By John Moran | Cubanow.net
Irish visitors to Cuba often remark on the identification they feel with the warmth and sense of fun of ordinary Cubans. While caution is wise with such generalizations, it is a similarity that others have noticed too.
“There is something Celtic about the Cuban that commands the affection of those fortunate foreigners who really know them,” wrote Basil Woon, socialite and author of When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, a delicious snapshot of Havana in the golden era prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Mafia takeover of the city.
Back then it was also cocktail time in Cuba for the Irish of Havana. The leading members of the Irish community were two partners who owned the Seville Hotel, then called the Seville- Biltmore, probably best-known now as the location in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana where anti-hero Jim Wormold was solicited into the British secret service.
The stylish Seville is located in the centre of Havana beside the romantic tree-lined Prado promenade, which extends from the centre of town out to the magnificent Malecon seafront boulevard. Tea and cocktails could be taken in the Seville ‘s patio bar while a string orchestra evoked sweet melancholia for the elegantly dressed dancing daughters of sugar planters, the original sugar daddies.
The Seville has also had its share of infamy over the years and was once run by Mafia boss Amelito Battisti. Al Capone was a regular guest. His entourage of broken noses used to take a whole floor. Battisti was capo of one of the five families that ran Havana with Dictator Fulgencio Batista until 1959 when the Bearded Ones came down from the mountains and spoiled the party.
The Seville would have remained a rundown office block if it wasn’t for the two Irishmen referred to above, John McEntee Bowman and Charles Francis Flynn, who rescued it from dereliction in 1919. This dynamic duo went on to control some serious Havana real estate. They also constructed a Cuban Monte Carlo, the Biltmore, a rum, roulette and racing resort for the elite on the outskirts of Havana.
Back then, out on the racecourse, you could find Cuba ‘s president, the Dictator Gerardo Machado. He had the largest string of horses in Havana -ex-jockey Winnie O’Connor was his trainer. Many of the owners, trainers and jockeys at the Havana racetrack were of Irish extraction, as were the gamblers, such as the legendary ” Chicago ” O’Brien.
Bowman and Flynn had timed their ventures just right. The Seville-Biltmore opened the year before prohibition was imposed in the US . Other Irish emigres in the US soon followed the echo of the popping corks. Not far from the Seville-Biltmore and beside Sloppy Joes, an Irishman called Donovan moved his entire bar, lock, stock and barrel to Havana from Newark , New Jersey .
On his birthdays, all drinks were free. Pat Cody was proprietor at Jigg’s Uptown Bar.
In the toughest cabaret venue in Havana , La Verbena, dancers wore “hardly any clothes to speak of” and engaged in “extremely frank gyrations”. It was the “naughtiest public show in Havana “, according to Basil Woon. (Others have said there was more ooh-la-la and hanky- panky at the Shanghai Theatre in Chinatown ).
In La Verbena tourists even feared the owner, Emilio Salas, who, it was whispered, had killed two men. Mercifully, there was an Irish hombre on hand to make sure things didn’t get too much out of control. That was the club’s manager, one Billy Moran.
In the newspaper world, the editor at the Times of Cuba was E.F. O’Brien. In the Irish community, Father Moynihan was something of the comedian with all his jokes. There was Irish-American Jimmy Egan, the first man in an American unit wounded in the Great War. On the rooftop garden of the Plaza Hotel, the star dancer is a Mexican beauty called Ophelia. (She didn’t have a drop of Irish blood, but her mother was eaten by a shark!)
Bowman and Flynn entertained in their casino and country club during what was known then as “the Season”, that time of the year from November 1st to the end of April when the heat is marginally less steamy and when wealthy visitors from the US and Britain flocked to the Biltmore races, casinos and the restaurants. Lord Rothermere and the Astors were regulars.
Historically, most of the Irish who came to Cuba arrived from the US for the construction of railways used to transport products to and from the sugar plantations in the latter part of the 19th century, and for the construction in 1902 of the 1,000-km trans-Cuba railroad.
But others had been swept here in earlier currents. Some came up the Antilles from Montserrat where they had been deported as slaves during Cromwellian times.
Another Irish influx came with the royal armies of Spain . Here I can reveal one of the best-kept secrets in Havana . At the entrance to Havana Harbour is the historic El Morro lighthouse. It has become the emblem of Havana and even Cuba . But it was actually constructed by a long-lost relative of Red Hugh O’Donnell. He was Leopoldo O’Donnell, Captain General and Governor of Cuba, who oversaw the project in 1844. For many years after it was known as O’Donnell Lighthouse.
With increasing numbers of tourists from Ireland heading to Havana there are signs of a revival. For many new Irish visitors, the recently renovated Palacio O’Farril hotel seems to have become something of a haunt. It is a fine old colonial building, if a bit dull, but I must confess to having a soft spot for the place.
One night while staying there I found one of those endearing little scribbled notes that all over Cuba chambermaids leave in your room as delicate reminders to leave a tip. The note read innocently, though evocatively: “I enjoyed very much having you on my floor.”