Irish Roots, No. 28
South American Irish
By Brian McGinn
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'.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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)