Argentina: Land of Broken Promises

By Michael John Geraghty
Buenos Aires Herald, 17 March 1999

SS Dresden of the Norddeutscher Lloyd (later renamed Helius)
in Peter Newall's Union Castle Line: a Fleet History (London, 1999), p. 102
(Ambrose Greenway collection, with kind permission of Carmania Press to Peter Mulvany)

The Irish and their descendants have always come together on St. Patrick’s Day, today, to celebrate in prayer, parade and party, the arrival in Ireland in 432 of St. Patrick and Christianity. Some of these festivities, such as the Fifth Avenue parade in New York, have become world famous.

The 2,000 Irish immigrants who arrived in Buenos Aires on the M.V. City of Dresden on 16 February 1889, had less than little to celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day that year. The "Dresden affair", as it was then called, became infamous and was denounced in Parliament, press and pulpit. Argentina, their "land of promise," became the land of broken promises.

Here’s what happened.

The Argentine government of 1889, under President Miguel Juárez Celman, actively encouraged immigration. It issued 50,000 free passages and its agents promoted Argentina all over Europe where people were sick and tired of toiling in poverty and pillage and were more than ready to take their chances on foreign shores. Droves of immigrants were sailing west every day to the New World – most to North America and a few to South America. The Irish immigration to Argentina began around 1825, peaked in 1848, and by the end of the century had petered down to a trickle as a result of the "Dresden Affair".

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Some of the early immigrants had done very well - rags to riches - thanks to the sheep and wool business that boomed as 19th -century Argentine sheep breeders disputed leadership of the international wool trade with Australia. These immigrants were originally from the farmlands of Wexford and the Irish midlands - Westmeath, Longford and north Offaly - and they knew how to dig ditches, handle sheep, cattle and horses and thrived on hard work and hard conditions. Irish diplomat, Timothy Horan, wrote in 1958: "it is one of history’s little ironies that our immigrants came to Argentina to assist in building up a system and a class the creation of which in Ireland had led to their own emigration".

The City of Dresden carried the largest number of passengers ever to arrive in Argentina from any one destination on any one vessel. British immigrants – and the Irish were British at the time – were highly prized by governments as decent, hard working, God-fearing people who would improve their lot and their adopted land by the strength of their limbs and the sweat of their brows. The Argentine government agents in Ireland - J. O’Meara, and John S. Dillon, a brother of the famous Canon Patrick Dillon who founded The Southern Cross – made effective sales pitches for Argentina as "the finest region under the southern cross".

Unfortunately honesty was not among O’Meara’s or Dillon’s virtues - both of them were Irish. To get their commissions they lied through their teeth and told the desperate Irish they would have houses to live in, seed to sow, machinery to work with, and the most fertile land in the world to farm. They said a famous patriarch priest and benefactor, Fr. Anthony Fahy, had his own bank to finance all of this. At the time, Fr. Fahy was almost twenty years dead and buried!

It had taken O’Meara and Dillon more than two years to get 2,000 people together to fill the City of Dresden. The delay was caused by a press campaign conducted by influential Irish and Anglo-Argentines in Buenos Aires who knew perfectly well that the promises made by these two Argentine government agents in Ireland would not be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, O’ Meara and Dillon left no stone unturned and even "decrepit octogenarians" were accepted for the voyage. According to The Story of the Irish in Argentina, a book by Thomas Murray published in 1919, rumor had it "convicts undergoing terms of imprisonment in Limerick and Cork jails who were released on condition they would not return to Ireland," were also on board.

The City of Dresden, built in Glasgow in 1888 for Norddeutscher Lloyd as an immigrant ship, could carry 38 first-class, 20 second-class and 1,759 third-class passengers. On the voyage to Buenos Aires some passengers died at sea, probably due to lack of food and water.

Serious difficulties immediately arose when the ship docked in Buenos Aires. After nineteen days at sea, the passengers arrived undernourished and dehydrated. They had sailed from Cobh – "the holy ground" - on a bitterly cold winter’s day into a heat beyond their wildest imagination. The food and accommodation O’Meara and Dillon had promised them in Buenos Aires simply did not exist. The only lodging available, the Hotel de Inmigrantes, was, according to La Prensa, a "pigeon house in the Retiro". It was known as the Rotonda and was located where the Mitre terminal of Retiro railway station is today.

"It was a piece of cruel burlesque to speak of the place as a hotel, for there were no beds; the people had to sleep huddled together on the bare floors, and there was scarcely any food provided, although the government was spending one million dollars a year to provide accommodation to newly-landed immigrants," Reverend John Santos Gaynor wrote in The Story of St. Joseph’s Society published in 1941.

The plight of the immigrants was compounded because Argentina was at that time going through a boom in immigration and 20,000 people were arriving at the port of Buenos Aires every month. The City of Dresden and the Duchesa di Genova carrying 1,000 Italians arrived on the same day. It was a veritable Tower of Babel for the incoming Irish who could not understand a word of Spanish or Italian, the linguas francas on the teeming docks where husbands were separated from wives, children from parents, brothers and sisters from each other.

"The Immigration Department of those days was, like most other government departments, mostly an institute for the upkeep of party hangers-on who had no thought of honestly earning their salaries", Murray wrote. In The Southern Cross, Father Matthew Gaughran O.M.I. who was in Argentina on a fund-raising mission wrote that "anything more scandalous could not be imagined. Men, women and children, whose blanched faces told of sickness, hunger and exhaustion after the fatigues of the journey had to sleep as best they might on the flags of the courtyard. Children ran around naked. To say they were treated like cattle would not be true, for the owner of cattle would at least provide them with food and drink, but these poor people were left to live or die unaided by the officials who are paid to look after them".

The local Irish and Anglo-Argentine community as well as the British Consulate made appeals to the community on behalf of the immigrants in The Standard, The Buenos Aires Herald, and The Southern Cross. Temporary accommodation was found for families in stables on the Paseo de Julio which were, according to La Prensa, "an immense pool of putrid, stagnant, filthy water". They were later moved to a hovel in Plaza Constitución and to a shed near the port on 25 de Mayo. Young single women and girls were sent to the Irish Convent on Tucumán street.

Nevertheless, according to The Southern Cross, "young girls of prepossessing appearance were inveigled into disreputable houses – a swell carriage with swell occupants drives up, promises of a splendid situation are made and accepted, and away go the unsuspecting girls". Thus began a long tradition of Irish whores in the squalid, now-gone-red-light port area of Buenos Aires and some of the most famous "madams" were reputed to be Irish!

A lucky few of the immigrants found employment with rich families and landowners in the Irish and Anglo-Argentine community. Quirno Costa, the Argentine Foreign Minister, took a number of families to work on his estates. Renowned tailor, hosier and hatter, James Smart, offered work to any tailors on board at his business on Piedad street. Some others found their way to Rosario in the province of Santa Fé, and others to Quilmes, Zárate and Mercedes in the province of Buenos Aires.

For the great majority of the immigrants however, there was nothing and the trail of broken promises continued. One colony offered free to each family a two-room house on a 50-hectare ranch. The only requirement for ownership was to live on and till the land. After two years, the family would receive its title deed. If an additional 100 hectares were purchased at $4 a hectare, a team of bullocks, a plough, and fifty sheep would be also thrown in for good measure. The families that entered into the agreement toiled and tilled their land but the deeds, the bullocks, nor the machinery were ever forthcoming.

According to The Standard, a group of families were offered farm employment and were taken by train 200 miles into the province of Buenos Aires. At a railway station next-door to nowhere the train stopped in the middle of the night. The guide told the immigrants they had arrived, to get off and wait for him while he went to the farm to fetch transport. He never returned!

This was mild compared to what happened to the colonists who reached Napostá, north of Bahía Blanca. David Gartland, an Irish-American businessman who had started a colony there, offered each family 40 hectares, 1,000 pesos at nine-percent annual interest and 12 years to pay back the loan.

When the would-be colonists got to Napostá, they had no luggage. It had been sent on separately and was "lost". The land was there to work but there were no houses and no way to build them because Gartland did not have enough money to finance his project. Those who had tents lived in them and those who did not lived under trees or in ditches, neither of which were very plentiful on an open, windswept plain, dry and dusty in summer, cold and wet in winter.

Dublin-born Fr. Matthew Gaughran was their only true friend. He discontinued his fund-raising, traveled to Napostá and lived for some months with the poor unfortunates attending their spiritual needs. "The immigrants eked out a miserable existence for two years. The land was unsuitable for agriculture", wrote Gaynor of the St. Joseph’s Society, "the death rate was terrific: over 100 deaths in two years. In March 1891 the colony was broken up and 520 colonists trekked the 400 miles back to Buenos Aires". Some of them never made it and fell along the wayside broken in spirit and utterly destitute.

The City of Dresden affair did not go unnoticed. The Archbishop of Cashel, T.W. Croke, minced no words and left no one in any doubt about his feelings in an 1889 letter to Dublin’s The Freeman’s Journal : "Buenos Aires is a most cosmopolitan city into which the Revolution of ’48 has brought the scum of European scoundrelism. I most solemnly conjure my poorer countrymen, as they value their happiness hereafter, never to set foot on the Argentine Republic however tempted to do so they may be by offers of a passage or an assurance of comfortable homes".

Such reports effectively finished any further organized emigration from Ireland to Argentina. In May 1889, The Southern Cross wrote: "if the Argentine government should have employed agents in Ireland to dissuade people from coming to this country, they could not have succeeded better than they have done through the services of Messrs O’Meara and Dillon…Whoever in the old country may have previously approved of this country as a field for immigration will do so no longer and the occupation of the agents is gone forever".

For its part the M.V. City of Dresden sailed the seven seas – Europe and America north and south, Australia and the Far East, Suez and South Africa – until it was sold to the Houston Line in 1903 and renamed "Helius". In 1904 it went to the Union Castle Line and was laid up until Turkey purchased it in 1906 and renamed it "Tirimujghian" to sail the Black Sea where it was sunk by a Russian torpedo in the early days of World War 1.


Information of the City of Dresden


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