Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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


By Guillermo MacLoughlin Bréard 


Argentina (white) vs. Great Britain during the Olympic Games at Berlin, 
August 1936. The Argentine team won 11-0
(Musée Olympique, Lausanne)

In 1898 The Casuals won the Open for the second time, having first won it three years previously, with a team formed by the brothers Roberto and Eduardo Traill. Six years later, in 1904, ‘North Santa Fe’, achieved their first victory and would go on to be one of the most successful teams of the era. The victory was noteworthy as the team comprised three brothers and a cousin: Roberto, Eduardo, Juan and José Traill. Thereafter, a Traill appeared on the winners’ podium in the Open on six occasions. An all-family affair again ensued in 1908 when the three Traill brothers and their cousin José won the Open.   

The Traills owed much of their success to their pioneering pony breeding, as The Polo Monthly recorded: ‘They were the first breeders in the Argentine to play ponies bred by themselves for polo, and their ponies by their first stallion, Spring Jack, marked a change between the old-fashioned Argentine pony and the blood of today’. 

The most outstanding member of the family was Juan A. E. Traill, the first to obtain the maximum handicap in Argentina of ten goals, in 1913. Although Argentina claims Johnny Traill as her own, he had, in a sense, triple nationality. By descent, he was a member of an old Anglo-Irish landed family, settled in County Down, by upbringing he was Argentine, and by birth English, as he had been born in London. He was born on 8 December 1882. All of his brothers and sisters were born in Argentina, on the family estancia ‘La Esterlina’, in the north of Santa Fe province. 

The 1911 polo season was memorable for Johnny. Playing for North Santa Fe, with his cousin Joe, Francis Geoffrey and Leonard Lynch-Staunton (a native of County Galway, who was three times winner of the Argentine Open), they took part in thirteen matches, winning every one, scoring a total of 175 goals to 11. The fame of the ‘asesino latinoamericano’, [2] as he was known, transcended national borders and he soon began playing abroad. 

In the 1920s, after marrying Irish-Argentine Henrietta Roberts, he settled in England, where he had a distinguished career and was considered one of the best players of the era. He won numerous tournaments, such as the Ranelagh Championship in London, the Westchester Championship in New York, and others. Along with his cousin Joe, he joined the Ireland team, which represented the country in the Patriotic Cup. With his sons Jim and Jack he formed his own team, ‘The Traillers’, winning a number of tournaments in the 1930s. He died in 1958 and the family polo tradition continues to this day with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of his descendents Lucía Escriña Traill features in the current Argentine handicap list.

The Era of Luis Lacey

Another outstanding player who excelled in the early years of the twentieth century was Luis (Lewis) Lacey (1887-1966), who also achieved a ten goals handicap. Born in Canada to a family of Irish origin, his father, William Lacey, a former cricket player, had been hired by the Hurlingham Club in Buenos Aires to teach sports to the members of the newly established entity. What Lacey did not know was that his son would learn to play polo at the club, becoming one of the best polo players in Argentine history. His first major victory was in 1915 when he won the Argentine Open with his team ‘El Palomar’, formed with Lindsay Holway, Samuel Casares and his brother Charles (who replaced my grandfather Saúl Bréard on the team). 

Subsequently he interrupted his career to enlist in the King Edward Horse Regiment during World War One, where he reached the rank of first-lieutenant and was known for his courage and bravery. He then continued his brilliant career in the post-war era in Argentina and England. In Argentina he won the Open six times and also won the most prestigious British tournaments, such as the British Open, Whitney Cup and Roehampton Open Challenge Cup. Such was his brilliance that the Hurlingham Polo Association in England also awarded him the ten goals handicap in 1922.

He declined to participate in the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924, when he was invited to join both the Argentina and the Great Britain teams. He decided that it would be inappropriate to divide loyalties and play for either of the two countries. He lived in Argentina but spent long periods in England where the Prince of Wales, (following his abdication as King Edward VIII, he became known as Edward Windsor), always wanted him to play on his team.

John Macnie on his pony near Venado Tuerto
(Macnie 'Work and Play in the Argentine', 1925: ii)

Lacey’s last game of competitive polo in 1937 was particularly memorable. His team Hurlingham won, once more, the Argentine Open, having last won it in 1929, featuring Eduardo Rojas Lanusse, Jack Nelson and Roberto Cavanagh. General Agustín P. Justo, [3] Argentine President, attended the final to pay tribute and homage to this great player. His last years were spent in Argentina, devoted to teaching the sport to younger generations. The main field in Hurlingham Club in Buenos Aires is named in his honour.

The Irish-Argentine Duel between ‘Venado Tuerto’ and ‘El Trébol’

The reign of the dominance of British-born players in Argentine polo was beginning to come to a close by the 1930s, giving way to the younger criollo generation. No longer would the surnames be exclusively British, indicating that the insularity of the community was being eroded by inter-marriage, and also that other players of non-British origin had arrived on the scene.

Among these new criollo players were a number of people of Irish origin including Kenny, Kearney, Nelson, Harrington, Lalor, Cavanagh and Duggan, who for over forty years between the 1920s and 1960s appeared among the winners of the Argentine Open and foreign competitions. They also made a name for themselves as sports ambassadors, or simply as breeders, forging the strong contemporary Irish roots of Argentine polo. 

A great moment for Argentine polo was winning the first gold medal for the country in any sport in 1924, during the Summer Olympic Games in Paris. The team was formed by Enrique Padilla, Juan Miles and two Irish-Argentines Juan Nelson and Arthur Kenny. They defeated the teams of France, England, Spain and the USA in succession, demonstrating the excellence the country had achieved in the sport. The feat was repeated in Berlin at the Summer Olympic Games in 1936, with a team comprising Andrés Gazzotti, Manuel Andrada and Irish-Argentines Luis Duggan and Roberto Cavanagh.


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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 .

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