Thursday, 28 April 2011 20:20

Barack Obama and other Irish heads of Foreign States

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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With President Barack Obama's visit to Ireland soon it may be time for a topical blog on some other Irishmen who became heads of Foreign States.

Famous examples from the twentieth century are well known - the visit of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy to Ireland in June 1963 was a very important event for Independent Ireland. In more recent times Paul Keating, the Prime Minister of Australia, also paid Ireland a state visit.

However, it was not just in the twentieth century that the descendants of Irish emigrants rose to become the heads of foreign countries. In the second half of the nineteenth century there were two very important examples, Leopold O'Donnell, who became Prime Minister of Spain, and Patrice MacMahon, who rose to be President of the French Republic.

Leopold O'Donnell was descended from the branch of the O'Donnells led by Niall Garbh O'Donnell in the early 1600s, who migrated to the province of Connacht during the seventeenth century. Born in the year 1809, Leopold was a descendant of Calvagh Dubh O'Donnell, who in turn was descended from Niall Garbh's brother Conn O'Donnell, who was killed when the Monastery of Donegal blew up in a gunpowder explosion during the Nine Years War in 1601. Leopold O'Donnell's grandfather was Don Henry O'Donnell, Conde d'Abisbal, a famous Spanish officer in Catalonia during the Napoleonic Wars. It was Don Henry's father, Joseph O'Donnell, who was born around the year 1725 and who was a son of Calvagh Dubh O'Donnell, who was the first of the family to go to Spain and join the Spanish army. Don Henry was famous for leading a large mule train guarded by his Ultonia regiment into Gerona in 1809 to supply the starving townspeople. General Henry O'Donnell died in 1834.

Leopold O'Donnell first rose to prominence in Spain during the Carlist wars, in which two of his brothers were killed. When the Queen's forces were victorious Leopold was appointed Captain-General of Cuba. O'Donnell became Prime Minister of Spain in 1858 and was in power until March 1863, a time known in Spanish politics as 'O'Donnell's Long Ministry'. Perhaps Leopold O'Donnell's greatest achievement while Spanish Prime Minister was his invasion of Morocco in 1860 and the capture of the city of Tetuan in February 1860. O'Donnell received the title Duke of Tetuan for his efforts. However, he eventually fell out with his patron Queen Isabella who forced him to resign in 1863. O'Donnell returned to power for a period in 1865. He died in 1867.

Patrice MacMahon's ancestors emigrated to France from Limerick in the early eighteenth century. Born in 1808, his family having becoming minor noblemen, Patrice entered the French army. Commissioned a Lieutenant in 1827, MacMahon quickly rose through the ranks of the French officer corps, serving in Algeria where he was a noted commander of units of the French Foreign Legion. Promoted to Brigadier-General in 1848, by 1852 MacMahon had become a Lieutenant-General. Patrice MacMahon became famous during the Crimean War when he led his men to storm the Malakoff redoubt, a key fort defending the Russian naval base at Sebastapol. After holding the redoubt against fierce Russian counter-attacks, Sebastapol surrendered. The French Emperor Napoleon III promoted MacMahon to full general the next day. (11 September 1855).

General MacMahon went on to distinguish himself during the French campaign in northern Italy fought against the Austrian army in 1859, where he played important roles in the French victories at Robecchetto, Magenta and Solferino.  For these services Napoleon III created MacMahon a Marshal of France. Although Marshal MacMahon was a prominent commander who bore some of the responsibilty for France's humiliating defeat in the war against Prussia and the other German states in 1870, he managed to maintain his popularity with the French public. MacMahon was put in command of the new army of the Fench Republic which brutally suppressed the Paris Commune in 1871. Again MacMahon was not blamed by the French people for the very brutal manner in which the French army retook control of Paris. Although he was a monarchist, Marshal MacMahon became President of France in 1873 at the age of 65. A popular president MacMahon re-organised the French army and politely rebuffed the approaches of Royalist Pretenders. He resigned his office in 1879 and died in 1893 aged 85.

The descendants of Leopold O'Donnell and Patrice MacMahon continue to live in Spain and France today. These two men were very distinguished Irishmen at a time when their fellow Catholics in their own country were never allowed to rise to such prominent positions. As such they must have been an inspiration to many Irish men and women in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly those in the Home Rule movement which was seeking to establish a parliament and government for Ireland. With the visit of President Obama to Ireland soon, Irish people may begin again to ponder the forces which dispersed Irish emigrants all over the globe, and also the circumstances which enabled a priviledged few to rise to the highest offices of state in their adopted homelands.

Last modified on Friday, 29 April 2011 11:30
Darren McGettigan

Darren McGettigan

Darren is an historian, author and genealogist from County Wicklow, Ireland. He provides genealogy services to help you discover your family history in Ireland.