Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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The Sporting Dimension to the Relationship Between Ireland and Latin America

By John Kennedy


Hurling reunion the Monastery
(John Joe Fay Mackinson, c. 1923)

Although the focus has been on Argentina, the transference model above is equally relevant to other Latin American countries, as well as Iberia. A good example of this is that Spain’s first club Huelva was founded in 1875 by British managers and workers at the Río Tinto mine (Burns 1998: 71). 

As well as being instrumental in nurturing and diffusing the new British sports, the Irish community were to make a unique contribution to sport in Argentina through the introduction of hurling, a sport which itself was influenced by the trends emanating from Victorian England. Although there are references to the game in the late 1880s in Mercedes in Buenos Aires province, it was not organised until 1900 through the efforts of William Bulfin, who was the editor of The Southern Cross newspaper of the Irish Catholic community. However, unlike some of the other sports introduced from Britain and Ireland during that period, it would remain a preserve of the Irish community.  

Sport in Ireland during the Victorian period

Hurling is the sport most associated with Ireland, or more correctly the southern variant of the game called iomán, [9] where the ball can be handled or carried on the hurley (wooden stick). However, by the time the most significant immigration to Argentina had begun, the game had virtually died out. The 1740s and 1760s could be considered the apex of the sport and thereafter it declined due to a combination of factors, including the withdrawal of gentry patronage in an age of political turbulence, modernisation and the dislocating impact of the Irish potato famine (1845-9). By the middle of the nineteenth century, hurling only remained in a few pockets, which included Cork city, South East Galway and north of Wexford town (Whelan 1993: 27-31). So it is likely that only a few of the Irish immigrants to Argentina had any familiarity with or expertise in the game.   

Coinciding with the demise of hurling, cricket began to be promoted from the mid 1850s onwards and began to spread rapidly. ‘By 1872 cricket had a presence in every county in Ireland’ (Garnham 2003:29). A small number of local studies have been conducted in recent years, examining the spread and uptake of the game, the most relevant being Hunt (2007), as it concentrates on County Westmeath, where over 42.9% of Irish emigrants to Argentina originated (Murray 2004: 29). From the 1860s, the game saw significant growth in Westmeath, and was the game ‘that enjoyed the most continuity of play, and by the end of the century was the participant sport with the greatest popular appeal’ (Hunt 2007: 113). Although the game has often been portrayed as being confined to the higher social groupings, evidence from Westmeath indicates that it was particularly popular with the farming and labouring classes, the social class which was the most representative of emigrants to Argentina. The extent to which these immigrants participated in cricket in their adopted country is an area that merits further study.

Initially the GAA made a limited impact in County Westmeath and the popularity of cricket remained largely unchallenged, though this failure has been attributed to internal management failures (Hunt 2007). It was to be the early years of the twentieth century before the GAA was properly established in the county.

In addition to cricket, some of the newer codified games, such as association football and rugby, became popular, but these were mostly confined to urban areas or private schools and had less popular appeal.

The contribution of Irish and Irish-Argentines to Sports in Argentina

In urban areas, Irish immigrants, particularly those who worked for the railway and in British-owned trading and commercial concerns, joined the new British-founded sporting institutions which began to emerge from the 1860s onwards. Among these was James Wensley Bond of County Armagh. Bond played in the first organised football game on Argentine soil on 29 June 1867 in Palermo. He was to become a committee member in the newly-formed Buenos Aires Football club. Another Irish player in the same historic match was Richard Henry Murray of Dublin, auditor of the Buenos Ayres British Clerks’ Provident Association (Raffo 2004: 69).

By the 1890s the practice of football took on a more identifiable Irish character, with the establishment of Lobos Athletic Club in the south of Buenos Aires on 3 July 1892, by a group of Irish-Argentines. This is considered to be the first Irish sports club in the country and signified that Irish-born and Irish-Argentines were seeking to assert their identity within the English-speaking community. This reflected some of the wider developments in the community, including the establishment of The Southern Cross newspaper in 1875, which sought to uphold a more nationalist and distinctively Catholic creed. Another football club ‘Capital Athletic Club’ was founded mostly by Irish-Argentines in 1895. The club’s original name was changed to Porteño Athletic Club soon after its foundation. Besides football the members also played cricket and other sports. Over time, the club lost its distinct Irish character and football was supplanted by rugby.

Besides Lobos and Porteño Athletic Club, many Irish-Argentines continued to be involved in British-founded clubs, such as Belgrano Athletic Club and Alumni. They also played for some of the newer criollo clubs, one of the most prominent players being Guillermo Ryan, who was a regular team member in the early years of Boca Juniors (El Xentenario 2004: 16-26). As the sport changed from being primarily rooted in the British community to being a sport of the masses, predictably both the influence and participation of the British and Irish community in the sport diminished. ‘In the beginning, football was practiced as a relaxing activity, but after these “romantic” years came the professional era, beginning in 1931, in which it became a game, and a business’ (Noguera 1986: 147). Argentina followed a similar path to Britain. Once the sport was professionalised, this led to a decline in middle-class players, and it came to be seen as primarily for the working classes. Professionalism probably signalled the death-knell of any significant involvement of ingleses, including Irish-Argentines, in the sport at the highest level, as such developments contravened the deep-seated philosophy of ‘the gentleman amateur’. The decline is also perhaps an indicator of social advancement and the greater availability of opportunities for Irish-Argentines. Since the end of amateurism, very few Irish-Argentines have appeared in the annals of the sport at the highest level. One of the more notable players of Irish ancestry in recent years was Carlos McAllister, who played for Boca Juniors. Such is the absence of Irish-Argentine involvement that an examination of the of the Argentine premiership team lists for the 2007 season in the sports magazine El Gráfico (December 2007) did not indicate one player of discernable Irish ancestry.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Kennedy, John, 'The Sporting Dimension to the Relationship Between Ireland and Latin America' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 3-14. Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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