El Proyecto Macnamara: The Maverick Irish Priest and the Race to Seize California 1844-1846


 John Fox

June 2014.

The story of a maverick young priest from County Clare whose audacious bid to colonise much of California including the San Joaquin Valley with Irish families in the 1840s precipitated the Mexican-US War. Macnamara’s Mexican project could have led to the founding of a ‘New Ennis’, ‘New Clare’ or even ‘New Ireland’, but it was thwarted by President Polk whose forces seized California.


This is the story of Eugene Macnamara, a maverick young priest from Ennis, County Clare who sought to establish a colony for Irish families in the 1840s in Alta California, Mexico’s far north-western territory. Had the ’10,000 ready volunteers from Limerick, Clare and Cork’  of whom he boasted, actually arrived, a ‘New Ennis’, ‘New Clare’ or ‘New Ireland’ could have been born. His scheme failed when the US seized California in 1846. Macnamara’s life spanned half the globe and was dramatic: expulsion from a Paris seminary, a dash to Rome from Guiana to expose a convulsing mission, a year in revolutionary Mexico, two months in threatened California (backed by the Royal Navy) and asylum in Mexico City during the Mexican War, 1846-8. He followed it all with a ‘Macnamara Scheme II’ in Chile.

His arrival in Mexico, 1844, was at a time of tension between North America’s landlords, Mexico, the US and Britain. His 1846 licence to settle 20,000 square miles with 15,000 settlers, was formalised by Mexico in 1847 and even qualified for a US hearing in 1852, but it was not appealed.  British diplomats, merchants and bondholders supported him. When US President Polk learned of El Proyecto Macnamara he acted immediately to stop any British colonising in North America. In Washington, Macnamara personified at the highest levels a political and commercial conspiracy between Britain and Mexico against the US. This biography is the compelling story of this ‘international’ Irishman and his lingering aftermath.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Tracing Eugene Macnamara ~ The Dossier – The Coordinates – The Final ‘Exeat’ – A Different Age

1. Colonisers, Missioners, Traders and Cannon ~ The Prize – British Designs on Alta California – British Agent or Papal Missioner ? – St Patrick’s on the Jumna – Footprints in Latin America – The London Bondholders – The Commercial Grip – Monroe’s Doctrine, Polk’s Destiny – ‘Paper Empires’, ‘Palaces in the Desert’, ‘Tables in the Wilderness’ – Project Macnamara

2. Expulsion and Exeat: Paris and Ireland 1814-41 ~ County Clare – ‘Liberator’ O’Connell – Rue des Irlandais – Kilkee and Michael Comyn – Borrisokane – Bishop Clancy’s Mission – The Imprest Volunteer

3. Mission and Mayhem: British Guiana 1841-44 ~ Unease – Bishop Clancy’s Regime – Guiana Immigration – Bishop Clancy to Rome – Mr Macnamara to Rome – Confrontation – Implosion – Bishop Hynes Established – The Poison Pen

4. Proyecto: Mexico City 1844-45 ~ Why Mexico ? – Macnamara’s New Direction – Alexander Forbes’ Proposal 1839 – The Bondholders’ Option, 1837-47 – Robert Wyllie’s Proposal 1843 – Macnamara’s Petition 1845 – Ewen MacKintosh’s Proposal 1845 – ‘Urgent’ – American ‘Methodist Wolves’ – Mexico’s Own Colonists

5. Pacific Tensions: Mexico, Washington, London, 1845-6 ~ Iniestra’s California Battalion – Mexican Approval – Washington hears of ‘Mcnamarrah’ – Dictator Paredes’ Coup – London closes Ears – Alta California – The Dictator’s Support – Rumour and Distortion – Macnamara to the Pacific – The Mine

6. Ration Strength, Royal Navy: Alta California 1846 ~ Bishop Clancy’s Last Voyage – Admiral Seymour at Mazatlán – The Mercury Syndicate –‘London Emigration Society’ ? – Santa Bárbara:The Aborted Consejo – The Macnamara Concession

7. Contract: California, Hawaii, Mexico 1846 ~ Seymour to California: ‘A Lottery of Blanks’ – Project Macnamara Conveyed – HMS Collingwood Enters Harbour – The Bondholders Awake – Hawaiian Interlude

8. Demon Macnamara: Mexico, Washington, California 1846-48 ~ The Middle Man – The Irish Famine – The Enticing of US Deserters – Batallón de San Patricio – Macnamara’s Endorsement – Frémont’s ‘British Agent’ – Demon Macnamara – Gold

9. ‘New Irelands’ Chile and Gold Rush California 1848-52 ~ Project Macnamara Chile – Land Titles: Fraud or Flawed ? – Had Macnamara Presented – Irish Colonists – The Los Tulares Flyer – Macnamara’s Valley

10. Death and Requiem ~ Death in Paris – The 49-er Irish – In Fading Memoriam – Frémont’s Eulogy on Macnamara

About the Author 

John Fox is the author of  Forgotten Divisions: The First World War from Both Sides of No Man’s Land  (Sigma 1994), examining a Rhineland and a Lancashire community 1914-19. Recently he wrote The King’s Smuggler: Jane Whorwood, Secret Agent to Charles I (THP  2010), the first biography of this British Civil War heroine.

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