From Irish Roots, No. 28

The South American Irish
By Brian McGinn

Perhaps the biggest myth about the Irish in South America is the one that appeared in Eire-Ireland, the scholarly US journal of Irish studies, in 1965. There, the novelist and librarian William B. Ready wrote that the Argentine Irish were 'money-grubbing bourgeoisie' and that the Irish 'contributed little to the South American way of life, except a pattern of Puritanical thrift and industry'.

Nobody attempted to refute Ready, and his iconoclastic interpretation remains Eire-Ireland's only article on this subject. While conceding that there may have been ten failures for every advertised Irish success, a brief survey of Irish efforts in the fields of engineering, medicine, journalism, naval and military affairs should help restore some balance to Ready's grim picture.


Irish feats on the battlefield have often overshadowed the more mundane but perhaps more important talents of Irishmen in the fields of military engineering and organisation. A brief look at the careers of three Spanish-trained Irish engineers also alerts us to the critical importance of personal and family connections in bringing Irish immigrants to the farthest corners of South America.

After training in the Spanish Corps of Military engineers, Irish-born John Garland was dispatched to Chile, where in 1757 he prepared plans for the Pacific port city of Concepcion. Called back to Spain, Garland returned to Chile in 1764 as military governor of Valdivia. On his return journey, Garland brought with him, as his personal assistant, a young engineer-draftsman named Ambrose O'Higgins.

Ambrose O'Higgins is perhaps best known as the father of Bernardo O'Higgins, the South American-born hero of Chile's independence. It is after Bernardo, the Liberator of Chile, that Avenida O'Higgins in the capital city of Santiago is named.

Ambrose might well be called Chile's postal hero, or the Irishman Who Brought the Mail to Chile. On his first harrowing journey over the Andes mountains separating Argentina and Chile during the winter of 1763-64, Ambrose conceived the idea of a chain of weatherproof shelters. By 1766, thanks to O'Higgins' efficient execution of this plan, Chile enjoyed all-year overland postal service with Argentina, which had previously been cut off for several months each winter.

In 1796, another young Irish engineer arrived in Chile with letters of recommendation to Ambrose O'Higgins. He was Juan MacKenna from Clogher in County Tyrone, whose Spanish training had been arranged by Count Alejandro O'Reilly, an influential Irish officer in Spain who was related to MacKenna's mother Eleanor O'Reilly.

During the ensuing struggle with Spain, MacKenna sided with the pro-independence forces of Bernardo O'Higgins. Rising to the rank of general, MacKenna was widely conceded to be the real military brains behind O'Higgins' success on the battlefield. His career was however cut short in 1814, when he was killed in Argentina during a duel with a political rival of O'Higgins. Curiously, the man acting as 'second' to MacKenna's killer was the Mayoman William Brown, whose involvement in this tragedy has never been fully explained.

Before his death, the engineer from Tyrone left a chain of roads, bridges, schools, factories and mills throughout southern Chile, where he had served as Governor of Osorno. Another legacy is his grandson Benjamin Vicuna MacKenna, one of Chile's most distinguished historians; among the 100 books he authored is a biography of his grandfather.


During the Wars of Independence, an estimated 200 doctors from the British Isles - most of them men of Irish birth - served with the forces of Simon Bolivar. Although most of their names are unrecorded, we know that many of them succumbed to the tropical fevers they were treating among the troops. Among the casualties were Dr Michael O'Reilly from Dublin and Dr Stephen MacDavitt, both of whom died in 1822.

Among those who survived the war, were Bolivar's chief medical officer Dr Thomas Foley from Killarney; Dr Charles Moore who served for a time as Bolivar's personal physician; and Bolivar's chief surgeon Dr Richard Murphy from Sligo. After the war, Dr Murphy was one of those who stayed behind to serve the medical needs of the poor in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, where a monument to Dr Murphy's memory was erected in the hospital grounds.

In Argentina, the Irish medical presence extends back to the eighteenth century colonial period, when Dr Michael O'Gorman - from Ennis - was appointed chief of medicine to the Spanish viceroy. The Clare man, who trained in France, later went on to establish a medical institution that in 1799 became Buenos Aires's first School of Medicine.

Later Irish-born doctors practising in Buenos Aires were Dr James Lepper from County Tyrone, who worked with the chaplain of the Irish community, Fr Anthony Fahy from Galway, to establish the infirmary that eventually became Buenos Aires' Irish Hospital, and Dr John Oughan, who was recruited in the United States in 1817 and initially tended to San Martin's independence forces in northern Argentina.

Among the doctors who continued the Irish medical tradition in twentieth century Argentina were two 1950s graduates who went on to use their training in very different fields. One was Dr Mario Dolan who still practices in New York, where he is a renowned specialist in addiction medicine and also President of the Irish Argentine Society of New York.

His classmate and opponent on the rugby field was Dr Ernesto Guevara, who went on to win fame and notoriety as a leader of the Cuban revolution. Che Guevara's remains were just recently located in Bolivia, where they had been secretly buried after his execution there in 1967, and returned to Cuba, where his late father Ernesto Guevara Lynch kept alive the family's Irish traditions till his death in 1987.


In Argentina, the three Mulhall brothers from Dublin were pioneers in both journalism and book publishing. It was Edward and Michael Mulhall who founded The Buenos Aires Standard, Argentina's first English-language newspaper, in 1861. A story is told of how Michael, who was obviously an Arts graduate, excitedly told his brother, 'Thomas, we can become famous with this project.' 'To hell with fame', replied the business graduate Thomas, 'we will become rich instead.'

As it turned out, the Mulhalls became both rich and famous with their publishing empire. The Standard, originally published as a daily in English and French, remained for a century one of the primary newspapers of the English-speaking community. The Mulhalls could also claim credit for the first English-language book in Argentina. Their popular Handbook of the River Plate, originally published in 1861, went through numerous editions, and was supplemented in 1878 by Michael's previously-mentioned title, The English in South America.

In Brazil, the Mulhalls had an Irish-born counterpart in William Scully, an enterprising editor and writer based in Rio de Janeiro. Little is known about Scully's Irish origins and background. In 1865, he founded a weekly English-language newspaper, The Anglo-Brazilian Times, which continued to publish until 1884. Also in 1865, Scully published his own guide book, titled Cities and Provinces of Brazil.

Scully's active involvement in the promotion of Irish immigration suggests that the archives of The Anglo-Brazilian Times, available on microfilm at the National Library in Rio de Janeiro, may contain valuable background on failed Irish colonies, in particular the 1868 Irish settlement at 'Principe Dom Pedro', in Santa Catarina State.

Back in Buenos Aires, the Mulhalls loaned their printing presses and the editorial skills of the third brother, Frank, when Rev. Patricio Jose (P. J.) Dillon founded The Southern Cross in 1875. In contrast to the more staid establishment viewpoint of The Standard, the new weekly quickly identified itself as a Catholic and Irish Nationalist organ.

Now appearing as a monthly, primarily in Spanish, The Southern Cross is the oldest, continuously-published Irish newspaper outside Ireland. Its archives, clearly a genealogical resource of great value, have recently been microfilmed. The films, covering the dates January 1875 through December 1995, are presently available at the paper's offices in Buenos Aires; copies of the films and an index will soon be made available to libraries and universities.

The Southern Cross has benefited from a long line of distinguished editors, from the scholarly nineteenth century Corkman Michael Dineen down to the recently-deceased Fr Federico Richards and his successor Fr Kevin O'Neill.

The most famous editor was William Bulfin of County Offaly, who introduced hurling to Argentina and went on to write the 1907 travel classic, Rambles in Eirinn, and Tales of the Pampas, a collection of humorous and revealing stories about the Irish in Argentina. Originally published in 1900, this rare collection was republished in 1997 through the efforts of Susan Wilkinson, an Irish-Canadian novelist with ancestral County Kildare links to Argentina. (Irish Roots No 27)



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