Wexford Links with Argentina


From Kilrane to the Irish Pampas
The Story of John James Murphy

by Edmundo Murray

Partially published by The Southern Cross, 127 N° 5860 (Buenos Aires, January 2002)

In a typical summer siesta break in Murphy, virtually everybody goes home and takes a breather from the heat and from their rural affairs. But once a year, this peaceful town with a 4,000 population (1989) is invaded by a crowd of over 14,000 fans who gather for the Amateur Theatre Festival (6). With this exception, the region remains quiet and pastoral, and its people unaware of the intense history behind the name of their place.

Murphy belongs to the Argentinean Santa Fe province, 150 km from Rosario and 18 km from Venado Tuerto. It is located at 33°37’60S and 61°52’W, and just 99 meters over the sea level. It bears the name of John James Murphy, born in 1822 in Haysland, Kilrane parish, Co. Wexford, son of Nicholas Murphy and Katherine Sinnott (1). When he was 22, 'a very tall, slim and good-looking youngster' (10),  together with his cousins John and Lawrence Murphy, and friends John O'Connor, Nicholas Kavanagh, Thomas Saunders, James Pender, Patrick Howlin and others, he emigrated to Argentina. Before leaving, John 'promised his mother that when he had £100 he would go back to see her' (10). 

On 13 April 1844, they left home in Kilrane, using a cart to reach Wexford town (19 km). Leaving from Wexford Quay, they sailed directly to Liverpool, where they invested a small fortune of about £16 each one to buy their tickets to South America in the brig William Peile (£16 could be more than their entire annual income). On 21 April 1844, with 115 Irish emigrants on board and with the aid of Buenos Aires merchant John James Pettit, the William Peile weighed anchor at Liverpool under captain Sprott's command. She called on 13 May at Saint Jago (Cape Vert islands), and she was 'becalmed in mid ocean for three weeks' (10). After that, she probably called on Pernambuco, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro, and she finally sailed into the mouth of the River Plate on Tuesday, 25 June 1844. These splendid lads and their gallant journey inspired a teacher, Walter MacCormack, to write his epic, characteristically chauvinist poem 'The Kilrane Boys.' But the situation in the River Plate was not bright. Rosas was leading his second government, Montevideo was under Oribe's siege, and the French and British armies blockaded Buenos Aires.

Murphy landed with £1 in his pocket. According to his daughter, when he left Ireland, 'it was principally due to the treatment the Catholics were subjected to by the English soldiers, all had to swear allegiance to the Throne of England giving up their religion or they were ousted out, no farms or business of any kind could prosper under such a regime' (10). Once in Argentina, John took advantage of his British citizenship and his Irish origin, which connected him to the British merchants and the Irish Catholic priests in Buenos Aires, respectively. In this way, like most of his fellow countrymen, he stayed a short time in the city and he immediately went to the 'camp' (8). With a friend, he 'went to work near Chascomús with a very well known Argentine family, who never paid them a cent for their work digging ditches; in those days there were no fences, sheep were kept apart from neighboring ones with these deep trenches. That was his first work in the Argentine' (10). For eleven years, he also worked hard in Chacabuco as a sharecropper and tenant in the profitable sheep business. 

By 1855, he was already an 'estanciero' in Rojas and Salto. On 27 May 1867, John got married to Ellen Roche. Three years earlier, Ellen’s sister Elizabeth Roche, married to John’s brother William Murphy. And a third sister, Maggie Roche, married to other pioneer of Southern Santa Fe, James De Renzi Brett, who would later buy land for him (1). 'My parents had intended to be married in the Merced Church. In those days, all the Irish were married there, always of course by one of their Irish Priests, but as cholera broke out in Buenos Aires, they were married in Salto in May, 1867, by Father John Largo Leahy. My father very wisely thought no one should come near the city' (10). During Rosas times and afterwards, the men in the army and the police 'were such savage bruts, the English Minister of whom Rosas was terrified, ordered all British residents to fly the English flag over their estancias, which my father did. He always told us never to forget he and my mother owed their lives to the English flag' (10).

In 1869, John Murphy was the owner of two estancias: ‘La Flor del Uncalito’ in Salto and ‘La Caldera’ in Rojas. He bought the first one in 1854 from John McKiernan (topographic survey # 56 of 1855, originally 3/4 leagues, 1,748 hectares). Land in Rojas was purchased in 1864 (survey # 47 of 1864, 4,050 hectares). Later in 1872, he acquired more land in Rojas (survey # 60 of 1877, 4,050 hectares). 

John James (centre) with part of his family in or before 1895, probably in the house of Almagro, Buenos Aires city. Left to right: Isabel, Ellen Murphy (née Roche), J. J., Elisa Inés (Cissie), and Jack (or Nicholas). Photo: Tim Warriner's collection, 2003.

He was the first landowner in Northern Buenos Aires to enclose his holding with wire. When Newton enclosed his quinta with wire, 'this gave my father the idea of fencing in all his land. People thought him mad. After six months they left unpaid, and worked their way towards Salto' (10). Twenty years later, the ñandubay stakes and bulky wire he used to prevent sheep loses and to stop the Indian malón were still noticeable in rural Salto. 'He worked, or slaved rather, day and night and when he had a little money saved, he rented a small piece of land on the border of civilization; land there was cheaper as the indians were practically on top of him. During those years, he fell ill with small-pox, alone in a shanty built by himself; an old criolla neighbour went over every morning to leave him a jug of fresh water, and empty out what had to be emptied. This is all the care he had during that awful illness.' Years later, when he went to Kilrane to visit his mother, she 'thought he was a stranger when he arrived; it was only when he spoke she recognised him as her handsome John, and could only cry and cry. He had been so disfigured with the small-pox' (10). John worked and worked and deserved his good luck. He cared for his sheep day and night, 'sleeping little as he had to go out at any hour when he heard the sheep bleating, which they were mixing with the neighbouring ones, and he could not afford to lose even one small lamb. In 1859, they had a bad year, no rain for months and months. [...] My father saved his sheep by constantly throwing buckets and buckets of water over the parched land and the sheep were able to eat the roots of grass or weeds they found; they survived on that and water. He did this day and night and the sheep would rush towards him as soon as they saw him coming' (10). 

'La Flor del Uncalito' in Salto, Buenos Aires. Compared to the mansions of other estancieros, mid-19th century Irish sheep-farmer houses were sober and  functional, suggesting their Protestant work ethic. A 'mirador' was regularly built on top of the roof to survey flocks and to anticipate uninvited visits (i.e., gauchos and Indians). At the turn of the century, the first generation  of Irish-Argentines was not so sober, and built expensive houses, frequently on English country house style, complete with landscape gardens, tennis lawns, and other amenities.

'Those years in the camp were hard for women. It was safer to have your babies at home, even if you lost some of them. Doctors did not exist, not one beyond the centre of Buenos Aires, and most of those with no medical certificate. When shopping had to be done, John would ride or drive in to the town of Salto and shop for my mother and their neighbours, as they all said he had much better taste, and better memory than their husbands. My mother made all their clothes, shirts, trousers, everything. If he spent more money than he had taken with him, he would say to the criollo shopman, "I will sign for these things", the criollo would answer "no necesitamos su firma Don Juan, basta con la palabra del Inglés" [no need for your signature, Don Juan, enough with a word of the English]. He was very proud of that' (10).

In 1878, John travelled with his family back to Ireland. Being the elder brother, he had the idea of returning definitively to Ireland to take care of the family farm. However, two of his children, Catalina (Kitty) and Martin, died there, and one son, Nicolás, was born in Mount Julia, Co.  Wexford. Kitty, 'a lovely fair haired happy child of ten' died of scarlatina. 'In those years, scarlatina was fatal. No one dared to go  near them for fear of contagion. The other children had been sent down to Haysland, my father's old home, where his sister and invalid brother lived. She and the children went to see the funeral passing towards Kilrane churchyard. My mother said it nearly broke her heart to see the three small ones on the side of the road watching the funeral pass, not realising it was their little sister. This was too much for my parents. My father said "I am leaving and not coming back: the Argentine has never treated me like this." He never left the Argentine again.' (10). These sad events, and the relatively poor economic situation in Ireland, convinced the family to go back to the River Plate.

They returned to Argentina on January 1882. Under the favourable conditions for settlers created after the war against the Indians, on 15 March 1883, Murphy bought from Eduardo Casey eight leagues (18,600 hectares, 46,000 acres) of campo flor in Southern Santa Fe, one of the best regions of the pampas (4). 

With the help of his family and others, he immediately settled the area and began wire fencing, building puestos and planting trees in his new estancia ‘San Juan' (2). He paid off the last of the debt on San Juan the year before his death. 'His ambition was to die free of debt [...]. His place in Rojas had been paid off long before, also the land he bought in Salto from Pacheco (10).

By the end of the century, the prosperous sheep business was declining, and was replaced by cattle, and later by grain. Murphy started to let his land to Italian settlers, who dedicated mostly to corn and wheat. On 13 July 1909, John Murphy died in a house in Almagro (Rivadavia 4191) at 87 years old, leaving a large family and quite a serious fortune. 'He caught cold that developed into bronchitis, bronchopneumonia followed, and he died in five days without suffering thank God. He had spent 65 years working and lived to see his ambition come true, to leave us with no debts' (10). He was buried in Recoleta cemetery, in the heart of Buenos Aires city, in an austere monument with a Celtic Cross. 

Most of his land in Santa Fe was sold to 'colonos,' some of them being ejected by his daughter Elisa Murphy de Gahan (3), who was living in England, in a way that makes us think about the evictions of destitute cottiers just before the 19th century Irish Famine. However, her descendants argue that 'when she died in 1964, she left her state to be divided among her eight children or their heirs, which naturally meant that it had to be sold so that it could be divided. Unfortunately, it had been mostly rented out [...] to some French immigrants, and had been completely neglected - for example, all the windmills had been allowed to collapse, so that the land could no longer be farmed  - and this meant that it could only be sold about six years after her death, and at a very low price. She lived in England only in the years between the two wars [...]. When he [her husband] died she returned to Argentina, living mainly in the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires. It is gross misrepresentation to describe her as responsible for any ejections that happened years after her death, and were in any case only what the tenants deserved in the circumstances. The management of the land and its sales were handled by the firm of Bullrich' (9). Sources agree on the fact that there were tenant evictions. Whether they were justified or not, and the responsibility was of Murphy's descendants or their administrators, this unfortunate events contributed to develop the negative perception of the ingleses (i.e., Irish settlers) and their Pampa Gringa among some of the newly arrived immigrants in the region.

Letter sent by John James Murphy on 27 May 1864  from Buenos Aires, and received by  his brother Martin on 5 July 1864 in Haysland, Co. Wexford. 

On 22 January 1911, the railway arrived and Estación Murphy was officially opened in the 86 hectares compulsory purchased by the Ferrocarril Central Argentino to John Murphy heirs. The first settler was the Spanish 'pulpero' Francisco Sisteré. Others came afterwards to live around the railway station. In 1931, the name of the town was changed to Presidente Uriburu, and in 1948, to Pueblo Chateaubriand, Estación Murphy. Finally, in 1966, it was officially named just like that: Murphy, the town of soft siestas and amateur theatre (2).



1)  Coghlan, Eduardo, Los Irlandeses en Argentina: su Actuación y Descendencia (Buenos Aires, 1987)
2)  Ortigüela, Raúl, Murphy, en Tierras Benditas (Venado Tuerto, 1991)
3) Ortigüela, Raúl,,Raíces Celtas (Córdoba, 1998)
4)  Landaburu, Roberto, Irlandeses: Eduardo Casey, Vida y Obra (Fondo Editor Mutual Venado Tuerto, 1995)
5) Patrick McKenna, The Formation of the Hiberno-Argentine Society in: "English Speaking Communities in Latin America", ed. Oliver Marshall (London: Macmillan, 2000)
6) Private communications with Agustín Di Mella (Cooperativa de Electricidad y Servicios Públicos de Murphy)
7) Website http://www.irlandeses.com.ar/ 
8) Sábato, Hilda, Juan Carlos Korol, Cómo fue la Inmigración Irlandesa en Argentina (Buenos Aires: Plus Ultra, 1981)
9) Warriner Gahan, Timothy - private correspondence (30 July 2002)
10) Murphy, Emily (?), Memoirs of my Father John James Murphy, Private Collection of the Murphy family - Mary Anglim (Kilmore, Co. Wexford, August 2002)

Acknowledgements: many thanks to Mary Anglim, from Kilmore, Co. Wexford, who generously shared with me her family collection, to Timothy Warriner, London, for his accurate comments about John J. Murphy's properties, and to the late Statia Joyce, who during her last days helped me to identify many characters in old photographs.

The Kilrane Boys, by Walter McCormack
(ed. Joseph Ranson, C.C.,  Songs of the Wexford Coast, Wexford: John English & Co., 1975, first ed. 1948.), p. 74. 
On the thirteen day of April in the year of Forty-four
With the bloom of Spring the birds did sing around green Erin's shore
The feathered train in concert their tuneful notes did strain,
To resound with acclamations that echoed through Kilrane.
Twelve matchless youths I see approach, most splendid they appear.
They leave farewell with all their friends, their neighbours and parents dear.
As usual to their bosoms flew some mirth for to display;
They cried "Adieu, God be with you; we're bound for Amerikay.
My darling boys, what is the cause or the reason you must go,
To leave your native country for a shore you do not know,
Where you'll profess the holy Faith from which you ne'er did stray;
Ah, what dull news have you induced to wild Amerikay?
Foul British laws are the whole cause of our going far away;
From the fruits of our hard labour they defraud us here each day.
To see our friends in slavery tied with taxes for to pay.
Ere we'll be bound to such bloodhounds we'll plough the raging sea.
There's Billy Whitty and his bride, their names I will first sound,
John Connors and John Murphy from Ballygeary town.
Mick Kavanagh and Tom Saunders, two youths that none can blame,
James Pender, Patrick Howlin and four from Ballygillane.
Larry Murphy from Kilrane joined them in unity:
They're bound for Buenos Aires, the land of liberty.
On Wexford's Quay the thirteenth day were many go bid farewell;
They stayed conversing with their friends till sound of the last bell.
Then they gave three cheers for Ireland that echoed with hurray,
And with one for Dan O'Connell they boldly sailed away.
Oh, now they're on the ocean, may the angels be their guide
And send them safe through angry wave, o'er rock and welling tide;
That we may live to meet again in health and wealth and store.
God send them safely to their friends the blooming Kilrane corps.


The editor Joseph Ranson remembers that he 'got this song from Nick Corish, St. John's Road, Wexford, Feb., 1943. Nick got the song from Paddy O'Brien, ex-N.T. (National Teacher), Rosslare. The author was Walter McCormack of the Bing, Kilrane. A centenary celebration was held in Kilrane on April 11th, 1944, to honour the memory of the emigrants, when the cart, which brought some of the emigrants into Wexford, was drawn in the procession' (p. 75). Mgr. Joseph Ranson was ordained in 1930 in Salamanca, and was parish priest of  St. Aidan. In 1949, the Irish Archbishop appointed him to the Directorship of the Irish College in Salamanca. In 1955, he was Administrator of the Enniscorthy Cathedral. Ranson, a distinguished historian and literary critic, died on 27 November 1964 (Coghlan 1987: 151).

Edmundo Murray, Irish Argentine Historical Society © 2003
Last Update: 20 April 2004


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2005

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