Irish Power in Argentina

By Michael John Geraghty
For The Southern Cross Centenary Special Edition
(Complete, unpublished version)

I came to Argentina in 1966 as a missionary to save souls!

Goodness and generosity were in the air in those halcyon days of John XXIII who spoke about christianizing Latin America and illuminating pagans with the light of the one true God. My first big surprise was that churches were full of prosperous people and there were no dangerous demons anywhere.

People were extremely friendly, respectful and cultured. Lots of them could speak English and were surprised I couldn’t speak French. Men hugged you in the great big 'abrazo ' and slapped you on the back as they told you what a splendid fellow you were. Then there was the delightful habit of greeting the girls with a kiss instead of a handshake. Everyone just loved touching everyone else.

My second big surprise was that Buenos Aires was, in comparison to Dublin, a colossal city, a real world capital. It had an underground railway and a bus service that ran twenty-four hours a day. The city never slept and people here were going to parties when they would have been going to bed in my old short-grass county Kildare. Bars and restaurants were open day and night as men and women dined, wined and danced the night away.

Buenos Aires however also had a seamier side of shanty towns full of poor and abandoned people who had neither any access to employment, education, health, nor to any other opportunity to improve their underprivileged lot because society at large - with the exception of certain sectors of the church - simply ignored them and denied their existence. Day labor, crime, prostitution, domestic service and begging were all these people could aspire to.

Soccer was king and El Monumental, La Bombonera or even Racing Stadium would have smothered Croke Park, Dalymount or Landsdowne Road. Fifteen minutes from the downtown there was even a city racetrack bigger than anything I had seen from the Phoenix Park to Paris. Horses ran on sand or grass and were timed which was something we never did back on the Curragh gallops. Work riders here rode bareback and no jockey got "a leg up". They just sprung into the saddle and Argentine cowboys or ‘gauchos’ as they are called rode a short strong ‘criollo’ cowhorse that could gallop all day non-stop.

There was also a huge Irish-Argentine community with its own newspaper and clubs where people met regularly to celebrate anything Irish or Argentine in true tribute to their origin and nationality. The problem was not getting into these clubs, but getting out of them because parties went on all night with Irish music, dancing and songs. Local warblers were and are still flogging many old favourites - Danny Boy, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, The Rose of Tralee - which had long ago gone down the Swanee and out of fashion in dear old Erin's isle. Any excuse or no excuse at all was good enough for an 'asado’ or a party and people kept on telling you "the map of Ireland is on your face". Hospitality was the name of the game.

Although it is a tale for another telling, I soon lost interest in saving immortal souls - my own included - and found myself in early 1968 on the streets of Buenos Aires trying to save my body and looking for a job. Although I did not know it at the time a job was not going to be at all difficult to find, because there was an incredible network of Irish Argentines in many key positions especially within certain industries and this was my third big surprise. Even though I spoke very little Spanish, jobs were immediately there for the choosing, once I got into the network and my first interviews at a US automobile maker where Irish names abounded: Sullivan, Duggan, Murphy, Whitechurch, and McDermott. I opted for a job with a US meat packer after interviews with George Gahan, Hub Kane, Mike Gallagher, and Norman Robson who immediately took me to Rosario where I met the Dillons, Wades, Kehoes and the famous 'Irish Sam' Fleming. Someone told me I was going to be "very successful because you are Irish". I could not for the life of me make the connection between 'successful' and 'Irish'.

Nevertheless I soon saw for myself that the Irish who had started coming in small numbers to Argentina at the end of the 19th century had made such a tremendous contribution to the construction of power in the country that by the second-half of the 20th century most Irish Argentines had become well-to-do in whatever profession they had chosen. Being Irish was then something of a status symbol that definitely guaranteed to a woman a good marriage and to a man a good job in an upwardly mobile career. Argentines considered Irish Argentines likeable and fun-loving, God-fearing and hard-working, trustworthy and thrifty, English-speaking and non-English into the bargain. This very favorable perception had been achieved by many generation of Irish and Irish-Argentines who at one-time were Argentina’s most important farmers and teachers. Unfortunately in the passage of time most of the big Irish landowners lost their holdings but the Irish continue be an extremely strong influence in education as teachers and founders of some of Argentina’s oldest and most important schools.

The early immigrants who laid the foundation for this were real adventurers who staked their lives and the lives of their kin on a dream they dreamed in their hearts and traveled half way around the world to make come true. Their Argentina was not the country of today. Great hardship was their lot in the do-or-die affair of gambling everything on the acquisition and increase of flocks of sheep first and of land later. These early immigrants did not understand the land, its convoluted politics, nor its climate, but they soon learned how to handle the vagaries of all three.

All of them knew the value of how to ingratiate themselves with whatever political ruler was momentarily in power. They also knew how to handle a fast horse, a sharp knife, an accurate rifle and a heavy cannon. They fought and killed for land across the Indian frontier long before Roca decimated the natives with shot, shell and cavalry. They were true frontiersmen who thrived on adversity and their remains are to be found under the Celtic crosses that to this day bear their names in the cemeteries that dot the Irish pampa from Chascomús to Venado Tuerto.

Many of them - Lynch, Campion, Duggan, O'Farrell, Gaynor and Michael 'Big Red Mick' Murray - acquired vast holdings of land, sheep, pigs and cattle. The biggest landowners in Argentina were Irish as were the biggest mart operators, the Lalors who originally stayed in the city to handle - first in Avellaneda and then in Liniers - all of the produce coming in off the Irish Pampa. Their wealth was legendary. Their sheep were counted in tens of thousands and their farms - bigger than most Irish counties - were measured in leagues. Then they intermarried - Duggan and Casey, Lynch and Guevara, Gaynor and Wallace, Kavanagh and Pueyrredón, Kenny and Frias - and made big fortunes even bigger. Many of them sent their children to be educated in Ireland’s best catholic schools, Tullabeg and Clongowes Wood College, run by the Jesuits in county Kildare. In its Christmas 1900 number, ‘The Clongownian’, Clongowes Wood College school magazine, published ‘Up Country in the Argentine’ by an Irish Argentine, Patrick M. Rath.

By the end of the 19th century, these Irishmen were the cream of the local landowning aristocracy, the Argentine Rural Society and the Jockey Club. They had become powerful without ever wanting to in one of life's small and ironic contradictions that these immigrants built up in Argentina a system of land ownership and tenure, which in Ireland had enslaved them. They were the foundation stone of the great Argentine agricultural economy, which would one day become the breadbasket of the world. The quality of their commitment and their produce was second to none.

These landowners hired the great bulk of the menfolk who came from Ireland in the mid-19th century, but by now another ingredient - the church - had entered the melting pot. The priests and religious orders that kept the Irish together and faithful to their traditions, also introduced another institution - education - at which the Irish would excel and make their second most important and longest lasting contribution to Argentina.

Education grew stronger as more and more educators - mostly religious - came to Argentina to fulfill a commitment which was originally only to the Irish, but which in the passing of time extended to the whole Argentina community. As the incoming Irish immigration petered out and the rural population moved into the city, the older schools - St. Brendan’s in Carmen de Areco, Clonmacnois in San Antonio de Areco and St. Lucy's in the city - folded.

Others opened up to fill the breach: St. Patrick’s in Mercedes, Mater Misericordiae in Almagro, Michael Ham Memorial College in Vicente López, San Cirano and Santa Brígida in Caballito, St. Brendan’s in Belgrano, and Cardinal Newman in Boulogne. These schools were now catering for the overall Argentine community that was growing rapidly in numbers and into which the Irish-Argentine community was integrating.

Sean Healy from Galway, founded San Cirano in 1933, a small group of Irish Christian Brothers founded Cardinal Newman in 1948, and former Christian Brother, John Scanlan from Limerick, founded St. Brendan's in 1966. These men were exceptional educators and visionaries. The schools they founded - without any backing other than hard work and their own faith in themselves - would not only become bywords of Argentine educational excellence, but would also leave no stone unturned to foment Irish Argentina and the cultures of both nations.

Graduates of these schools soon made their way into public and private life and Irish surnames began to appear in all areas of activity. Although Irish Argentines continue to keep low profiles, they are well represented in both public and private life today. Even a quick glance through any Argentine directory, from the judiciary through the church to the corporate world and the armed forces, will show that the Irish Argentine network is still alive and well today but very much identified with the mother nation, Argentina. It should also be said that Irish-Argentines will be found among the ever-growing masses of Argentina’s poor. Nevertheless the Irish certainly made the best out of their adopted land and their adopted land made the best out of them. Their spirit is best expressed in the motto of The Southern Cross 'expressing our Argentine fullness out of our Irish ancestry '.

Michael John Geraghty



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Copyright © The Irish Argentine Historical Society. 2004
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