An Ireland of the Mind
How Irish Argentines Don't Know and Don't Care About Irish Politics
By Sergio Kiernan*


One of the shocks of life for an Irish Argentine is to talk politics with an Irishman. If the Argentine truly listens, he will find a New World opening before his eyes, a world made up of Fianna Fail, Clann na Gael, Sinn Fein and other mysterious-sounding names. It's the world of Irish politics, the dark side of the moon for the Argentine-Irish community.

On the other hand, the Irish tend to have a headache when their foreign brethren – those within "the connection" – start talking politics. That is because they suddenly find themselves in a fairy tale of Bad Brits, Noble Bards and Freedom Fighters. The tale is made up of a sequence of invasion, plantation, Cromwell, Ascendancy, rebellion, coffin ships, famine, more rebellion, evictions and yet more rebellion. Then there is Easter 1916 and the movie fades to black with that Big Ambiguity, the Civil War. That is, for all practical matters Irish history ends in 1922 for the Irish Argentine.

First Dáil Eireann (1919)


It is truly amazing: communities that managed to retain their Irish identity after four, five or more generations abroad, draw a sharp line after the effective independence of the country and fast-forward to The Troubles, a political development that can be nicely fitted in the old fairy tale. More amazing still, the ones that can actually tell the fairy tale are the relatively few who bothered at all to learn some Irish history. It seems that that is all they manage to retain. Why?

Argentina must be a special case of denial, with a community that has some difficulty remembering even the Easter Rebellion. To start to understand this peculiar development, one has to bear in mind that Irish Argentines are the only ones in the Diaspora that didn't settle in an English-speaking country. There is of course some tiny Irish presence almost anywhere, like the 3,000 Brazilian Irish and a few hundred Chileans of Irish descent. But Argentina's is clearly the largest community outside of the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa and of course Britain.

When emigration to Argentina became important, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Irish found a country fast becoming part of the imperial sphere of influence. Development was fueled by British capital and know-how, and being Irish became a competitive advantage over the natives. English-speaking and legally British subjects, the Irish in Argentina behaved mostly as one more variety of Britons, good subjects that happened to be Catholic and have a brogue. A familiar type for people of my generation were the thoroughly anglicized, five o'clock-tea aunts that spoke --or tried to-- the King's English.

The Irish kept their distance from local politics until the 50s and 60s of the past century, when their children entered the lunatic fringe with gusto by joining groups such as Tacuara where Baxter, Lynch and Nell plotted revolution and robbed armored cars. But the founding experience of the community was getting consular protection to avoid being drafted and serve in the Paraguayan war in the 1860s. The first generation was so reluctant to become Argentine that it attracted the ire of President Sarmiento, who wrote article after article damning the Irish as ungrateful.

Community political life in regard to Ireland wasn't that much different. The Irish spent time and treasure building an extensive network of churches, hospitals and schools, started a newspaper – still published as a monthly and the second-oldest in the country – and gradually became more and more Argentine. It would be a matter of interest to know the history of how the Irish here and the Irish Argentines digested the rise of modern nationalism in Ireland, from Parnell – another virtual unknown among locals – to De Valera. Edmundo Murray points the way in the epilogue to his recent "Devenir Irlandés", where he writes of the Irish learning to love Argentina and at the same time learning to see an enemy in Britain.

What is known is that there was a measure of excitement in the years between Easter and the Civil War, when Ireland had a clandestine rebel government. An Irish mission came to Argentina to raise funds and did sell some Irish Republican Bonds, but not many. The last echo of that period is the habit of hanging reproductions of the Independence Proclamation at home, a souvenir as popular with Irish Argentines as it is with Irish Americans.

Easter Rising. Irish Citizen Army troops (1916).
Then silence. The agonies and subtleties of post-Civil War politics in Ireland didn't register here. Nobody knows about the founding of modern parties, the tortuous return of De Valera to the mainstream and to power, the role of the Church in society, the Fascist temptation of the Silver Shirts, the Emergency and its almost pro-Nazi neutrality, the changes in Ireland since it joined the European Union (except for the recent prosperity). Informal research shows, in fact, that Argentines assume that since Ireland is a republic, it must have a President in charge, just like Argentina, and the news of the existence of a Primer Minister is disconcerting.

The Troubles are the exception to the rule. In Irish-Argentine eyes, Ulster is a piece of Old Ireland, with an Ascendancy and brutal British repression. This familiar Nationalist yarn creates certain cognitive noises: the IRA translate as patriots and at the same time as guerrillas, a type very familiar and unsettling to the prosperous Irish Argentines. The level of understanding of the complex and courageous peace process in Ulster is abysmal: a pub in Brooklyn would probably yield more insight than the whole community in Argentina.

Curiously enough, there is something deeply Argentine in that attitude. Faced with mass immigration on a scale relative to the population never seen even in New York, Argentina reacted in the late nineteenth century with a thorough and successful program of Argentinization based on a school curriculum that stressed nationality to grotesque extremes. Immigrants were tacitly told to leave their politics at home: Argentina offered a fresh start but the price was to cease being active citizens of their home countries. There were exceptions, of course, notably Italian anarchists who didn't see any reasons to drop their internationalist socialism, and the flare of emotions detonated in the Thirties by the Spanish Civil War. But all in all, there was a thorough process of depolitization that severed ties with Europe.

And of course there is the factor of distance. Argentina is as far from Ireland as China – if your are flying, that is – and tours to the old country were rare until recently. The result is an Ireland of the imagination, a never land of nice people who love the drink and just don't have a political life. I suspect that Irish Argentines prefer to believe in the reality of the Isle of Saints and Bards, willfully erasing the modern country.

A country is, after all, a pretty unromantic entity that levies taxes and has and immigration policy. Our Ireland is hallowed ground, to be touched or thought about with tears welling

Eamon de Valera (1882-1975)

Whatever sense this article makes is due to D.B., an intelligent Irishman with a passion for politics and a very clear mind. The blunders are the author's alone. Pace.

Sergio Kiernan


* Sergio Kiernan is a professional journalist and the Sunday Editor at Página/12, a national daily published in Buenos Aires. He often writes on politics and culture, and is the author of a series of papers on terrorism published by the American Jewish Committee in New Yay Editor at Página/12, a national daily published in Buenos Aires. He often writes on politics and culture, and is the author of a series of papers on terrorism published by the American Jewish Committee in New York.

© Sergio Kiernan, Irish Argentine Historical Society

Last Update: September 2004


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