In Ireland in1819, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an abundance of trained soldiers, who had seen action on the battlefields of Europe, who had been demobbed and had come home to a country facing into a post-war period of economic depression. An opportunity arose for many of these ex-soldiers to exploit their military skills on another foreign battlefield. Simon Bolivar, known as ‘The Liberator’, was conducting a war in Venezuela against the Spanish rulers of the country. John Devereux, an opportunist Wexford-man who had been trading in arms with the insurgents, undertook to raise an Irish Legion of 5000 men for Bolivar and was to be paid $175 for each man recruited. He was none too scrupulous about who he recruited and throughout 1819 there was a constant stream of ships and men setting sail for Venezuela from the harbour of Dunleary. In August the following report appeared,
On the 20th inst. The ‘Peggy’ of Workington, with 25 officers and 250 men, and the ‘Brothers’, with 20 officers and 200 men, sailed from Dunleary to join the South American Patriots ; their destination is Margeretta. On board the former are Captain Anglem and Lieut Hewson, and in the latter, Lieutenants Goggin and O’Brien, of the City of Limerick.
At that time, in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, an updated version of the ‘Foreign Enlistment Bill’ was being passed after much debate. This forbade subjects of the King from joining foreign armies, however, it seems to have been ‘more honoured in the breach’ and it was not being enforced, perhaps because it might have been considered a good idea not to have too many trained military men loitering about in Ireland. On August 3rd 1819 the Freeman’s Journal reported,
A considerable Anxiety was created in this city yesterday, by a report, that a vessel, conveying out a number of troops destined for South America, had been seized at Dunleary and as different causes were assigned for the circumstance, we consider ourselves fortunate in being able to state the fact precisely as it occurred:- The vessel being a foreign one, was not entitled to carry above one half the number of men which a British bottom of the same dimensions would be allowed to take out. The Captain, however, imprudently regulated his arrangements rather by the amount of his tonnage than the provisions of the law, and an information having been lodged against him, the Revenue cutter at Dunleary followed and arrested the vessel for a breach of the Navigating Act, in receiving on board a greater number of persons than the act permits. This was the sole ground of the seizure; the Foreign Enlistment Bill had nothing whatsoever to do with it, nor will the occurrence alter at all the course of the individuals concerned, this our readers may rely upon.
It seems that the unscrupulous Mr. Devereux was prepared to take anyone, regardless of whether or not they had military experience, and the shipments continued. This is borne out by a report from the Belfast Chronicle dated December 22nd 1819.
On Sunday the ‘Nicholai Palowisch’ arrived in Belfast Lough, from Dublin, bound for South America, and landed about 100 men on the Bangor and Cultra shores. The account these men give is, that after sailing from Dublin, they were put on short allowance, and were so crowded in the vessel, that they could not exist; that they requested of Colonel Power, either that they should get better treatment or be sent on shore. The latter was complied with, the Colonel first ordering them to be stripped of their jackets, &c. Their story, however, is very improbable, and is, in many instances, totally false, as we have ascertained from various sources. Yesterday Colonel Lyster waited on us with a letter he had received from Colonel Power, which is annexed, giving an account of the occurrence, and containing a list of provisions on board; this he is ready to show to any person who will call on him. The following is the letter of Colonel Power:-
On board the Nicholai, Belfast Harbour, Dec. 20th.
“My dear Colonel,– The disagreeable occurrences which have taken place since we left Dublin induce me to send this brief but true statement of them. We sailed from Dunleary on Friday last, about 11 0’clock. The men appeared happy and contented until the following evening, when may of them (about the hour of six o’clock) rushed up from between decks, and cried out to be put on shore. I instantly demanded their reasons for conduct so highly improper and unbecoming. Their reply was, that the ship was leaky and otherwise injured, and unfit to keep at sea: they added, without being permitted, or giving me time to reason with them, that they had their information from all the sailors; and which information, they said, must be true, as the sailors themselves had declared that they would not remain on board longer, or work the ship farther, than the nearest port. I pacified them for the night by assuring them, that as many of them as wished to leave the ship should have liberty, and, if at all possible, an opportunity to do so the following day. Sunday morning they renewed their application; and as I made a promise that such men as wished it should be sent on shore, a signal was made for a boat, when shortly after a pilot boat came alongside, into which between fifty and sixty men got and put off. There were a great many of them miserably unsound, even incurable wretches, who smuggled themselves into the boats at Dunleary, by taking advantage of the lateness of the hour and the darkness of the night, and who were never seen or inspected by any medical gentleman. I must here inform you, that just at the period those fellows were about being sent on shore here, the sailors, almost to a man, came aft to state to their captain that they would not remain in the ship any longer; in consequence of which, instead of standing out to sea, we were obliged to come to anchor here. I send herewith a list of provisions of all descriptions on board, which I am confident is more than sufficient for 300 men for three months, in order that, should any of the infamous idle characters whom I have sent on shore be base enough to spread reports injurious to me, by ill-treatment of them, (the contrary of which I have so many vouchers to produce,) that you may be able to, and which I trust you will, publicly contradict them. I am &c.
Despite all of these setbacks, the recruiting for the ‘Irish Legion’ continued and between the middle of 1819 and May 1829, thousands of men arrived at Margarita Island and Angostura in Venezuela. The project was supported by Daniel O’ Connell ‘The Liberator’ of Ireland, who had admiration for Simon Bolivar, the South American ‘Liberator’. In a strange gesture from a man who professed to being an avowed pacifist, O’Connell sent his young son Morgan to fight with Bolivar, However, he was not allowed to take part in any action and he returned home soon after. The subsequent story of the vast majority of the men is a tragic one. They were ill disciplined when they arrived and there were little or no arms, money, or accommodation for them. Many were slaughtered in various military encounters and large numbers were to die from disease. Many more mutinied and were disarmed and shipped off to Jamaica where most were inducted into the British Army regiments stationed there. Some managed to get away to North America and tiny few remained with Bolivar and were to distinguish themselves in various wars of liberation against the Spanish in several countries including Bolivia.
The only one to benefit greatly from the whole affair was John Devereaux. He appears to have fought in the rebellion of 1798 and had emigrated to America in the aftermath. He had no compunction about forging letters from Bolivar, and inventing military credentials in his forces, to support his efforts, and he had purported to be a ‘General in the Irish Army’ when dealing with the South Americans. He arrived in Venezuela in 1821 and never saw action and despite the poor performance of his ‘Legion’, he talked his way into being promoted to Major General and managed to get paid for all of his recruiting efforts. He received a pension from the Venezuelan Government and after many more ventures in South America and Europe, he eventually died in America in 1854.
A Norwegian motor vessel name BOLIVAR went aground on the Kish Bank in 1847 and the Crew were rescued by a Dun Laoghaire lifeboat named DUNLEARY.