Power in Argentina
Michael John Geraghty
For The Southern Cross Centenary Special
(Complete, unpublished version)
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'
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
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.
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.
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.
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 '.