Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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Horses and Horseracing: An Irish passion in Nineteenth-Century Río de la Plata

By Edmundo Murray 


The Grand Stand at Venado Tuerto's race course
(John Macnie, 1925)

In 1864, sheep-farm owner John Murphy of Salto wrote to his brother in Wexford. ‘All the men are now taking care of the flocks on foot, though having sixteen horses. Yet there are only some one or two that would be safe to saddle as they can with difficulty support their own weight. I am getting ten or more young asses tamed in, and I shall then have a good supply so long as they are left with me’ (Murphy to Murphy, July 1864). In that year, when two more Irish labourers arrived from Ireland to work at Murphy’s establishment, he sent them from Buenos Aires to his ranch on the railway to Luján and then on the post coach to Salto because they could not find docile horses for them. Just two years later, one of these workers came second in the races in Salto.

In 1865 Murphy commented on the news in The Standard newspaper of Buenos Aires, which was customarily included in his letters to Ireland. ‘You see by this paper that we have horse racing here, as well as at home’ (Murphy to Murphy, 25 March 1865). And later that year, he added that he was

expecting some time ago to take a horse in to run in the English races, which you see advertised in the Standard for the 1st November, but owing to the shearing coming on I declined doing so. But I will have better time against the Autumn meeting, which generally takes place in March each year. I don’t recollect if I sent you a paper with some letters in it about our races last March, by which you may have seen that my horse beat at his ease some very crack-horses that was brought from far off to beat all before them (Murphy to Murphy, 25 September 1865).  

For Murphy, it was important to let everybody know at home and among his friends and neighbours in Wexford that he owned racing horses. He mentioned this in several letters, and some years later he proudly announced the organisation of races on his own land, where ‘we are to hold some Races at the Estancia on next Monday. I take out the prizes with me, two saddles, bridle, whip & spurs. They are to be private Races for horses of the neighbourhood, for our own amusement, & to be followed by a dance that night’ (31 August 1873). Owning racing horses and organising private races were marks of social prestige among the Irish in Ireland and in Argentina. 

Among the Irish residing in the rural areas of Buenos Aires, the races were the most important social event of the year. The horse-racing meeting of 1867 in Capilla del Señor ‘may be taken as the starting point in what was for a number of years the most important and successful Irish race-meeting in the country. The names of some of the race horses and their owners are worth preserving. First in the principal race, Matthew Dillon’s Chieftain; Second, John Shanaghan’s Fenian Boy; Third, Patrick Murray’s Shamrock; Fourth, George Bird’s Clear-the-Way, and last, Martin Fox’s Volunteer’ (Murray 1919: 224).

Trotting race at Lincoln, Buenos Aires province
(Trote Lincoln, 2006)

Vigilant Roman Catholic priests were present at the racing meetings to alert the people about the dangers associated with gambling, drinking and dancing, and to collect funds to support the building of rural chapels, schools, libraries and other works. In 1872, Fr. Patrick Dillon and Fr. Samuel O’Reilly opened St. Brigid’s chapel in La Choza, on John Brown’s land (district of Luján) (The Southern Cross, 1975: 33). ‘The day of its inauguration was one of great feasting in the district, with horse-racing, dances, etc., when the religious ceremony was over. Canon Dillon of Buenos Aires, who was a noted preacher, delivered the inaugural sermon which was said to be a very brilliant one. Mr. Browne was not alone forward in advancing religious and charitable institutions, he also took a leading part in promoting social pleasures and pastimes, and some of the first annual race-meetings in the camp were held on his estancia’ (Murray 1919: 219).

The priests also sought the association and collaboration of the Irish in Argentina, who came from different counties and social origins. The traditional feuds between the immigrants from southeast Ireland and those of the Irish Midlands owed less to geographical reasons than to social standing. Many Wexford people had a manifest contempt towards the Westmeath, Offaly, Longford and other Irish immigrants, and perceived themselves as better educated and of a higher cultural and moral standing.

This aspect of social life was manifest in social meetings in which both groups came together, as in

our English races [that] passed off on the 25th last month. There were about two thousand foreigners and all the respectable natives of the surrounding partidos. Partido, or parish, is a district of country extending ten or twelve leagues in diameter each way, say a space of 100 square leagues. We whipped all before us. I won the Cup and brother William won the Plate with one of my horses. Wexford won all that was seen for our namesake Murphy. Tom won the saddle, which so much enraged the Ballinacarryas [5] (Westmeath people), that they collected in a ruffianly mob and so much disturbed the peace that the races had to be broken up. I could have won some hundreds of pounds had I been a gambler, mine being a young horse untrained and his antagonist a celebrated racer. Peter Cormack rode. The mob headed by the owner of beaten horses (I mean the horse that pushed mine as there were only one out of the six that run done any thing) got so ruffianly excited that they insulted the people of all nationality. Even the Clergy did not escape their blogardeism and I am glad to say that there were not a single individual of any other county mixed in. Our clergyman of both parishes has on these last two Sundays told them what they are, and the disgrace they have been to all Irishmen in this country (Murphy to Murphy, 20 October 1867).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008 

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Murray, Edmundo, 'Horses and Horseracing: an Irish passion in Nineteenth-Century Río de la Plata'
in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 59-66. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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