A Reversal of Fortune

By Conor Pope
The Irish Times, 13 November 2002

In 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

'It's 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.

And 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.

Then 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.

"There 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.

Escaping 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.

She 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."

Esteban 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."

Esteban 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."

Argentinian 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.

More 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.

Ireland 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 .

Of 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.

Admiral 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.

Today, 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.

Pablo 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".

Although 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 lower level.

Maria 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 Irish passport.

Growing 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.

The 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 Irish nationals."

The 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.

There 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.

And for a football-loving Taoiseach, in these difficult, difficult times, that could prove to be the strongest imperative of all.

www.irlandeses.com.ar/petition/petition.htm for the petition asking the Government to grant more Argentinians Irish citizenship.

With kind permission of the author, 13 November 2002.
� The Irish Times


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