Co-Liberator of Chile

A bust of Don Juan MacKenna (1771-1814), the Monaghan born Chilean revolutionary hero, engineer, soldier and statesman, was unveiled at the County Museum in Monaghan town on Thursday 5th August 2004, thus commemorating the memory of one of the greatest emigrants ever to have left the confines of the ‘County of the Little Hills’. He is unreservedly regarded as the greatest of Co. Monaghan’s exiles and was certainly the most famous of the McKenna clan, so closely connected with the north of the county and particularly with the barony of Truagh, which embraces the two parishes of Donagh and Errigal Truagh.

The relief depiction of MacKenna, carved in the unique South American ‘Alerce’ wood was officially presented to the Museum by Senor Don Luis MacKenna Valentin Ferrada, a direct descendant of Chile’s national hero. The former senator and member of the Chilean parliament was accompanied by his wife, Senora Maria de Le Luz Walker, and this generous donation of the bust was organised in liaison with the Friends of the National Collection of Ireland (FNCI).

Among those present at the presentation was Senor Ferrara’s close friend, Dr John Maiben Gilmartin, President of the aforementioned ‘Friends’ who himself also had many connections with Chile - four of his ancestors on his mother’s side had qualified in medicine and had gone to that country a short time after Don Juan MacKenna’s departure. Dr. Gilmartin was also related through marriage to the MacKennas of Chile, although he was not a direct descendant of the General.

This was the first step, but will certainly not be the last, in Monaghan’s official recognition of the Chilean revolutionary, and was an occasion for historical recollection and nostalgia, not just for the dignatories who had travelled all the way from Chile, but also for the people of Monaghan, and particular for the great McKenna clan who have dominated North Monaghan history for well over eight hundred years.

The history of South America tells us that many of the independent states in that southern continent owe their freedom and liberation from Spanish domination to emigrant Irish soldiers, not least of whom was General Brenardo O’Higgins, generally regarded as ‘Co-Liberator’ of that lovely country, and that his fellow-liberator and second-in-command was the aforementioned Monaghan man, General Don Juan McKenna (or MacKenna as the Chileans still prefer to spell it).

John McKenna, son of William McKenna (better known as ‘Bully’ - the Monaghan pronunciation of Billy) and Eleonora O’Reilly, was born at ‘Willville House’ which still stands in the town land of Aghananimy, close to Macartan’s Cathedral in Monaghan town in 1771 and was a direct descendant of the McKenna chieftains who had ruled over the tiny independent kingdom still known as ‘McKenna Country’ in North Monaghan, for more than half a millennium, with their headquarters in a line of fortified ring-forts at Tully, just outside Emyvale village, from mid -12th until mid 17th century.

At age eleven, John emigrated to Spain to join relations in Madrid and was educated at Barcelona, his education being furthered by one of his own relatives Count Alexander O’Reilly of Madrid, who placed him in the Royal Engineering College in Barcelona. At age 16 he was appointed a cadet in the ‘Regiment Irlanda’ of the Irish Brigade in the Spanish army, was made a captain at age 23, and distinguished himself while serving against both the Moors and the French.

In 1796 he embarked for South America with letters of recommendation to the Viceroy of Peru, Ambrose O’Higgins. He arrived in neighbouring Chile in January 1797 and soon became involved in a programme of re-building under the guidance of the much older O’Higgins, his fellow Irishman. His engineering and leadership skills made him the ideal choice of the re-building of one of Chile’s best known cities, Osorno, a city at the extreme south of this long narrow country on the western sea-board of South America. The population of the city doubled within a year under the stability brought about under McKenna, who went on to become Governor of the district.

In 1809, McKenna moved to Santiago where he married the 18-year old Josefa Vicuna Larrain. When war broke out between Spain and her South American colonies, he immediately took his side of the rebels, who made him a member of the ‘Patriot Juncta’ with the rank of General of Artillery.

All through the war he was next in command to General Bernardo O’Higgins and became instantly famous when he recorded a magnificent victory over the Spaniards at Membrillor in 1814. O’Higgins’ forces had failed to turn up in time for this battle and the Spaniards attacked McKenna, but the Irishman, despite having a much smaller force at his command, triumphed. This victory was, unquestionably, the crowning moment of his relatively short but highly illustrious career, and resulted in a ‘Treaty of Peace’ in which McKenna acted as plenipotentiary on behalf of Chile.

Unfortunately, dissensions arose among members of the ‘Patriots’ and McKenna was forced by the ruling Correra family to leave Chile. He later died following a duel with a member of that same Correra family in Buenos Aires on the 21st November 1814. Ironically, this pistol fight in the Argentinian capital, to which he had been banished by the Carreras as part of that fued, was where they later met up with him after the Carreras themselves had been exiled by their comrades on the ruling council in Chile.

Don Juan McKenna’s victory at Membrillor was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony in Santiago in 1914 when Chileans marked the centenary of that wonderful achievement. Practically every city in Chile also has a street named after Don Juan while, decades later, his grandson, Don Benjamin Vicuna McKenna, became the very distinguished South American writer, historian and statesman and after whom ‘Avinido Vicuna McKenna’ in Santiago is named, and which is regarded as the finest boulevard in the Chilean captain.

During the August 2004 presentation ceremony in Monaghan Museum, the very emotional Senor McKenna Ferrada, emphasising his spiritual connection with County Monaghan, quoted another of his ancestors, the previously mentioned Benjamin Vicuna McKenna, who had once said: - “Each person’s intimate homeland is where the tomb of his ancestor’s lie. He then continued - “In this city of Monaghan, very near to Willville House, the tombs of my ancestors are in the old cemetery. There, my own blood is interred in the sacred earth.”

Other speakers at that well attended ceremony were Most Rev. Dr Joseph Duffy, Bishop of Clogher, long term ‘Clogher Record’ editor and historian Theo McMahon; the Mayor of Monaghan (County Chairman) Owen Bannigan; cathaoirleach of Monaghan Town Council Sean Conlon; Monaghan County Manager Declan Nelson; and MC for the presentations was Monaghan Museum Curator, Liam Bradley.

The tomb of Senor MacKenna Ferrada’s ancestors lies further north in the county - in the ancient burial ground at ‘Old’ Donagh near Glaslough in Co Monaghan. For this reason his family had always thought of Monaghan as their intimate ‘homeland of heart’ a place not forgotten in two hundred years of separation. His request to the people of Monaghan county now was that the Chilean descendants of Juan McKenna be accepted as part of the ‘roots of the old tree of Monaghan.’

The Don Juan MacKenna connection was further cemented on 12th February 2005 when two sons of Don Luis MacKenna Ferrada, Sebastian and Juan, visited Monaghan and presented a portrait of the General to Monaghan County Museum. They also visited ‘Willville House’ at Aghananimy where they were given a tour by the PRO of ‘Clann MacKenna, Ms Marie Curley from Clontibret, a relative of the current owners of this historic building and birthplaces of the famous General Don Juan. The portrait was accepted on behalf of the people of Monaghan by the Major, Owen Bannigan, while members of the ‘Clann MacKenna’ were also present, including their secretary Ms Maria McKenna and their treasurer Bernard McKenna, who also made a presentation to the two young descend-ants of the famous Monaghan man on behalf of the McKennas of Monaghan.

Yet another direct descendant of the famed Don Juan McKenna is Ceceliai McKenna, currently Chilean Ambassador to Switzerland, and who, only in the summer of 2004, was elected ‘Chieftain of the Clann McKenna’ at their biennial ‘Clan Rally’ in North Monaghan. It was a very emotional experience for her, when she was brought to visit the graves of her ancestors, ‘the McKenna Chieftains’ in the ‘old Donagh graveyard’ beside Glaslough - exactly 190 years after her ancestor’s historic victory at Membrillor in Chile. Once more the words of Benjamin Vicuna MacKenna would ring in the ears of a Chilean visitor - ‘Each person’s intimate homeland is where the tomb of his ancestors lie.’

The influx of tourists from South America to Co. Monaghan in recent years has been spurred by this close association between the current officers and members of the ‘Clann MacKenna’ and those direct descendants of the famous general who gave Chile its freedom, Don Juan MacKenna.