Homeward Bound

Michael J. Geraghty © The Buenos Aires Herald, 27 September 2002

It is easily understandable that Ireland and Argentina have always held each other in high regard. After all Argentina received a large 19th-century Irish immigration which made an important contribution to Argentine life. Argentina was also the first state in the world to receive an Irish diplomatic representation when in 1921 Lawrence Ginnell traveled to Argentina, at that time one of the world’s leading nations, to obtain formal recognition for the new Irish Free State. Argentine Foreign Minister, Honorio Pueyrredón, officially received Ginnell on different state occasions and it was the Irish Free State’s first big diplomatic victory.

In recent times Argentine politicians have visited the land of the Celtic Tiger to investigate how its successful policies could be applied in Argentina and Ireland’s top representatives have come to Argentina on state visits. In 1995 Mary Robinson, former Uachtarán or President, became Ireland’s first head of state to visit Argentina, and in July 2001, Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach or Prime Minister, became Ireland’s first head of government to do likewise. Both visits received huge media coverage and Robinson and Ahern won the hearts of Irish Argentina in their very different ways. She is charmingly correct but somewhat aloof, while he is an extremely charismatic politician who has the ability to make people think in two minutes they have known him for a lifetime. Irish Argentines, who are said to number between 300 and 500,000, told him they would vote for him if they ever returned to Ireland. Now they may have the opportunity to do just that if the following petition, signed by almost 1,500 people, to his government prospers:

"We, the undersigned, citizens of the Argentine Republic…, draw the attention of the Government of Ireland to the following…Irish men and women emigrated to the River Plate…when economic and social conditions in Ireland encouraged emigration and Argentina offered opportunities for a better life…now Argentina does not allow the descendents of those emigrants…to wholly fulfill the dreams of their forefathers…so their great-grand children…request the Minister of Justice, Equality and Law Reform of Ireland to allow Argentine-born great-grand children of Irish nationals to become Irish nationals themselves, or in the alternative to be able to seek and obtain employment in Ireland as if they were Irish nationals".

As is to be expected the great majority of the petitioners are Irish Argentines from the A of Abbott to the Z of Zapata, Zaragoza and Zuccarino who are all Irish on the distaff side. For a long time Irish passports were once little more than a type of quaint curiosity to be talked about at weekends at home, at parties and at clubs. Now however these passports are a matter of life and death. They are the key to a promising future, whether real or imagined, in Europe far away from the huge unemployment, frustration, uncertainty and insecurity in present day Argentina.

The idea of the petition is the brainchild of Patricia ‘Patsy’ Hynes O’Connor, a very brave and determined Irish Argentine lady from Mendoza, the land of sunshine and good wine in western Argentina. She is the grand-daughter of Irish immigrants who came here in the late 1880s, settled successfully, raised big families and became as Argentine as any Argentine. Nevertheless they never forgot the faraway land of the shillelagh and the shamrock.

Patsy Hynes herself has an Irish passport, but her children do not, because in 1986 the Irish government restricted citizenship to the grandchildren of immigrants. Great-grandchildren were no longer directly eligible for citizenship unless their parents had obtained it before 1986. Unfortunately Patsy had taken out Irish citizenship after 1986 and was now in the unenviable position of being entitled to something herself while her children were not. To make matters worse, she has no use for it and her children have.

Nevertheless where there is a law there is a loophole and the Irish government’s 1986 legislation left open the option to request exceptions to the new legislation on the grounds that "the Minister of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has power to dispense with the conditions in whole or in part, in certain circumstances that are defined by law, e.g. if the applicant is of Irish descent or has Irish association". So in 1990 Patricia began writing to the Irish government to request citizenship for her children who fulfilled the necessary requirements.

The wheels of government grind incessantly but slowly and 12 years and six Irish Ministers of Justice later the answers from Dublin to Patricia Hynes in Mendoza were still the same: "your correspondence has been forwarded to the Citizenship Division and is receiving attention. A reply will issue to you in the near future". In Ireland "the near future" is a enticing concept, but it has an entirely different and somewhat kafkian meaning in Argentina where the situation has worsened beyond all imagination in 12 years and Argentines were besieging foreign embassies to get out of the country if and while they could.

Some months ago a new website, set up by Jorge Fox, a well-known Irish Argentine, ran a feature on Patsy and her petition immediately reached a mass audience. It struck a chord of sympathy among Irish Argentines who were in the same situation. Support began to pour in from Argentina and all around the world: Ireland and Europe, USA and Canada, all over South America and from as far away as Japan. Patsy soon had almost 1,500 signatures to add onto her own!

"We are simply asking Ireland", she says, "to show us the same hospitality today that Argentina showed its 19th-century Irish immigrants", "and we need it now more than they did then". "My children are university graduates and if they go abroad", she added "I want them to go legally". "The request is perfectly understandable", says Alec Quinn, President of the Buenos Aires Hurling Club, "given Argentina’s present level of social and labor chaos as well as its total lack of political and personal perspective". In Tokyo, Japanese-Irish Association member, Takeshi Moritaku, whose Canadian girlfriend is of Irish descent, says he "supports the idea unconditionally". "I think Ireland’s immigration policy is shameful", said Garrett McGuckian from Dublin, "we were once famous for our hospitality which now shines in its absence. It galls me Ireland no longer has the open arms it is known for, both for those less fortunate than ourselves, such as the East Europeans everyone is so scared of in Ireland, and more obviously, for those descended from other Irish people".

On 2 September Patsy emailed the complete list of almost 1,500 signatures to Leinster House, the seat of Irish government in Dublin and, lo and behold, the response was immediate: "your recent email concerning the claiming of Irish Citizenship has been forwarded to Michael McDowell, T.D., Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who has responsibility in this matter and he will respond directly to your enquiry." Two opposition politicians - Fine Gael’s Paul McGrath T.D. and Labor’s Seán Ryan T.D. – have already asked Bertie Ahern to state his position on the issue. Stephen Rawson, Press officer of the Irish Green Party, took a different tack. He wished the petitioners well, told them sending hundreds of emails was not the best methodology, and asked them to refrain from sending any more to him!

The ball is now well and truly i sending hundreds of emails was not the best methodology, and asked them to refrain from sending any more to him!

The ball is now well and truly in the Irish government’s possession. It has no reason to change its immigration policies which are already much more generous than most modern states. Nevertheless since Ireland is now an immigrant country, it would be well advised to give the petition extra special attention. Argentines are first-class immigrants and have done extremely well in their chosen ways of life wherever they have gone. Irish Argentines are no exception. They are well educated, young people from good homes where they learned the value of honesty, hard work, and perseverance, qualities which Argentines possess in abundance, but regrettably are given little scope to use. At the same time the issue puts the Irish government between a rock and a hard place. If concessions are made to Irish Argentina, they will also have to be made to all the Irish Diaspora which is so big it could become a very powerful lobby in Ireland.

It is ironic that the descendents of Argentina’s 19th-century Irish immigrants did not become a strong political lobby here to influence the men and their policies that perpetrated one of modern history’s great economic and social tragedies which turned Argentina from one of the 19th-century’s richest nations into one of the 21st-century’s poorest. It is equally ironic they do not blitz the government of Argentina with emails to demand their rights be respected. If the governments of Argentina did what they are supposed to do, nobody would have to emigrate anywhere.

Michael John Geraghty

Teachta Dála

Teachta Dála or T.D. is an Irish politician’s most prized title. It is Gaelic and is the equivalent of M.P. or Member of Parliament. Ireland is a bilingual country. The official languages are Gaelic and English. Although Gaelic is not commonly used in everyday life, it is used by government. The Parliament is the Oireachtas and is divided into the House of Representatives or the Dáil and the Senate or Seanad. The Constitution is the Bunreacht. The President is the Uachrarán, the Prime Minister is the Taoiseach, and the vice Prime Minister is the Tánaiste. When the 19th-century Irish immigrants came to Argentina, they brought the Gaelic language with them. In 1900 it was on the school curriculum of St. Patrick’s school in Mercedes, the "capital of the Irish pampa", and 78-year old Johnny Rattagan recalls his father’s learning it and teaching it to his children. Indeed the odd Gaelic word is still found mixed into the English of older Irish Argentines. MJG.



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