Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

From Shepherds to Polo Players
Irish-Argentines from the First to the Last Chukker


By Guillermo MacLoughlin Bréard 


Roberto L. Cavanagh (1914-2002), member of the Argentine team that won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games (Berlin). During his career Cavanagh won the 1949 USA Open (Hurricanes), the Argentina Open in 1944, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1951, the Pan American Championship (1951) and the America Cup (1950). He achieved a 10 goal handicap in 1954 and maintained it until 1963
(Archivo El Gráfico)

It is almost impossible to delve into the history of polo in Argentina, from its introduction to the present day, without noting the influence of Irish-Argentines.   

The origins of the game itself are disputed. Some records show that it was played by the Persians as far back as 2,500 years ago, but the Chinese also claim that their playing tradition goes back as far. The modern word for the sport is derived from the word for ball in the Tibetan language, ‘pulu’. By medieval times the game was popular in India and was fostered by the Mogul dynasty in the fifteenth century. During the British Raj, the first polo club was founded by British tea planters at Silchar, in Assam state in 1862. The first club outside India, the Malta Polo Club was founded in 1868 by British army and naval officers who had come from India.  

The game was first played in Britain at Hounslow Heath in West London in 1869. The game quickly spread with the first polo club in England, founded in 1872. The All Ireland Polo Club was also founded in the same year by Horace Rochfort of Clogrenane, County Carlow. Soon, an enthusiastic American of Irish origin, Gordon Bennett, having seen the game played in Hurlingham, England introduced the game to the United States of America. The Irishman Captain John Watson (1856-1908) of the British Cavalry 13th Hussars, formulated the first rules for the sport. Like many traditional sports, it had up to then been practiced in India without any limitations on time or space or a fixed amount of players.

Polo was introduced by British landowners in Buenos Aires in the mid-1870s, although it is not known precisely the exact date of the first match. There are references to games being played in the Caballito neighbourhood, in the city of Buenos Aires, as well as on the estancia (ranch) ‘La Buena Suerte’ in Azul in the province of Buenos Aires, on 8 January 1874, as noted in the Polo Encyclopedia by Horacio Laffaye. However, the first recorded match was held at the famous estancia ‘Negrete’, in Ranchos in the province of Buenos Aires, on 30 August 1875, between the teams ‘Ciudad’ and ‘Camp’. It was organised by the owner of the property, David Shennan, a Scottish landowner.

The Standard, an English-language newspaper edited by the Mulhall brothers from Dublin, in its issue of 2 September, reported that ‘Shennan’s estancia could not be more beautiful with its grounds filled with flags to celebrate a match of Polo. [...] Each player used two horses: one to play and another as back-up. [...] Campo dominated the whole match and made three goals in less than one hour. Some of Ciudad’s players had never seen a match before, which explains why it was so hard for them. Shennan and King had excellent performances, well supported by their fellow teammates. After the game, both quarters were cheered with hoorays by all thousands who travelled to enjoy such new event’. 

While none of the players had Irish ancestry, the land belonged to Peter Sheridan from County Cavan, an Irish pioneer in sheep breeding, who had owned the place for many years, in partnership with John Hannah. Also, it should be noted that one of the farm managers was Dennis O’Keefe, who was responsible for the sheep herd. 

The sport rapidly expanded, both in the province of Buenos Aires and in southern Santa Fe province, known as ‘la pampa gringa’, and other regions of the country. Over time, two distinct styles developed - ‘polo-estancia’, played in the country, and ‘polo-ciudad’, played in the urban areas. The first polo clubs began to emerge in the later 1870s. Among those in the first wave were Venado Tuerto and Cañada de Gómez in Santa Fe province, and Flores and Quilmes in Buenos Aires province. Venado Tuerto Polo & Athletic Club, founded on 14 May 1887, is the only one still in existence. Throughout its history it has been the nursery for some of the most distinguished players in the sport, including its current president, Guillermo Cavanagh, whose great-grandfather, Edward Cavanagh, came to the country in 1851, aboard the emigrant ship the William Peele. Although most of the founders of the club were British, there were also some Irish people among them, including George O’Donnell and James De Renzi Brett, the latter being the agent for Eduardo Casey, the most prominent Irish-Argentine founder of colonies and promoter of horse racing in Argentina.

The following year the Hurlingham Club was founded on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Named after the famous London club, it was initially founded to organise horse races ‘a la inglesa’, but later became a centre of excellence for polo, with players becoming renowned nationally and internationally. Today it is one of the most prestigious institutions in the country and annually organises one of the most important tournaments in the polo calendar, Campeonato Abierto de Hurlingham. 

Finally, in 1892, a governing body, the ‘Polo Association of the River Plate’ was founded and gave rise in 1922 to the establishment of the Argentine Polo Association.

The Dominance of Traill

First held in 1893, the Argentine Open Polo Championship has become the most prestigious and important competition in world polo. Every year thousands of people travel from many different countries to Buenos Aires in November to witness this spectacle, turning the Palermo grounds where it is played into a veritable tower of Babel.

In the early years the Championship was won by teams composed of British players, with names such as ‘Hurlingham’, ‘The Casuals’, and ‘Flores’. One exception to this was ‘Las Petacas’, a team formed by criollos (natives) including the brothers Joseph and Sixto Martínez. Indeed, for two consecutive years, 1895 and 1896, the team won the Open. One of their players, the number three, [1] was Frank Kinchant, born in 1868. It remains unclear whether he was born in Ireland or in Argentina, but he was certainly of Irish parentage. The year before, in 1894, the Open had been won by Frederick Bennett, who was also a founder member and board member of the ‘Polo Association of the River Plate’, and who is also believed to have Irish roots.  

1 - 2 - 3 - 4


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008 

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

MacLoughlin Bréard, Guillermo
, 'From Shepherds to Polo Players: Irish-Argentines from the First to the Last Chukker' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 67-73. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information