Irish in the ‘land of silver’

Posted on: 6th May, 2014

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Samuel Kingston

Samuel Kingston studied history at NUI Galway and has a keen interest in oral and local history. He is also interested in the Irish historical experience abroad especially in Canada and South America. The aim of this column is to tell the stories of West Cork people both famous and forgotten who, through their lives at home or abroad, made an impact on their time.

Above: (left) Murdered journalist Rodolfo Walsh and (right) Admiral William Brown

We Irish have emigrated around the world. From close to home to far flung destinations, the Irish have settled there. Everywhere we go we tend to leave an indelible mark and a lasting impact on the place. One such place is Argentina. The Irish integrated very successfully with the locals and are today celebrated for their contribution to Argentine history. Argentina has the fifth highest Irish migrant population in the world and the largest for a non English speaking country, so the connection between our countries is strong. Yet not many in Ireland know of the connections; a few will know of William Brown who founded the Argentine navy but there are so many fascinating stories to tell.

The Irish in Argentina have played key roles in politics, the military, business, religion, agriculture, journalism, the arts and sports; but why Argentina? Many left from the midlands, especially Westmeath and Longford, with many also coming from the south east. Before the famine there was a slow but steady stream of emigration from Ireland to Argentina and of course this began to grow during the famine years and continued in the post famine period. Many were drawn by the lure of quality agricultural life. It’s reckoned that Westmeath soldiers in the British Army corresponding with relatives contributed to the influx of people from the midlands. Others were just in search of adventure and something different but for the majority it was just an escape from wretched poverty at home.

It’s impossible to put a number on the amount of Irish who immigrated to Argentina. Unfortunately, most Irish were just classed as British so it is difficult to get a real figure on Irish emigration to Argentina but the estimates reckon around 250,000 Irish emigrated. The large scale emigration ended with The Dresden Affair in 1889. The Dresden was a ship hired to bring people from Ireland to Buenos Aires. Many died on the voyage and the outcry in Ireland led by the Catholic Church effectively ended emigration to Argentina as they warned people against getting on ships headed to Buenos Aires.

The Irish have impacted on Argentine life in every way imaginable, with some even rising to positions of great power. In politics – Edelmiro Julian Farrell who had Irish heritage was President from 1944 to 46 and he also played a big role in the rise of Juan Peron. Ricardo Lopez Murphy was a Presidential candidate in 2003 and 2007 but unsuccessful both times, he was previously, Minister of Economy and Minister of Defence. Dalmacio Velez Sarsfield helped establish the Argentine civil code and was a much loved figure in Argentine politics. Probably the most well known Irish connection is a military link — William Brown from Foxford in Co. Mayo, who set up the Argentine navy, is a national hero and of course Che Guevara is part Irish through his father’s Lynch connection to Galway. The Argentine Irish not only impacted on life in Argentina but some such as Eamonn Bulfin impacted on Ireland as well. Bulfin, born in Buenos Aires played an active part in the Irish independence struggle, raising one of the Irish flags over the GPO. He was appointed as Irish Representative to Argentina by DeValera and helped raised funds for the struggle.

The Irish role in Argentine media is very important; the revered assassinated journalist Rodolfo Walsh had strong Irish heritage and was a man of strong convictions — he met a tragic ending standing up for the rights of ordinary Argentines in the 1970s. Long before him were the Mulhall brothers who were very important in media circles in the late 1800s and helped promote the Argentine Irish cause through their newspapers – The Standard and The Southern Cross. In the papers, the Irish were sometimes at the centre of exciting news stories – Camila O’Gorman, a figure of scandal in the 1800s for running away with a priest and Mateo Banks, a murderer. These would be followed by high profile Argentine celebrities with Irish heritage such as Miss Universe 1962 Norma Nolan, singer Maria Elena Walsh and 1980s pop star Valeria Lynch.

Being Irish, there was also an obvious impact on Argentine agriculture, people like Juan Dillon, Thomas Armstrong and Eduardo Casey became prominent Argentine land owners. There is a strong connection between Westmeath and rural Argentina. The Irish became well respected as sheep farmers, so strong were the Irish in some communities that in the graveyards north of Buenos Aires, there can be found on the headstones many common Irish surnames, in particular surnames strong in the midlands. Some Irish would have become cowboys or gauchos, as they are known in Argentina, living wild, adventurous lives on the pampas.

Of course we must not forget the religious impact the Irish had, especially their contribution to education. Religious institutions like the Christian Brothers set up schools around Argentina educating the young poor locals who often would have received no education otherwise. Other orders as well, such as the Jesuits set up schools in which Irish priests taught. Priests such as Anthony Fahy and Patrick Kelly became very important figures in Argentina. Irish nuns too came to Argentina to teach. Their legacy cannot be underestimated. Another aspect of these schools is their contribution to rugby. Many Argentine rugby internationals first picked up a rugby ball at an ‘Irish’ school, for example former head coach Santiago Phelan. In association football, Tipperary man Patrick McCarthy did a lot of groundwork during the games infancy years in the country. Hurling was very popular in Buenos Aires at the start of the 20th century but unfortunately the sport declined during World War II due to limited ash supplies. Today, there is an incredible effort to revive the game of hurling, it’s not just ex-pats who miss the game but locals too have taken the sport to their heart once more

The last number of years has seen a reawakening of Irish identity in Argentina and now having Irish heritage has become en vogue. There is a real growth in Irish dancing and other Irish cultural activities. There is admiration for Irish music and a respect for the Irish language and culture. Each year in Buenos Aires the St. Patrick’s Day grows and grows and is a very popular festival in the city.

Around Buenos Aires there are quiet reminders of this Irish heritage, sites like Rodolfo Walsh Plaza, the Fahy Club, Velez Sarsfield FC, the replica of William Brown’s house and the famous La Recoleta graveyard These places give us a real insight into the lasting impact of the Irish in Argentina and it brings home with a real immediacy the cultural legacy of the Irish in Argentina. People know the America story, the Canada story, the Australia story; it’s time people know more of the Argentina story.


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