Reversal of Fortune
The Irish Times, 13 November 2002
the 19th century, thousands of Irish traded economic and religious
persecution at home for a new life in Argentina. Now their descendants
are coming here in search of a better life and an Irish passport.
But many have been turned down, writes Conor Pope
the economy, stupid" was the killer campaign slogan that helped
secure Bill Clinton's second term as US president in 1996. The same
glib phrase can help explain why more than 1,000 Argentinians have
moved to Ireland in recent times. No matter how much they talk up
their interest in Irish culture, mysticism, music or hospitality,
it's clear it's all about the economy.
it's not hard to see why. Argentina has been transformed from South
America's bread basket to its basket case in less then 12 months.
Since the government there announced it could no longer service
its $155 billion foreign debt last December, more than 10,000 people
every day have dropped below the poverty line. Per capita income
has fallen from a high of $9,000 to $3,000 and the peso has lost
more than 75 per cent of its value.
there was the government decree, El Coralito, which means Little
Corral, only there was nothing little about it. It ordered the freezing
of bank accounts of millions of people to prevent the greatest run
on a bank in history. More than seven million people saw their dollar
accounts, first frozen, then converted into peso "equivalents" worth
less than a quarter of their original value.
is no money in Argentina, no people with money now. It's depressed
and unhappy and without a future," explains Yamile Claudia Mugsi,
a self-employed travel consultant and translator who was granted
a work permit which has to be reviewed annually. "We are in prison
now, try to understand that," she says with a resigned air.
that prison, she came to Ireland for an initial six-month stay last
year. She set up a consultancy service linking Ireland and Latin
America, with the idea of giving "as much assistance to those wishing
to open trade with Spanish-speaking Latin American countries and
Brazil" as possible.
has done well and would like to settle here. "The people are very
friendly and they have helped us a lot. I always thought that the
more senior jobs would have been preserved for Irish people, but
now I feel this is not true. I feel like I've grown up here."
di Luca, a translator, has been here on a student visa for seven
months. He came here because of the "friendliness of the people"
and the "good economy", unaware that both have a somewhat tarnished
reputation at present. He is working in a Dublin hotel and sends
money home to his family in Argentina's second city of Rosario.
"I feel that the people here are very honest and very friendly,
although it is a little difficult for us because we haven't got
European passports. I do not want to work illegally here. If I had
to work illegally here I would prefer to go home." He cannot understand
why obtaining a working visa is so difficult. "People always ask
us about a work permit. I don't understand it. When the Irish needed
help they came to Argentina and we opened the doors with no preconditions."
can't understand why Australians and Americans can work here without
any apparent problems while people from Argentina are made jump
through hoops for the right to work. "People from all the European
countries came to my country [in the 19th century\] and now we would
like help in return."
Gabriel Carbone, who is working as a waiter on a student visa, says
without a trace of sarcasm: "It is like a paradise here compared
to Argentina." He has been in Ireland for less than a month. "I
think here I will be able to improve my English and have the opportunity
to have a better future than is possible in Argentina." At home
he was a graphic designer and wants to use those skills here.
and more Argentinians are seeking work permits by applying for Irish
citizenship on the basis of their ancestry - well over 100 people
have been granted passports so far in 2002, compared with less than
30 last year.
and Argentina go way back. The story of Che Guevara's Irish roots,
for instance, has always seemed outlandish, but Argentina's most
famous son, the world's best-known revolutionary, had a grandmother
from Galway called Lynch .
course hundreds of thousands fled to the US, Australia, Canada,
and Britain to escape economic deprivation and political and religious
persecution at home, but how, and why, did Granny Lynch get to Argentina?
She was, in fact, following a well-worn trail in the company of
more than 4,000 others who made the trip at the end of the 19th
century and prospered to such an extent that now more than half
a million Argentinians claim Irish ancestry, making them the fifth
largest Irish emigrant community in the world.
William Browne, from Foxford, Co Mayo is another national hero.
He formed the Argentinian navy and is one of the fathers of the
nation. Cementing the bond further, Argentina was the first country
to recognise Irish independence and is probably the only country
in the world with a professional soccer team called Sarsfields.
the trail leading from Ireland to Argentina has grown cold, but
the flow of people coming in the other direction is gathering pace.
Many Argentinians anxious to escape the economic collapse are returning
to their ancestral home. Pablo Aranda is one of them. He has been
here for just three weeks, but has been waiting for the Irish citizenship
he believes is his birth right for more than 12 years. Just four
weeks ago, a terse letter from the Department of Justice, Equality
and Law Reform informed him that he had waited in vain. His application
for naturalisation, based on the fact that his great grandfather
was an Irish citizen, has been rejected.
Hynes-O'Connor, to give him his mother's name, is both devastated
and baffled by the decision. His Argentinian cousins carry Irish
passports, having applied for them prior to a 1986 change in legislation
which prevented third generation Irish people claiming Irish citizenship,
but he has been told he is "not Irish enough".
upset, he will try again and hopes the response will be different.
He moved to Ireland to expedite any future application and because
he thought he "would get a good welcome" here. So far he hasn't
been disappointed. "Here we are considered strange, exotic. . ."
He has found a job in a shop and is happy. His girlfriend, Natalia,
found it harder going at first. "There is no patience for someone
who doesn't speak English as well as you. I've had people hang up
on me just because I had an accent." Her English is faultless. She
has got a job as a hotel receptionist which has lifted her mood
as she had thought the only jobs open to non-nationals were at a
Florenica Clifford is another third-generation Irish Argentinian
who has come here hoping to find relatives - her great-grandmother
was a Margaret Lowry from Malahide. She is also trying to get an
up, many of her family's customs were of Irish rather than Latin
origin. They ate unusually early and celebrated El Dia de San Patricio
and three of her grandparents carry Irish surnames. Still, she faces
a long and difficult struggle if she is to be granted an Irish passport,
and the law is not on her side.
1986 Citizenship and Nationality Act limited the right to citizenship
to those with an Irish grandparent. The great-grandparent rule had
long been considered a quaint anomaly, which merely facilitated
journeymen English footballers playing international football for
Ireland. It was modified without much outcry from anywhere. Until
now. In Buenos Aires, a petition is circulating, calling on the
Government to "allow Argentine-born great-grandchildren of Irish
nationals to become Irish nationals themselves or in the alternative
to be able to seek and obtain employment in Ireland as if they were
petition was set up by Pablo's mother and so far has attracted nearly
2,000 signatures. An online bulletin board promoting the petition
includes much discussion of its merits. "My grandfather came to
Argentina after World War One. This country gave him the chance
that Ireland couldn't at that time . . . Ireland should never forget
the country that gave asylum to Irish people," says one contributor.
Not everyone agrees. "Nobody should be entitled to privileges unless
it is their direct parent who is Irish. What's so good about Ireland
anyway, it's constantly raining here," says another contributor.
are perhaps many reasons why passport applications from Argentina
should be looked upon favourably - the economic hardship, a shared
history, a debt of gratitude. One thing is certain, however, an
injection of Argentinian blood through the re-introduction of the
great grandparent rule could only improve the flair and quality
of the Irish soccer team.
for a football-loving Taoiseach, in these difficult, difficult times,
that could prove to be the strongest imperative of all.
for the petition asking the Government to grant more Argentinians
With kind permission
of the author, 13 November 2002.
� The Irish Times