Michael John Geraghty
Buenos Aires Herald, 17 March 1999
SS Dresden of the Norddeutscher Lloyd (later
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".
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".
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.
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.
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
"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.
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
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.
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
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.