To mark St. Patrick’s Day, let’s take a look at a little-know dimension of Basque history: the Irish connection in Bizkaia. At the outset I’d like to acknowledge the short but highly informative study by Amaia Bilbao, The Irish Community in the Basque Country c. 1700-1800, from which the following information is taken.

From the mid-seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries different waves of Irish immigrants came to Bizkaia (mainly Bilbao), having abandoned their native land in search of asylum and new economic opportunities. While slow at first, immigration levels picked up and were especially significant in two periods, 1720-1730 and 1750-1760. Thereafter, immigration levels fell off and by the end of the eighteenth century had been reduced to fairly insignificant numbers.

The first Irish immigrants, though lesser in number than later arrivals, were higher in social status and their arrival coincides with a period roughly between the late seventeenth and early to mid-eighteenth century. They were members of the clergy (mainly Dominican priests) and the Catholic landed class fleeing religious and political turmoil in their native land. This social elite came from long established dynasties (like the Madan, Power, Geraldin, Browne, Morgan, and Grant families) in County Waterford in southeast Ireland. These families were in the main Jacobites – loyal to Catholic King James II and the Stuart royal house in opposition to first the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and later  William III from the Orange royal house.


Uniform and colonel’s flag of the Hibernia Regiment, Irish exiles in the service of the Spanish crown. mid-eighteenth century. A. Valdés Sánchez, Brown University Library, Madrid. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Most of these high-ranking Irish families fled first to France with James II, and only later settled in Bizkaia. Some retained their status by entering into the service of the Spanish army (which, like France, had an Irish Brigade) but most went into trade and later industry, including the Shee, Power, Archer, Laules, Moroni, Joyce Browne, Linch, and Killi Kelly families. Indeed, it was these Irish families that helped to develop the tanning industry in Bizkaia and subsequently encouraged the second-wave of Irish immigration: craftsmen.


A barrel or drum used to tan hides, Igualada Leather Museum, Barcelona. Photo by Joan Grifols. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Specialist Irish craftsmen began arriving in Bizkaia, especially in and around Bilbao, in the mid-eighteenth century, attracted by the opportunities established by their compatriots above all in the tanning industry. This second wave was made up of people of more humble social status. They brought specialist skills and innovative techniques with them. The typical profile of this Irish immigration was that of two or three brothers, who quickly made a name for themselves in the tanning industry as is the case of the Doran, Savage, McDermott, and O’Moran brothers. Social and family networks were then established to encourage further immigration.


Luis Paret, View of El Arenal in Bilbao  (c.1783-1784). Google Art Project. Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By the mid-eighteenth century, only the French outnumbered the Irish in number when it came to foreign merchants residing in Bilbao. While they were especially prominent in the tanning sector, the Irish were also important cobblers, blacksmiths, watchmakers, and master builders. Most of the tanners settled in what were then the separate towns of Begoña and Abando (today neighborhoods of Bilbao), as well as in Barakaldo and Arrigorriaga. Some exceptions to this Bilbao-centered settlement were Pablo Conningham, who resided in Durango in 1763 and Juan José Doran in Balmaseda.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the Irish community in Bizkaia maintained its distinct cultural identity through in-marriage with both the Irish diaspora community as a whole, especially in Spain, France, and Portugal, but also with families back in Ireland. Such links also served a commercial purpose in the Atlantic trade between ports like Cádiz, Lisbon, and Bilbao. The maintenance of this distinct identity was also the result of some reticence, and even hostility, on the part of Bizkaians toward these incomers, who were labeled with the pejorative term chiguiris. Such differences were reinforced legally–especially in the early part of the century–by restrictions being applied on all foreigners making it difficult to acquire citizen status in the Seigniory of Bizkaia (a measure strongly linked to a policy of thwarting commercial competition from people from outside the seigniory).

Gradually, though, and especially with Irish immigration toward the end of the eighteenth century waning, the distinct nature of the Irish community in Bizkaia began to weaken. First, Irish families were by now long-established in Bizkaia and felt a bond with this new land.  At the same time Bizkaians also appear to have become more accepting of their presence. Through the eighteenth century, one sees joint Irish-Basque companies formed in Bizkaia. In 1752, for example, a company supplying meat to Bilbao, Begoña, Deusto, and Abando was established by Matías Welldon with the Bizkaians Echezarraga and Andirengoechea. Welldon, the Irishman, was the only tanner of the three and he would receive the animal hides for his tannery. Second, by the late eighteenth century, the Irish association with the tanning sector was being challenged by a new wave of skilled immigrants in that sector from the Iparralde and Béarn. And finally, the whole sector itself began to decline as a result of new tax measures introduced by the Spanish crown in 1779.

This resulted in declining Irish immigration and the combination of these factors–greater socioeconomic integration and declining Irish immigration–meant that by the nineteenth century the Irish in Bizkaia lost their distinct identity and were integrated into Bizkaian society as a whole. This integration involved fairly mundane acts like changing surnames (some straightforward such as Everard to Everardo, but others more creative like Murphy to Morfil), but its also included the joining of important merchant clans, such as the Power Larrea and Archer Velasco families. But it also took place among the more humble social classes. And members of the Irish community came to occupy important positions in Bizkaia. For example, Patricio McMahon was appointed Cabo de Barrio (a kind of cross between mayor and principal law enforcement official) of Abando in 1778.

By the nineteenth century, then, the Irish community in Bizkaia had to come to demonstrate a classic pattern of immigration and assimilation. But it is worth recalling the contribution of the Irish to this little-known part of Basque history, especially on a day like today.

Happy San Patrizio eguna or St. Patrick’s Day everyone!