Recording in Argentina
A Broadcaster Looks Back

By Bill Meek, May 2004


The author recording a group of Bolivian street musicians in Recoleta, Buenos Aires.

Visiting South America in 1987 will always remain a highlight of my life, both professionally and otherwise. It all began when my brother-in-law John Redmond, then attached to the Irish embassy in Buenos Aires, suggested the idea that as a radio producer/presenter with RTÉ (the Irish national broadcasting station) I might consider making a documentary series on the Argentine community of Irish descent. My response was one of enthusiastic interest, but tempered by caution as it was a time when there were many cutbacks in radio budgets, and projects involving travel abroad were subject to close scrutiny at the highest administrative level. Nonetheless I went ahead with preparatory planning and duly submitted a proposal. To my delight, indeed almost amazement, the submission was approved. Thereafter on May 25 (a coincidental but nevertheless appropriate date) I found myself - microphone in hand - in the centre of Buenos Aires.

    My assignment, in terms of time, was short but intensive. Often the working day began at 6am and continued well after midnight. I was privileged to meet a wide range of people and cover an extensive amount of territory. It was an odyssey of contrast. The day after conducting an interview in the Congress building, I might find myself talking to farming folk living in comfortably modest circumstances in the "camp". The next location could well be an estancia equal in dimension to half an Irish county!

Bill Meek 'on the job' with Fr. Fred Richards in Plaza Francia, Buenos Aires.

    I was more than fortunate in the erudition of my informants: scholars such as Fr. Federico Richards, the eminent genealogist Eduardo Coghlan, or the historian Hilda Sabato. Also icons of cultural life such as Maria Elena Walsh and Oscar Barney Finn and most significantly the many individuals who would not have been insulted to be described as "ordinary people" - the extraordinary testimony of Mrs. Clancy of San Antonio de Areco, then almost 100 years old, or the elderly gentleman who showed me his lovingly assembled scrapbook of Irish memorabilia, a beautifully presented souvenir of a country to which he had never been!

    What were my impressions of the Irish Argentines? I would hesitate to indulge in generalisation, however I suspected that many fostered an ideal image of an Ireland which is no longer a reality and would have been perplexed by the actuality of the modern Ireland soon to be engulfed by the ethos of the so-called Celtic Tiger. As a broadcaster who had previously worked in the sphere of traditional music I was a little disappointed not to find some evidence of the survival of Irish grass-roots musical traditions as opposed to sentimental songs of the "drawing-room" provenance. But that was a quibble. My abiding memory is of a people endowed with a deep sense of community allied to an almost devotional dedication to generous hospitality. I feel sad that since my visit so many of those I recorded have died, and yet there is satisfaction that perhaps my series has perpetuated their memories if only in a small way.

    After the eight programmes were transmitted on RTÉ under the title Neath the Southern Cross, I was pleased with audience reaction, both Irish and Argentine. One happy spin-off was the foundation of the Irish-Argentine Society of Dublin largely due to the energetic vision of its president, Mary B. Murphy. The association has given rise to many a convivial gathering and, importantly, was instrumental in initiating research by a founder member, the historian Dr. John De Courcy Ireland, culminating in the publication of his acclaimed biography of William Brown The Admiral from Mayo.


Fr. Bertie Flanagan (left), parish priest of San Antonio de Areco, and the Kelly family in estancia San Patricio

Books by Bill Meek

- 'Songs of the Irish in America' (Dublin: Gilbert Dalton, 1978)
- 'Moon Penny' (Cork: Ossian Publications, 1985)
- 'Paddy Moloney & the Chieftains' (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1987)
- 'Irish Folk Songs' (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1997)
- 'Two Centuries of Irish History' (London: BBC Publications, 1966), as contributor
- 'Museum of New Mexico Field Reports' (Santa Fe, 1965), with B. N. Colby
- 'Modern Irish Lives' (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996), as consulting editor and contributor.
- 'The Companion to Irish Traditional Music' (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999), as contributing writer.

In 1971-1992, Bill Meek was the Traditional Music correspondent of The Irish Times, and he also contributed articles to Ireland of the Welcomes, History Ireland, and The Tribune. In audio, his 'Traditional and Original Songs of Ireland' were distributed by Folk Legacy Records (Vermont, 1965).


Bill Meek © 2004 - This page by Edmundo Murray © Irish Argentine Historical Society



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