeon to the troops that came from Guatemala, that are lodged with the garrison of Petén Itzá, hereby declare that I have 88 sick soldiers. Furthermore, two soldiers died due to both the hardships of the expedition, and lack of proper nourishment. Also, the medicines brought here were only for Itzá, and the soldiers are dying without any help. There are not supplies for the sick men. Further, both the general D. Melchior de Mencos and I have fallen ill. Then, the master purveyor has not brought back enough supplies for so many sick persons. Even the officers are dying, a second lieutenant and a corporal died some days back, and captain Mario Avalos is in a truly sorrowful state.

Hence, I affirm and declare to the acquittal of my conscience that the infantry cannot possibly be nourished only with boiled corn and beans. The sick persons are lucky if they get their hands on a corn tortilla, because there is no troop bread. Therefore, I ask license to transfer [the sick men] to another garrison to find proper nourishment and healing. Also, the able troops should go out to look for the supplies to the place where the master purveyor says they were left, otherwise, everyone will die due to the scarcity of food. Thus, I declare, and your lordships should decide promptly on the matter.

Theodore O’Kelly

The above request comes without a date, but between two documents from Petén Itzá, one from the 26th and the other from the 28th of April, 1699. This last document is a decree from general Melchior de Mencos ordering to proceed according to the surgeon’s request. [General Archive of the Indies, Seville, Guatemala 151bis, fo. 168v-169r.]

Not surprisingly, Dr. O’Kelly became involved in local politics against Berrospe, the fumbling Governor of Guatemala. The party supporting the Governor were called “Berrospistas”, and the party supporting Gomez de la Madriz, the King’s envoy, were called “Tequelíes”, from the signature of T. Kelly, or allowing for Spanish spelling, “T. Quelí”.

The last notice we have on Dr. O’Kelly comes at the turn of the 18th. century. A bill from the archdiocese of Guatemala pays to Dr. O’Kelly the dues for embalming the late Mons. Andres de las Navas, the archbishop. Mons. Navas was Dr. O’Kelly mentor and political ally.

Dr. O’Kelly is remembered as one of the leading medical authorities in Guatemala at the end of the 17th. century. His colleagues were to build the medical school of the Guatemalan University in the early 18th. century.

Related Reading:

Viva Irlanda! The Irish Influence in Latin America

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Tags: Americas, Armagh, Diaspora History, Guatemala, Latin America, Mayans, Military History

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on June 14, 2014 at 2:42pm

This is a fantastic summary of the life and times of a most interesting man, Juan Pablo.  I'm sure you proud to be a descendant of Theodore O'Kelly.  I'm fascinated by the stories of Irish men and women whose lives and pursuits took them to all corners of the earth ... such as Guatemala.  Thanks for sharing this with us.  Hope to read much more about your connections and Guatemala's connections to Ireland in the days to come.


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