Don Juan O’Brien left Baltinglass in 1811 as plain old John O’Brien, earning his new moniker in Buenos Aires, not due to disproportionate amorous exploits, but from the city-dwellers propensity to localise everyone’s name, making even an Irishman from Wicklow sound exotic.
Emigration was common in Ireland; some left to find work, some to escape a criminal charge, and some to avoid the terror of deportation to Australia. Many left to escape religious persecution, others to raise an army, hoping to return and free their native land. But O’Brien left Ireland at the age of twenty-five to plough a different furrow.
He was born into a family of farmers and shopkeepers, relatively well-off for Catholics who had to endure the savagery of the Penal Laws. His father passed away when he was just sixteen, bequeathing him some commercial interests as well as a pair of fine horses, but these steeds were to be O’Brien’s downfall: he lost everything to his unbridled passion for racing, forcing him to mortgage his home – and ask his brothers to do likewise – to keep out of the Debtor’s Prison.
O’Brien decided to try his luck in London, where he first heard of the independence struggle in South America. It captured the imagination of his romantic soul. Returning immediately to bid farewell to the remainder of his family, he secured passage on a Portuguese vessel bound for Rio de Janeiro, his friends providing him with letters of introduction. Continue reading