by Albert Syeles, President of Romanza
Every March “Spanish” St. Augustine, Florida, USA, celebrates its Celtic roots with “The WORLD’s Original St. Patrick Parade”, the “St. Augustine Highland Games”, the internationally recognized “St. Augustine Celtic Music and Heritage Festival” and something NEW: “Celtic NOIR! Authors Symposium”.
St. Augustine’s has an amazing Celtic history, including Colonial Governors and historic vicars of Celtic descent, stories of romance and mystery, and most extraordinarily: St. Augustine was founded by Celts!
St. Augustine’s history used to be thought-of as primarily Spanish. Even the significant British Colonial period here, which spans the American Revolution, only gets occasional attention. But more than half the residents of St. Augustine can claim an ancestor from Scotland, Ireland, Wales or one of the other Seven Celtic Nations. And thousands of heritage tourism visitors have discovered and come to celebrate St. Augustine’s CELTIC roots.
We begin our walkable City tour at City Hall /The Alcazar and the Statue of Don Pedro Menendez
Don Pedro was the founder of St. Augustine and Governor of La Florida in 1565. Menedez with his 800 colonists and soldiers came from the northern, Celtic region of Spain. The people of his home town, Aviles, and the surrounding regions: Asturias, Galicia, and Basque, are of Celtic descent! They have their own language, closer to Portuguese than Spanish. Those people of Northern Spain are Spanish-Celtic and share many traditions with the Scots and Irish.
They play bagpipes called “gaita”, and wear kilts called “falda escocesa”.
Aviles Spain, our Sister City, still celebrates its Celtic roots with the annual “Festival Intercéltico de Avilés” of more than 100 groups including huge gaita competitions! This music has more in common with the “Celtic Nations“ of Brittany, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland than with Spanish music from Castille or Andalusia.
According to former Mayor George Gardner, “Our city’s heritage is more bagpipes than bullfights”. Separated by a range of mountains from the rest of Spain, Asturias and Galicia in Northern Spain are different in several ways from the Southern parts of Spain. The country looks green, and the music sounds somehow familiar to ears used to listening to Irish or other Celtic music.” Music is a compelling reflection of a culture, as is the array of Asturian pipe bands, led by the gaita which is arguably the forerunner of the Scottish bagpipe.
St. Augustine was actually founded by Celts… Spanish Celts!
Government House (the Colonial Governor’s House, one block from City Hall)
After Florida’s first Colonial Governor Don Pedro Menendez, six Colonial Florida Governors were of Celtic descent: Brigadeer Sebastián Kindelan y O’Regan (Irish descent; Second Spanish Period), Enrique (Henry) White (Irish descent; Second Spanish Period), General Patrick Tonyn (Irish descent; British Period), Major General James Grant , Laird of Ballindalloch (Scottish descent; British Period), Admiral John Eliot (Cornish descent; British West Florida), Brigadier General Montfort Browne (Irish descent; British West Florida), George Johnstone (Scottish descent; British West Florida).
Our visit to Government House includes a little “romanza”. In 1785, the clandestine marriage of the lovely Dominga de Zespedes, daughter of the Governor, upset her family, embarrassed her father and put him in a delicate position as the head of the Spanish government in Florida.
Lt. Juan O’Donovan was posted by the Spanish to St. Augustine with the Hibernia Regiment, composed of soldiers from Ireland. Dominga and O’Donovan wanted to marry. But Lt. O’Donovan did not meet the criteria for the noble Zespedes family. O’Donovan was not Spanish. His officer’s pay was not sufficient to provide a household that would be adequate in the eyes of her father.
On May 29, 1785 the couple used the excitement of a grand party in the Governor’s Mansion to sneak away from the festivities. Father Miguel O’Reilly was lured to the house of Dominga’s friend Angela, hearing she had suffered a serious accident. He arrived to find Dominga and O’Donovan. Instead of giving last rites, the priest married Dominga and Lt. O’Donovan. The couple promptly returned to the grand party and announced the bond.
O’Donovan was arrested immediately for marrying without the permission of his commanding officer and was sent to Havana under arrest. Officials and even the King of Spain examined the case over the next two years, but the marriage was valid. Finally in March 1787, O’Donovan was returned to St. Augustine and to his wife of almost two years with whom he had never lived.
St. Patrick Parade
Just past the Governor’s House we approach Cathedral Place, on the route of St. Augustine’s annual St. Patrick Parade, the World’s ORIGINAL St. Patrick Procession. In 2018 a discovery in the Spanish Archives proved that the first event that commemorates Saint Patrick anywhere in the Americas was held in St. Augustine, La Florida in 1600 when they fired the cannons in the Castillo San Marcos in his honor. And then the first St. Patrick’s parade/procession ever recorded in the whole WORLD took place here in 1601 colonial Spanish St. Augustine’s Irish pastor, Ricardo Artur (Richard Arthur) led the first St. Patrick Day procession ever documented anywhere in the world! These historical events pre-date Boston’s claim to the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 1737, and New York City’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1762, and even Ireland’s first Paddy’s parade which was surprisingly not until 1903.
Plaza de la Constitución
In 2012 St. Augustine celebrated the bicentennial of Spain’s 1812 Constitution and our unique Constitución Monument in the Plaza. This is the only remaining Monument to Spain’s Constitution. All the rest of the 1812 Constitución Monuments in the world have disappeared – except ours. The Monument was erected by the order of Florida’s Spanish Governor Sebastien Kindelan y O’Regan. (Both his parents were Irish. NOTE: Our City Manager, John Regan, says he is no relation.) Brigadier Kindelan’s name is still on the 200-year-old Monument. When Spain’s King returned from exile in 1814, he dissolved the fledging Constitución and issued orders to destroy all monuments to it. Some say that since St. Augustine spent the entire treasury building it, we just hid the Monument’s plaque in the church until it was not forbidden any more in 1820. Others say we just didn’t get the memo.
(Across the street from the Constitución Monument)
Irish Priests Thomas Hassett and Miguel O’Reilly supervised the construction of St. Augustine’s beautiful Cathedral from 1793 to its completion, and consecrated it in 1797.
Aviles Street & Padre Miguel O’Reilly House Museum
Father O’Reilly’s house was the St. Augustine parish rectory. He and fellow Irishmen were the colony’s principal pastors in the Second Spanish Period. O’Reilly was born in Ireland where the English were still suppressing the Catholic faith. He was trained for the priesthood in Spain, and sent to St. Augustine in 1777 to minister to the Menorcans. He became the chaplain of the Hibernian Regiment and “vicario” of the entire Colony. Here he was the teacher of Felix Varela, the Cuban writer and hero who is now up for Sainthood.
Murder Mystery on Charlotte Street
On the night of November 20, 1785 the only violent crime in the Second Spanish period disrupted life in St. Augustine. Lt. Guillermo Delaney of the garrison was attacked near the home of his girlfriend, Catalina Morain. Delaney lingered with his wounds for two months, but could never describe his assailants before he succumbed. Delaney was apparently not the only admirer of this “seductive seamstress”. Two men were jailed, but were later found to be falsely accused. Two other soldiers, known for either violent temper and jealous rages or scandalous conduct with a servant girl, were imprisoned for perjury and for implicating the two innocent men. At least one of them was suspected of conspiring with Catalina. Evidence was scarce. The Governor was unable to prove the murder charges and turned to the slow wheel of bureaucracy in Spain. In the interim, some of the witnesses were transferred out of St. Augustine, and the case grew cold. The two men were still in jail in 1790, when the Governor’s term ended. The murder of Lt. Delaney remains officially unsolved.
Narrow Streets, Pipers and Bravado
Rory McIntosh, captain of His Majesty’s Highlanders, always attended by Scottish pipers, paraded the narrow streets of St. Augustine, breathing out fire and slaughter against the 13 revolutionary “whig” colonies. During the American Revolution, Florida was the “fourteenth British Colony” that remained loyal to the Mother Country. “Old Rory” was a most extraordinary character, a kind of Don Quixote who, even in old age, was always ready to storm any whig fortress that might present itself. In 1778 the garrison of St. Augustine marched to attack whig-occupied Savannah. One morning with the fortification of some fine Scottish spirits, Rory decided on his own initiative to attack a small whig fort on the route, despite the protests of his compatriots. He approached the gate and commanded “Surrender!” He was promptly hit in the face with a rifle ball and fell, but immediately recovered. Rejecting calls from his own to run for his life, he called back “Run yourself, but I am of a race that never runs”, retreating backwards safely into the lines, flourishing his sword, keeping his face to the enemy.
The Lost Shrine of St. Patrick
Take a walk down St. George Street to the corner at Hypolita Street. There, where the fenced garden of Queen Isabella stands now, stood a shrine to San Patricio in the 1600’s. By 1736 the Spanish Colonial Bishop lamented the shrine as “lost”. Historians think it may have been destroyed as early as 1702 when the British from Carolina invaded St. Augustine and burnt down most of the town.
Castillo San Marco
1784 the Spanish government stationed the Hibernia Regiment in St. Augustine with 460 Irish soldiers. The Spanish military welcomed these Irish expatriates, who couldn’t return to their homeland, but had a professional reputation for bravery as soldiers. They came from a militarized society with weak central authority. The arrangement allowed the Irishmen the opportunity to keep spirited, armed and trained to face any challenge, including the possibility of returning to Ireland. The garrison and its men interacted with the townspeople in many ways and with notable incidents. Several Irish and Scottish military men even rose to the position of Governor of Spanish Florida.
Mission Nombre de Dios
The mission is not only the site of Don Pedro Menendez’s first landing and the first European settlement in the U.S. with his 800 Soldiers and Colonists, it is also the site of North America’s first Mission and Parish. Irish priests, fleeing English Protestant rule in their native land, made their way to Spain and its colonies like St. Augustine. The Catholic Church in Spain trained and assigned numerous Irish priests to be the Colony’s vicars. Other priests were born in Spain or Portugal of Irish parents, and were often engaged by the Jesuits and the Franciscans because they spoke English. Ricardo Artur (Richard Arthur) was one of these. He served in St. Augustine between 1598 and 1606, was one of the first parish priests in America, and he was of Irish descent.
Finally, we move to Francis Field, The site of the annual St. Augustine Celtic MUSIC & Heritage Festival
The St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival has been voted Best Concert/Event of the “Bold City Best” in the Jacksonville region, Best Festival in St. Augustine, and even Runner-Up Best Food Festival in the Jacksonville area. The Festival has thousands of fans from as far away as Canada and the British Isles.
Although each of the bands have been the headliner at Irish, Scottish or Celtic Festivals throughout the world, the St. Augustine Festival is known as the finest Celtic Music Festival in the U.S. because it presents 8 or more major Celtic headliners.
The event is held the weekend before St. Patrick Day every year. Festivities begin on Friday with a pre-festival Whiskey Tasting, then continue Saturday and Sunday with live performances on two stages. The weekend also features The St. Augustine Highland games, Celtic artisans and food, and kids’ games. Of course, The World’s Original St. Patrick Parade steps off at 10 a.m. on Saturday from the Festival grounds and returns there after circuiting the City.
St. Augustine’s has a long and amazing Celtic history that started right at its beginning in 1565. St. Augustine was founded by Celts… Spanish Celts. We are not only the Nation’s Oldest City, we’re The Oldest Celtic City in all the Americas!
Please explore our “European” city, loaded with history, arts, many cultures, beauty and great food!
Find the CELT in YOU in America’s Oldest CELTIC City.