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
"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.
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.
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.
ago a new website http://www.irlandesesenlaargentina.com.ar/,
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.
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.