© Irish Centre for Migration Studies/Ionad na hImirce 2000

Irish emigration to Argentina: a different model

By Patrick McKenna


Irish emigration to Argentina is one of the better places for a student to begin Irish migration studies, for a number of reasons. The numbers who emigrated there from Ireland are very small in the overall context of Irish emigration; this allows the researcher a broad view of the emigration while still maintaining contact with individual emigrant experiences. The emigrants are comparatively well documented; this affords the student a comprehensive set of records to work from and due to the relatively small numbers the records are of manageable size. Finally, the period of Irish emigration to Argentina covers the entire span of New World settlement and consequently picks up the waves of Irish emigration between 1500 and the start of the First World War, whereas Irish emigration to the English speaking New World only began towards the end of the eighteenth century.

The first Irish to set foot on Argentine soil were two cabin boys from Galway, William and John. They sailed with Magellan on his voyage to circumnavigate the world in 1520. The first recorded Irish to settle in Argentina were members of an expedition to conquer and claim the Rio de la Plata for Spain. Led by Pedro Mendoza, they sailed from Cadiz, arriving in the River Plate in February 1536. Among those first emigrants were two brothers called John and Thomas Farel, natives of San Lucas de Barrameda, Spain. Other Irish names which appeared in Magellan's expedition were Colman, Lucas, Galvan (a very common Argentine name) and Martin. The name 'Martin' occurs frequently throughout Europe as well as Ireland and Spain and it is therefore impossible to be certain which, if any, Martins were Irish. Other Irish names appear among sixteenth century conquerors, such as Juan Fays (probably Hays) and also the first Irish woman, Isabel Farrel, (possibly a relative of John and Thomas Farel) the wife of a Captain Hernando de Sosa, a colonist in Corrientes. A point to note here is that assuming that Isabel is related to John and Thomas Farel, in addition to travelling under her husband's protection she also had the protection of male relatives, possibly her brothers. This point will be developed further later when looking at female emigration to Argentina in the nineteenth century. Mendoza's expedition brought with them cattle, sheep, horses and pigs. These must have been among the first of these species to reach the American continent. The animals thrived in the Pampas and became part of the foundation stock of the 'native' Argentine horses, cattle and sheep.

A small group (which included at least one of the Farels together with Isabel Farrel and her husband) began exploring the river systems feeding the River Plate. The following year, in 1537 they founded the settlement of Asuncion de Paraguay on the east bank of the Parana river about 2000km north of Buenos Aires. The Farels decided to stay in that region and in 1588 Rafeal Farel, a son, exercised his right as one of the original settlers to acquire 'lands and Indians' near Asuncion in Corrientes Province just one year after the province was founded.

During the next four hundred years Irish emigration to Argentina continues to fit comfortably into the broad parameters of the Irish emigration taking place throughout that period. The anti-Catholic laws in force in Ireland during much of that time denied Catholics of good families an education or career opportunities in the civil and military administration at home until Catholic Emancipation was enacted in 1829. Because of Ireland's good relationship with Catholic Europe throughout the period prior to 1829, young Irish men went there to be educated and many remained to follow a career in the military and public service of those countries. Some rose to very high positions in the armies and civil administrations throughout Catholic Europe. Spain and France were the preferred destinations for those elite emigrants. Some of the elite emigrants, or their European born children, re-emigrated to the New World colonies in the service of their adopted land. Because Argentina (the land of Silver) did not possess the precious metals the early conquerors believed it contained it was largely forgotten by the Spanish until the New Enlightenment. Consequently little or no recorded Irish emigration appears to have taken place to Argentina between Mendoza's expedition and the ascent of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne in the eighteenth century.


Eighteenth Century Irish Immigration

The creation of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, which was the result of the reforms known as 'The New Enlightenment' introduced by Charles III in 1776, necessitated a surge of emigration from Spain, of civil and military personnel to govern the new Viceroyalty. A number of those officials were born in Ireland. Michael O'Gorman for example, was born in Ennis in 1749, educated in France, completing his studies in Spain where he graduated in medicine. He left Spain for Buenos Aires in 1777, travelling under a Royal Order placing him in charge of the Sanitary Commission. He later founded the faculty of medicine in Buenos Aires and remained professor of medicine there until his death. Another Irishman to arrive in Argentina under the Spanish flag towards the end of the eighteenth century was Thomand O'Brien from Wicklow, who held the rank of Captain, later rising to the rank of General in the army of the new republic.


The New Enlightenment

Under the 'New Enlightenment' commercial agricultural production became the measure used to determine a nation's economic wealth. This change greatly added to the value of wild the herds of cattle and horses roaming the pampas. It is not surprising therefore that merchants began arriving in the port soon afterwards to get ownership of, and to trade in, these suddenly valuable resources. In addition to the civil and military administration Irish names were appearing among the most powerful merchants and landowners around Buenos Aires port at that time. The Lynchs, O'Gormans, Dogans, Cullens, O'Ryans and Butlers were all established Portenos at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Incidentally the "O'Gormon" who arrived in Buenos Aires about 1792 was Thomas O'Gorman a brother of the Portomedico Patrick O'Gormon, Thomas was an officer in the French Army serving in the French colony of Mauritius prior to becoming an influential Buenos Aires merchant. This illustrates the ability, even then, of Irish emigrants to use family connections on a global basis to maximize their economic opportunities.

These merchants soon married into the important local creole families and some even became members of the town council (cabildo). It was the function of the cabildo to allocate ownership of the various herds of wild horses and cattle roaming the pampas within the jurisdiction of the cabildo.

This group needed labourers and shepherds to develop their estancias and slaughterhouses to European standards. The slaughterhouses were required to process cattle which up until then were slaughtered on the plain solely for their hides, the rest of the carcass was abandoned to rot where it lay. This necessitated the importation of labour skilled in up-to-date methods of butchering and preserving meat, as well as unskilled labourers, to work in the slaughterhouses.

Possibly because of the large Irish trade in beef and leather between Galway and Spain, the new Viceroyalty looked to Ireland for the technology and skill to complement the 22,500 African and Brazilian slave labour brought in to provide the unskilled element of the labourforce. One hundred Irish skilled workers, comprising salters, butchers and tanners were brought to Buenos Aires in 1785 and more were recruited over the next twenty years. The new skills introduced by these Irish tradesmen laid the foundation of the Argentine beef industry. Very little is known, as yet, of those Irish immigrants or their origins. They appear to have been unmarried and being Catholic they assimilated immediately into the local community of co-religionists.

By the mid 1790s the success of the new industries growing up around Buenos Aires led to the development of a considerable trade with Europe via independently owned merchant ships (free traders).

The Free Traders were merchants trading from neutral ports who were allowed to trade in the port of Buenos Aires. The Free Traders who quickly replaced the merchants as the main traders in the port were typically of a lower social class than the merchants. They were very often ships' masters turned owners. John Dillon from Dublin is one such example. Arriving with his family in Montevideo he set about making his fortune by importing goods legally into Montevideo and then smuggling them across the river to Buenos Aires in a fleet of small river boats which he soon acquired. Within a few years Dillon became established as one of the leading Irish merchant families in Buenos Aires. There he expanded his business to include meat processing and started the first brewery in the country.

In the city, guilds were forming and a substantial artisan class was growing up around the port. Influential elements in Spain soon came to suffer from the increased competition created by this new production and the increase in trade by outside shipping. These elements hoped to restore the old Spanish monopolies and avoid the competition from this new and vigorous colony. They realised that by allowing 'Free Traders' to operate in Buenos Aires they would quickly undermine the growing strength of the local established elites.

Faced with such stiff competition in the port from the Free Traders those Portena merchants who could turned their attention to developing their estancias into commercial enterprises which were better fitted to the new opportunities of the nineteenth century; beef and wool production. Patricio Lynch is a substantial land holder by 1810 and Patrick Cullen from the Canary Islands was granted lands in Santa Fe to the north of Buenos Aires.


The Origins of Sheep Farming

While these Portena merchants and the creoles were willing to improve their cattle herds they were unwilling to go into wool production. Sheep farming was a low status enterprise associated with the gaucho class. As there was an almost unlimited supply of fertile land beyond the estancias which was still inhabited by hostile native tribes, the estancieros welcomed settlement in those areas by immigrants. Sheep farmers, therefore, could provide a buffer between the indigenous population and the creole owned estancias as well as supplying those goods which the estancieros were unwilling to become directly involved in themselves. In fact the estancieros promoted such settlement to the extent that they were willing to finance the stock purchase necessary to graze the new 'camps' while allowing the settler earn equity in the stock by contributing his labour.

The system they operated was as follows. An estanciero would provide a flock of about two thousand sheep while the immigrant was responsible for looking after the sheep including the provision of grazing. At the end of the contract the shepherd and the owner would divide the flock, the owner getting back his 2,000 sheep plus the agreed percentage of the increase (usually 50%) as well as his share of the price for the wool clip for the contract period. The typical length of contract, in the beginning, was about four or five years by which time the flock, under good management, would have grown to 10,000 in number. The shepherd would then own up to 4,000 sheep. He would then divide his flock into, for example, two flocks of 2,000 and hire shepherds on a similar type of contract to that he had worked. In this way one migrant brought out first, his brothers and later his cousins and neighbours and so a highly regional specific chain migration began.

The merchants and the members of the cabildo of Buenos Aires knew the caliber of the Irish immigrants not only from the butchers, salters and tanners they recruited and from the odd merchant sailor left behind in the port but also because of direct British military contact with that part of the world. On November 2, 1762 a Capt John McNamara sailed up the River Plate and attacked Colonia del Sacramento across the river from Buenos Aires in what is now Uruguay. All but sixty of this expedition perished in the battle. The survivours waded ashore some at least were exiled 800km into the interior to Cordoba. The most important military contact however was the British invasion of 1806/7. This involved a number of Irish regiments many of whose members came from around the military barracks of Mullingar and Athlone. A number of these soldiers either deserted or were captured by the defenders of Buenos Aires. Some of these ex-soldiers who remained in Buenos Aires, according to local tradition, settled in the city among the free Negroes in the area of San Telmo along the river bank. Those soldiers are believed to have worked deepening the port and using the stone which came in the ships as ballast for building along the docks. Others opted to work on the Creole estancias around the city and appeared to have played an important role in bringing out more members of their families from Ireland, thus establishing emigration to Buenos Aires as an option for those from around Mullingar and Athlone at least. An example of this is Thomas Murray from Streamstown Co. Westmeath. Thomas remained following the 1806/7 invasion and obtained work on a local creole estancia. His knowledge of 'modern' farming soon ensured his rise to manager or 'mayordomo' of the estancia. Such was his service to the family in maintaining their estates for them when they had to flee the country during Rosas dictatorship that when the family returned the estanciero purchased a large estancia for the Murray family in Santa Fe, just north of Buenos Aires Province. The Murrays are still one of the principle land owning families in southern Santa Fe today.

Following the failed British invasion and Spain's feeble attempt to defend the colony Argentines realised that independence was theirs for the taking. Thomand O'Brien from Wicklow fought the Spanish on land while at sea William Brown from Foxford in Mayo who founded the Argentine navy saved the fledgling republic on more than one occasion. O'Brien on land and Brown at sea, were aided by a number of the Irish troops left behind after the 1806/7 invasions. The important contribution of the Irish to Argentine independence, particularly as there is no record of them ever looking for personal gain in land or high office for their services afterwards, resulted in a great respect as well as admiration and affection for Irishmen among all levels of Argentine society. This patriotism to their adopted country contributed greatly to the acceptability of the Irish as immigrants throughout the nineteenth century. Another important reason why Irish immigrants were in such demand was because following independence in 1810 Spain tried to blockade Buenos Aires and forbade Spanish emigration to there. The effect of this was to deny the new Argentine state Basque immigrants, the other major ethnic group believed by them to be capable of independent sheep farming. Scottish immigrants were also in demand but came out in much smaller numbers and tended to bring out capital with them and therefore were independent from the start. The Irish had to sell their labour for a period in order to build up capital. While both groups played a similar role in land settlement and sheep production the Irish also provided labour to the estancieros and to the meat processing plants to a far greater degree than the Scots and in that role were more valuable as well as being more numerous.

Following Argentine independence there was renewed interest in Buenos Aires by the British. A further wave of British merchants and capital arrived in the port. Among those arriving then were two brothers from Athlone, John and Thomas Armstrong along with the banker Patrick Browne from Wexford and Peter Sheridan from Cavan. Browne represented the Liverpool bank of Dixon and Montgomery while the Armstrongs worked for the local merchant house of Armstrong & Co. Despite all of this interest in Buenos Aires it was obvious that the lack of a suitable labourforce was the single greatest impediment to the success of all of them. Labourers willing to settle the land produce sheep and wool and provide the labour to process these products in the slaughterhouses were essential for the economic success of the region. European immigration of necessity became a priority for all concerned, the government as well as the merchants and portenos. Already familiar with the ex-soldiers together with the butchers and tanners bought out at the end of the eighteenth century, the merchants and estancieros were very anxious to recruit labour of similar calibre and were therefore eager to employ immigrants, especially Catholics, from an already proven source.

The Irish emigrants in the government and merchant classes appear to have formed a coalition to promote Irish immigration and designed a very specific settlement model for the Irish immigrants. The groups within the coalition were made up of the Irish elite, the Portenos and the 'English' merchants such as Peter Sheridan from Cavan and Patrick Browne from Wexford who were Catholic and Thomas and John Armstrong, sons of a British army colonel from Athlone, who were Protestant.

In addition to Europe the US was also becoming interested in the potential of Argentina as a source of raw material at that time. The US Congress went so far as to commission a report on the opportunities for the US in Argentina at that time. The publication of this report in the US persuaded a number of Irish to emigrate from there to Buenos Aires city during the 1820's and commence business as cobblers, coach builders, coopers, tailors and hoteliers. These individuals, who became known as the Yankee Irish appear to have come from all parts of Ireland and do not appear to have been responsible for the rural emigration from Ireland. They were however part of the general artisan class in Buenos Aires city then and they appear to have become just as successful as anyone else. The reason why the Irish did not continue to urbanise in Buenos Aires lie in what appears to have been a deliberate policy by the Irish elite and the Catholic Church to prevent Irish urbanisation.


Pre-selection of Irish Immigrants

By the mid 1820s the economic production in Buenos Aires was becoming seriously restricted by the shortage of suitable labour. In order to meet some of this demand the Irish elites in Argentina sent Gen. Thomand O'Brien back to Ireland in 1828 to select only the type of emigrant that would suit their purposes. He made it a condition that the immigrants would be accompanied by their own chaplain and physician to be 'solely at their disposition and for their use.' Part of O'Brien's remit was to recruit only 'moral and industrious' emigrants. A local committee appears to have been formed among the Irish interests in Buenos Aires to promote Irish immigration to there at that time.

The visits by O'Brien and Armstrong were followed up by letters from prominent members of the Irish community to the Archbishop of Dublin with the object of influencing him to put the Irish church behind emigration to Argentina rather than to the United States. Dr Oughagan wrote to the Archbishop on June 28th 1828 that...'North America is not a country proper for Irish settlers--These, their identity, their ancient faith, and the peculiar cast of their national character, in the mixture of many nations, is totally confounded and lost for ever'. In promoting Argentina he wrote, 'Thanks to Providence a very different destiny awaits them here. Dr. Oughagan went on to state that 'this country, fertile and vast beyond limits,....will welcome (the Irish) with special preference and instead of being the drudges for the rest of mankind, may set themselves down in societies in various parts of these boundless plains.....'. In a further letter to the Archbishop dated Feb 22nd 1829, the Irish chaplain Fr. Moran wrote from Buenos Aires, 'This My Lord is the country for the Irish farmer to emigrate to. The most productive soil in the world, the best horses & oxen. And a people, who will show themselves more friendly to Irishmen than to any other nation. They are partial to us.' From the beginning, the Irish groups in Argentina were intent on encouraging the formation of an Irish rural community based on livestock farming. There was no mention whatever of the quite prosperous Irish artisan community in the city. The fact that there was a need for an urban labourforce, at least equal to the need for a rural one, to man the new industries springing up or the opportunities that existed for tradesmen and small merchants in the city appear to have been ignored by the sponsors of Irish immigration. From the beginning the Irish were encouraged to form rural communities well away from the city, where with the aid of the Irish chaplaincy they remained a little piece of Ireland in the New World for over a century.


Recruiting Working Class Irish Labour

The fact that the Irish elites appear to have been deliberately ignoring the needs of the British merchants to recruit immigrants who would be willing to remain permanently in the city as labourers may well have been why Thomas Armstrong decided to return to Ireland at the same time as O'Brien. The only region in Ireland to supply truly working class emigrants to Argentina to meet that demand in significant numbers was the Ballymahon-Ballymore-Mullingar area which straddles the Westmeath-Longford border. The Armstrong family were the local landlords and were (and still are) highly respected in that locality.

Farmer's sons, such as Nicholas Cunningham, emigrated to Argentina from that area also, but the majority appear to have been from a labouring background. As early as 1842 Brabazon records in his journal that many of the emigrants from the Ballymore area were of a different type to the rest of the emigrant community when he wrote that some of the Westmeath and Longford people were 'respectable' and that 'the Wexford people were all respectable people' (but) 'Ballymore people were such divils as ever filled the Jail of Mullingar'.


Emigrant Numbers

There is no definitive record of the total number of Irish who emigrated to Argentina. A reasonable estimate based on current information is that around 40,000 to 45,000 Irish emigrated there during the nineteenth century. Of this number a reasonable estimate for Irish emigration between 1800 and 1861 would be somewhere in the region of 12,000 to 18,000. The great bulk of those would have emigrated after about 1835.

Earliest estimates of the size of Irish population resident in Buenos Aires in 1824 is 'a little less than 500'. This figure was stated by the British Consul, Woodbine Parish, and was based on his own reckoning of the British population living in the River Plate in that year. In 1832 the Irish Chaplaincy estimated that the Irish community had grown to about 1,500 This figure may include the emigrants' Argentine born children. McCann estimates a figure of 3,500 Irish in the country 'prior to the Anglo-French intervention' in 1842. By 1853 the total 'Irish' colony in Buenos Aires was estimated by Fr. Fahy in a letter to Archbishop Murray of Dublin as being 30,000. As this figure did include the Argentine born children of the emigrants the actual number of Irish emigrants would have grown to about 10,000 by 1853. This may be an over estimate, by Fr. Fahy, to increase pressure on the Archbishop of Dublin to provide extra priests for the Irish community.

The general consensus is that the Irish community, including Argentine born children, had grown to 30,000 during the period, depending on the sources, at some point between 1853 and 1861. The total Irish community, in the country, was to remain near this level for most of the rest of the century. Out-migration of Irish, principally to the United States roughly balanced in-migration, from Ireland, certainly from 1869. Of the forty thousand or so Irish who emigrated to Argentina about 4,000 were to form the nucleus of the present Hiberno-Argentine community. The rest left no permanent trace of ever having been in Argentina. Some would have assimilated into the wider immigrant community and lost all contact with their Irish compatriots. Others would have outmigrated again, some returning to Ireland after a few years in the Argentine. Others, probably the great majority, would have re-emigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia.


The Role of the Irish Church in the Community.

By the late 1830's the Irish had spread across the camp, some were already becoming financially successful and like the butchers tanners and soldiers before them, were assimilating into the local community especially around Chascomus, the first region settled by the Irish. It was essential therefore, if the Irish immigrants were to be kept a separate ethnic group, that the plans for creating a distinctly Irish community were implemented quickly. Realising the danger Archbishop Murray of Dublin, approached his friend the Bishop of Ossary to persuade the Dominican Prior of Black Abbey in Kilkenny, Fr. Anthony Fahy, to go to Argentina and take on the work of forming a community that reflected the values espoused by those interested in promoting Irish immigration. Fr. Fahy, having previously had experience of Irish communities in both urban and rural (largely Protestant) Ohio in the USA held identical views to both Archbishop Murray and the Irish elites in Argentina as to the desirability of keeping Irish immigrants both rural and separate as the only means of preserving their 'true' Catholic Irish identity.

Upon arriving in Argentina Fr. Fahy moved into the home of a family friend from Ireland, Thomas Armstrong. He lived rent free, in his own apartment in Armstrong's home for the rest of his life, the two remaining inseparable, lifelong, friends. Armstrong had assimilated into the creole community in typically Irish merchant fashion. He married Justa Villanueva the daughter of the Alcalde (chief officer under Spanish rule) of Buenos Aires of 1807. Being such a powerful business figure and because of his wife's connections Thomas Armstrong was also a very influential if unseen force in the political life of the country. He was the business counsellor and close friend of 'almost every Argentine governmental administration from the Directorship of Rodriguez to the Presidency of Avellaneda' acting as 'honest broker' (amigable componedor) between the British and Argentine Governments in their commercial affairs for over 40 years. Given that Argentina was dependant on British capital which was antipathetic to the Catholic church it was a master stroke of Fr. Fahy and the good fortune of the Irish community that he was able to recruit to his cause an Irish Protestant merchant, who so well understood the Irish Catholic culture and who was in such sympathy with it.

Upon his arrival Fr. Fahy immediately set about organising the Irish community to conform to the model already agreed. From that point until the two men's deaths in the early 1870's they were the undisputed leaders of the Irish community and were in every way the human centre of the Irish settlement model. They were the ones who developed the social and religious structure that would not impede in any way the complete economic integration of the Irish into the wider economy while building a separate and very distinct ethnic Irish community in the country. Fr.Fahy maintained contact with the Irish while Thomas Armstrong remained in the background from the immigrant's perspective; he dealt with the merchant community and the government.


The Irish settlement model

The most effective way to explain the Irish settlement model as implemented by Fr. Fahy and Thomas Armstrong is to illustrate how they as individuals came to control and organise the Irish community between 1843 and 1870. Fr. Fahy began his work by creating a separate church organisation for his scattered congregation. He made the Irish priests visibly different from Argentine priests by wearing civilian clothes instead of clerical garb. Citing the unsuitability of clerical dress for the huge distances he had to travel to minister to his congregation. He was seen as the English priest ,'Padre Ingleses', there solely to serve the Irish immigrant community. Yet the cornerstone of their success was due to his, and Thomas Armstrong's, ability to understand and mesh the cultures of the Argentines and the Irish for the benefit of the Irish and business communities. The most important example of this ability to blend Irish and local custom when building their settlement model was the land and capital ownership structure which they developed.


The Background to the Settlement Plan

Because of the huge distances involved in travelling it could take often two or three weeks journeying through open country without roads or bridges to make a round trip to Buenos Aires. During this time a traveller's family and property were without his protection. This isolation meant the majority of the Irish were only able to travel to the city, possibly, once every one or two years. Fr. Fahy soon became their agent, conducting business in the city on their behalf, following one of his twice yearly visits to all of the emigrants. Because he was trusted as a priest, and for convenience, the Irish allowed him to transact their business in the city in his own name. Having the immigrant's business transacted as though it were Fr. Fahy's had several advantages for both the individual immigrant as well as the wider Irish community. There was always a tradition (though never a law), in Argentina, that the Church, and by extension the priest, was never taxed on property transactions done on his own behalf. This tax was quite large, as the only means the government had to raise revenue was import, export and stamp duties on all written contracts. Tax was due by both sides to a contract i.e. both buyer and seller. If the buyer or seller was Fr. Fahy, such taxes on his side were avoided.

Apart from the considerable savings made by an immigrant not paying tax, this also ensured that his estate after his death, was passed on to his heirs quickly, un-taxed and without legal fees. In addition because Fr. Fahy 'owned' the immigrant's property the immigrant could not be easily cheated out of it by unscrupulous conmen or by gambling etc., of which there was plenty in the camp at that time. Under all of those conditions it was perfectly logical for an immigrant, who was himself poorly educated and unsure of the customs in a strange country, to entrust all his financial and legal affairs to the one man best equipped to deal with that side of his business especially, as there is no record of Fr. Fahy ever charging for this service. That left the immigrant free to concentrate on the side of the business he knew best, finding good pastures and raising his sheep while at the same time avoiding all the costs, in time and aggravation as well as cash, normally incurred when transacting business at that time in Argentina.

The Benefits of Common Ownership to the Individual

The practice of the great majority of immigrants holding all of their assets in common, in Fr. Fahy's name, had advantages for the whole Irish community. He was considered by the merchants and those in the city to be the wealthiest man, by far, in Argentina. The emigrants soon came to believe this also. Therefore when land or sheep came to be bought and sold among the Irish, the price was fixed between the emigrants themselves, and as they all banked with Fr. Fahy, he was informed of the position during his next visit to that part of the country. Cash rarely changed hands. If an emigrant did not have the cash to close the transaction he 'borrowed' the difference from Fr. Fahy and agreed the repayments with him. The seller left the cash with Fr. Fahy certain that it was secure. All of this capital (plus the cash from the sale of sheep and wool to the merchants, by the Irish) was held in the Banco Provincia, Thomas Armstrong's bank. Armstrong therefore had a growing surplus available for investment in expanding the industries which were required to process the rapidly expanding Irish production. The effect of this tax free and fee free status was that the Irish had a considerable economic advantage over all other communities in the country when it came to acquiring and holding property. As this was an unintended benefit from the point of view of the Argentine government it was a remarkable achievement for Fr. Fahy that he was able to carry it off for almost thirty years, ending it only when forced to by the newly established Irish families.


The Irish Communication Network

Fr. Fahy's immense local knowledge of the Irish community also ensured that the Church was the medium of all communication affecting the Irish throughout the province. With his constant travelling through the countryside he became aware almost immediately of the quality and potential of new areas of land as they were opened up. He was thus able to direct his congregation to suitable new fertile areas where they could quickly expand their business, more often than not providing the 'loans' to finance this expansion. He knew who was looking for labourers, so when the next boat of emigrants arrived he was able to direct them immediately to jobs in the country. By doing this he was removing the temptations of city life from the new immigrant's experience as well as earning their gratitude for finding them work and the gratitude of the employers for finding them labour. This had the double effect of strengthening the rural communities and preventing the growth of a viable Irish community in the city. By such efforts on their behalf Fr. Fahy soon gained the complete confidence of the Irish community throughout the province in all matters affecting their lives both spiritual and temporal.


The Expansion of The Irish Church

As the Irish community grew and spread over an ever greater area, more priests were required to minister to them. The education of twelve priests was paid for by the Irish community, to the Archbishop of Dublin, who oversaw their education in All Hallows in Dublin. Fr. Fahy was insistent that they were especially well-educated and paid extra to All Hallows for this.

The first task of each new Irish community was to build a local church. The existing Argentine churches were never used by the Irish community except on very rare occasions such as weddings or funerals of important Irish immigrants. They continued to hear the 'Irish Mass' on a centrally located (usually) Irish estancia until they had the funds to build their own church. The church building also contained a library stocked with books in English. Local Irish newspapers such as the 'Wexford People' and 'The Westmeath Examiner' were also subscribed to by the libraries. Each little Irish church therefore became the local 'social centre' for emigrants for a fifty or sixty km. radius, where they would meet to hear Mass, read the local papers from Ireland, play cards, pass around letters from home and from their brothers and sisters in the UK, the United States and Australia or Canada and discuss current happenings with their neighbours and write letters in reply knowing the priest would ensure their postage. The libraries closed the circle within the overall model to the extent that the Irish community in rural areas of Buenos Aires province were an enclave, isolated by language from the wider community and insulated as much as possible from the real world of Argentina by the very structure of their society. They were able to continue to speak English, socialise exclusively among themselves, and with the libraries supplying local Irish papers remain psychologically back in Ireland.

The Irish community in Argentina by virtue of reading Irish newspapers and family letters was almost certainly better informed about conditions in the English speaking world of Ireland, England, the US, Canada and Australia than they were about conditions in much of their adopted land. Provided there was a reasonable sex balance and the community remained fairly concentrated in particular districts there was no incentive whatever to assimilate into the wider community. Consequently it is not surprising that if an emigrant wished to relocate they chose an Irish community outside Argentina rather than face the challenge of striking out alone in a country he really knew very little about.

In addition to the Church run libraries which catered for the intellectual needs of the Irish immigrants there was a complete welfare system run by Irish Mercy Nuns, but under Fr. Fahy's all seeing eye, to take care members unable to look after themselves, such as widows and orphans, together with an education system which was the model for other emigrant communities. Because Fr. Fahy was banker to the Irish community he knew exactly how much each member of the community could afford to contribute to those charities. And the emigrant was in a very weak position to refuse, considering his respect for, and his personal obligations to, Fr. Fahy.


Thomas Armstrong's Role

The fact that Thomas Armstrong was banker to Fr. Fahy enabled him to become one of the leading business figures in Buenos Aires. He was a co-founder of the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange, a director of the Banco Provincia which he made, in effect, the central bank of Argentina. He was also the director and substantial investor in the major railway company and served on the boards of most of the major stock companies in the city. His connections with the creole community were also beyond reproach.

When one looks at who benefitted most from the settlement model operated by the Irish in Argentina one sees that a very high proportion of Irish shepherds, who arrived during Fr. Fahy's and Thomas Armstrong's time, became estancieros. By about 1880 the Southern Cross estimated that the Irish owned abut 1.5millon acres of land and about 5million sheep. 20 million sheep owned by the 28,000 Irish, comprising 5,000 families, at the end of the decade. They were without doubt the most financially successful group of Irish emigrants in the world at that time, and certainly the most successful ethnic group, by a wide margin, in Argentina. Thomas Armstrong became one of the most influential men in Argentina and made a huge personal fortune for himself, as did a great number of his merchant colleagues and Fr. Fahy built an Irish Church and an Irish community modelled on the values of nineteenth-century Gaelic Catholic Ireland which is still functioning, in Argentina over a century after his death.

This system worked perfectly until the late 1860's when Fr. Fahy's advancing years and failing health meant that he was no longer able to pursue the overall welfare of the immigrants with the same energy as the had previously. He, or Thomas Armstrong, never groomed a successor to take over from them when they were no longer able to look after the community.

After his death in 1871 there was no one of stature in the community to take over from him though many fought each other for the opportunity. Prior to his death he had handed over clear title to the assets he had held in trust to the owners. Thomas Armstrong made up the undisclosed shortfall out of his own funds. Thomas Armstrong was dead within three years.

Those two deaths ended an era in Irish emigration to Argentina. The capital previously held in common was now held individually. Each estanciero made his own arrangements with individual merchants. A new emigrant had no Fr. Fahy to turn to, to borrow the funds to purchase land. If he had the money he had to cope with the local bureaucracy and pay his taxes, like everyone else. He no longer had the advice, based on the knowledge of the entire community, on where to settle or purchase land. In short the old settlement model which was so hugely successful was being quietly abandoned, and was being replaced by a version of the English model, in that individual effort alone from that point on was the arbiter of success. However the new immigrant was not given the means to establish himself as he would have had he been in a true British colony.

The Irish community changed radically after the deaths of those two men. Though Fr. Fahy is still revered almost as a saint by the Irish in Argentina today the Protestant Thomas Armstrong has been written out of the Irish settlement history. The expansion of the Irish community ceased with their deaths. Rather than building on their success and continuing their work of settling the Argentine Pampas with prosperous Irish farms, those who followed and who claimed to be working in their name, through a combination of lack of vision among some and sheer self interest among others, set themselves a different agenda. Theirs was one of consolidating the existing position rather than continuing with the work of expanding the Irish community. Just as all, including Argentina, had benefitted from the work of Fr. Fahy and Thomas Armstrong, all, with the exception of a very few very rich Irish families, were to loose out heavily, in the long term, by this change of direction in community settlement.



Throughout its four hundred year history Irish emigration to Argentina was typical of Irish migration to other regions taking place at the same time. Up until the late eighteenth century only an educated elite arrived there to take up positions in the service of a colonial power not available to them at home because of their religion. When the great grassland regions of the world began to be opened up by British trade the Irish settled in significant numbers in the Buenos Aires Pampas just as they did in North America, southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The important difference with the settlement in Argentina was that it was outside direct British control and was not obliged to follow the handed down British settlement pattern where each immigrant was granted a specific parcel of land in a designated area. Under this model the immigrant was tied to a specific dot on the map and he succeeded or failed largely as a result of his own efforts in clearing a wilderness and replicating the European model farming, that of a mixed agriculture on a small plot of land. So the rugged individualist with the 'Protestant work ethic' tended to prosper best under those conditions. By contrast the settlement model designed specifically for and largely by the Irish in Argentina was based pooling the knowledge and capital of the whole community and filling a single niche within the wider community, that of producing sheep and wool for the European market. The role of the individual in this model was to use his expertise in animal husbandry and to make best use of the communal capital and pool of knowledge in expanding his own capital. He used these resources to move to the most fertile land available at the time aming, that of a mixed agriculture on a small plot of land. So the rugged individualist with the 'Protestant work ethic' tended to prosper best under those conditions. By contrast the settlement model designed specifically for and largely by the Irish in Argentina was based pooling the knowledge and capital of the whole community and filling a single niche within the wider community, that of producing sheep and wool for the European market. The role of the individual in this model was to use his expertise in animal husbandry and to make best use of the communal capital and pool of knowledge in expanding his own capital. He used these resources to move to the most fertile land available at the time and working his way via partnerships and borrowing unused community assets via Fr. Fahy he developed into owning substantial capital of his own. If at any point, because his surplus capital was held in cash by Fr. Fahy, the immigrant was not making full use of his assets they could be lent to another more enterprising member of the Irish community. The immigrant's capital was initially held in sheep and only later was part of this asset converted into land and cattle. The weakness of this model proved to be the complete dependence on one or two exceptional people at the very centre who could be trusted by the entire community with its life savings and who were honest enough and had sufficient vision to operate the model for the wider benefit rather their own immediate short term gain.

While this model lasted for just one generation in just one country it did make those who operated within it arguably the most successful Irish immigrant community anywhere in the world within their own lifetimes. It also showed that despite its undoubted limitations that the British model of colonial settlement was not the only settlement model that could work. Where a community worked together they were arguably even more successful than the rugged individualist. Furthermore there are more models for land settlement by European societies than the 'Protestant Work Ethic' of the British settlement model.


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Copyright © The Irish Argentine Historical Society. 2004