NEW evidence has been unmasked to show that Zorro, the swarthy swashbuckling hero was in fact a red-bearded Irishman.An Italian historian has found ``detailed proof'' in the closely guarded Inquisition archives in the Vatican that the real Zorro, a masked swordsman who evades captureand inspires downtrodden Mexicans with the hope of independence, was a man called William Lamport from Wexford.
Professor Fabio Troncarelli of Viterbo University said that Lamport led a double life like Zorro and had a thick red beard and flashing eyes.
``He was quite a womaniser and led a life even more adventurous than anything the screen writers have dreamt up,'' said the Professor.
According to the Inquisition records, Lamport was born into a noble Irish family in 1615 and was educated by Jesuits in Dublin and London. But he ran away to sea after allegedly voicing anti-English sentiments and fell in with a gang of pirates.
He fought in the Spanish 17th century wars against France and his bravery was noted by the Duke of Olivares, chief minister at the court of Philip IV of Spain.
Some years later he was sent to Mexico to escape scandal after he had seduced and abandoned a Spanish noblewoman. There the Inquisition accused him of conspiring against Spain to liberate the Indians and black slaves and setting himself up as king of an independent Mexico.
Some prison sentences later, he was sentenced to be burnt at the stake but cheated the Inquisition one last time by strangling himself with the rope used to tie him to the stake.
The latest Zorro box-office hit, The Mask of Zorro, stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones. In 1940, Tyrone Power played the role in the Hollywood film The Mark of Zorro.
An Irish historian last night confirmed the existence of William Lamport, but was sceptical of the claims made about his life by the Italian scholar.
Declan Downey, a history lecturer at University College, Dublin, dismissed suggestions that Lamport was a swashbuckling youth who went to sea to escape English rule. Dr Downey's research suggests the young Lamport was born into an affluent Irish family but grew up in Spain as an honorary member of the royal court.
The Lamports were a wealthy landowning family near Wexford. They lived happily under British rule until the late 16th century, when London demanded that Irish landowners convert to Protestantism. Many families, including the Lamports, rebelled and sided with Catholic Spain in the the Battle of Kinsale in 1602.
Dr Downey believes that William Lamport, the man now labelled as Zorro, spent much of his childhood in Spain with his emigrant parents. He may have returned to Ireland to be educated by Jesuits in Dublin, a common practice among the Irish Catholic gentry living abroad.