How Cork’s top banana brought democracy to ‘La Isla Bonita’

The name Dennis O'Daly scarcely receives a mention in history books; nor is there much about him in the archives. Yet this banana merchant from Cork helped people more than two thousand five hundred miles from his native land obtain the vote, says Robert Hume.
How Cork’s top banana brought democracy to ‘La Isla Bonita’
St Patrick's (or rather O'Daly!) celebrations, Santa Cruz de La Palma 2018

Dennis O’Daly, son of James and Onora, was born in Co.Cork about 1738. Possibly the family lived in west Cork where O’Daly was a common family name, especially around the Sheep's Head peninsula.

Impoverished roots

 During the 17th century Plantations, the O’Dalys are forced to give up their land to the British, and are reduced to struggling tenant farmers.

Knowing that a bleak future awaited young Dennis should he stay in Ireland, his parents send him to France, where several communities of Irish priests had established themselves after Britain's Penal Laws banned Catholics from teaching in Ireland.

French education

In France he receives moral and religious instruction from the Jesuits – the “schoolmasters of Europe” at this time.

The Irish College in Paris, which O’Daly may have attended, attracted most students. Priests at the college were certainly used to taking destitute Irish migrants under their wing, and encouraging them to lead happy, fulfilled lives. Many students became scientists, writers and explorers.

O’Daly the banana merchant 

Like hundreds of other migrants dreaming of a better life, O’Daly leaves France, and sails to La Palma in the Canary Islands. He settles in its capital city, Santa Cruz de La Palma, which has one of the largest ports in the Spanish Empire, trading in sugar, Malvasia wine, and bananas.

La Palma came to cultivate more bananas than any other Canary Island, with the exception of Tenerife, and today even has a banana museum.

Banana plantations cover all the flat coastal land and many mountain terraces. The bananas are smaller and straighter than the Fyffes banana and have a sweeter flavour.

O’Daly dedicates himself to the business of growing bananas.

His business prospers and he can soon afford to look for a wife. He marries Isabella Andrea McGee from a family of merchant drapers who had recently established itself in La Palma. They settle in a house in the main street.

Ruling families are “ridiculous” 

When the couple invite guests to dinner, they hear complaints that the island is poorly run and in a miserable condition. "Most people eat fern bread … you can not imagine the horror of seeing it”, protests Friar Juan Francisco de Medinilla.

Nothing improves because the city’s government is in the hands of self-seeking and corrupt rich families – the Poggio and Guisla, Pinto and Massieu. In no other Canary island, says historian Alvares Rixo, were the nobles so incompetent. Their ignorance was “ridiculous”.

Furthermore, these aldermen, or “regidores perpetuos”, passed on their office to their children when they died, as if it were a piece of private property.

O'Daly becomes determined to free the island from the stranglehold of these families and empower ordinary people to govern themselves.

Many in Santa Cruz de La Palma find the Irishman's promises attractive, and on 15 January 1767 he is elected mayor.

He proceeds to hire the best lawyer of the day, Anselmo Pérez de Brito, a man whose sympathies towards political rights for all citizens had recently earned him a prison sentence.

In a lawsuit known as “el pleito de los regidores perpetuos”, Brito accuses the aldermen of abusing their power by embezzling public funds and committing “other outrages” in the city.

Dismissed as a foreigner 

Led by Felipe Manuel Massieu de Vandale, the old governing families appeal against O’Daly’s election, on the grounds that he is a foreigner.

The council of regidores suspend him from his job as mayor. He is charged with sedition, and ordered to present himself at the Royal Tribunal of the Canary Islands in Tenerife. Vandale hopes it would be the last they would see of O’Daly and he would be thrown into prison. He is to be sorely disappointed.

Evading his captors, and leaving his banana plantation in the care of his wife, O’Daly escapes to safety in Gibraltar, which is in British hands.

Much worse news follows for the old governing families. The Royal Tribunal refers the case to King Carlos III of Spain who supports reform, and agrees to abolish government by the regidores.

Popular elections would be introduced in La Palma, and the nobility would not be allowed to vote.

On 2 January 1773, the regidores are dismissed and replaced by governors to be elected every two years.

People in Santa Cruz wanted to celebrate gaining power with a thanksgiving service in the church of Matriz de El Salvador but the clergy refused them permission.

In the first election, held later that year, those living in the town and surrounding countryside designated 24 voters, all men, to choose the new governors. They elected a customs officer, a doctor, an attorney and a merchant.

Worn out by his labours and years in prison, the lawyer Brito dies in 1772, without seeing the fruit of his hard work.

Over the next few years, the families and descendants of the lifetime regidores fight to restore their positions and regain their titles. But they are unsuccessful. The government of La Palma has changed forever.

Place in history

 It was largely due to Dennis O'Daly that La Palma became the first area in the huge Spanish Empire to enfranchise ordinary men, a whole century before working-class men were given the vote in Ireland.

Women, however, had to wait until those in the rest of Spain got the vote in 1924.

The Irishman, who owed so much to his schooling by the Jesuits, valued education as a means of social progress for ordinary people and set up the first state school in the Canaries. It still carries the name of O’Daly’s lawyer, Anselmo Pérez de Brito, who engineered the great changes.

O’Daly died in Santa Cruz de La Palma on 16 March 1796.

Today, the city’s main street, the Calle O’Daly, honours his name. Unfortunately, his house at No. 21, where he lived with his wife, no longer exists, although the modern building does carry his name: Edificio O’Daly.

In 2017, for the first time, O'Daly was at the heart of Santa Cruz's St Patrick's Day celebrations. Municipal buildings were "greened" with floodlights, the Irish tricolour and shamrock flags were prominently displayed, and the Bar Rapadura hosted a street party with live rock and folk music.

This year, confirms the tourist information office, "even better" O'Daly festivities are planned in Santa Cruz de La Palma. The day promises to be a celebration of the banana merchant who gave the town its place in history.

La Palma is celebrated today for its natural beauty. Few tourists would disagree with Madonna’s eulogy as she dreams of San Pedro: “Tropical the island breeze”, “all of nature wild and free”.

But the little island has another claim to fame. It is here that Dennis O’Daly from Cork won his battle to wrest power from the hands of a few rich families, and enabled ordinary people to have a say in the running of their government – A step towards democracy that his new country achieved long before most other parts of the world.

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