Researching the Irish in Argentina

An Irish-Argentine History or a History of the Irish Argentines?

By Edmundo Murray

Editor, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America

Geneva, July 2003


During the nineteenth century, nearly 45,000 Irish-born individuals emigrated to Argentina. They settled in the lush and boundless land between the City of Buenos Aires and Southern Santa Fe, and worked primarily as shepherds and sheep-farmers. They were members of medium tenant families from Westmeath, Longford, Offaly, and Wexford (though Dublin, Cork, and Clare were well represented). They travelled from their homelands to Liverpool or Southampton, and from there to the River Plate, as passengers on sail ships up to the mid-nineteenth century, and on steamers thereafter. They were young and willing to work hard.

Once established and during about a century, the Irish Argentines shaped an incredibly endogenous community, which in rare occasions allowed its members to mix with the natives (though the English and affluent Argentines were fairly accepted). Led by the Irish Catholic priests and financed by the Anglo-Irish merchants of the City of Buenos Aires, it was a socially clustered and an economically self-sufficient community. Nearly one out of two Irish immigrants settled on a permanent basis in Argentina and Uruguay. Some of them managed to own their means of production, i.e., land and sheep, and they founded families which for three or even four generations kept the language, religious habits, and traditions brought from Ireland by their ancestors.

We know all this, and much more, about the Irish in Argentina. However, we know very little about the values of these gauchos irlandeses, the ideas that influenced their actions, the principles they followed on their every day activities. What were those values? What models did they use to judge their own and others' behaviours? What ideology or ideologies appealed to them? How did they represent their ideas through literature, journalism, music, and other arts? What was their choice regarding certain identity oppositions, such as Argentine/Irish, English/Irish, European/Native, Midlands/Wexford, Protestant/Catholic, poor/affluent, landowner/tenant, work/leisure, city/countryside, man/woman? Beyond their economic interests, how did they justify their participation (or the lack of it) in local or national public life? In what form did their values evolve during the acculturation process in the larger society that received and accepted them? What guiding fictions (Shumway's 'The Invention of Argentina', 1991) and Oedipal paradigms (Kiberd's 'Inventing Ireland', 1996) were created by the Irish in Argentina as metaphoric symbols of their identity in a postcolonial topography?

According to Eric Wolf, 'the world of human kind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality. Concepts like "nation," "society," and "culture" name bits and threaten to turn names into things' ('Europe and the People Without History', 1982). A primary objective of Irish Argentine studies should be to understand the leading values of the Irish in Argentina, which prevailed during the migratory process and shaped the beliefs of significant numbers in their community. This understanding must be carried out within the totality of interconnected processes which linked the migrants to other social segments in Argentina and Ireland, and with the global geography of the Irish Diaspora.

As a rule, values are unwritten. They are social attitudes that may be only recognised between the lines of the public discourses, on documents with limited distribution like private letters and memoirs, fictional texts, and photographs (in particular, those taken with certain intention). In order to identify cultural values in the available sources, it is necessary to make recourse to diverse fields: comparative analysis across cultures, semantic and pragmatic evolution, communications and transportation studies, questions of class and gender, development of identities and ethnicity.

Through this web site, and through other projects of the Irish Argentine Historical Society, we wish to open a debate area to study the Irish-Argentine cultural models, which may contain their major ideologies and motivations. As patterns of conduct, cultural models help to understand not only emigrants' beliefs, but also their effects on emigrants' behaviours. Additionally, I propose to use cultural models as a thorough way to establish comparison analyses with the outcome of other diasporic and diachronic migrations.

De-hyphenating Irish Argentina

Readers may have noticed that I am not using Irish-Argentine and Irish Argentine as synonyms. On the one hand, Irish-Argentine is an adjective applicable to persons or things in varying degrees. On the other hand, Irish Argentine is a noun, which identifies the person who may qualify to that name, commonly because of his or her ancestry. For instance, an Irish Argentine may not be Irish-Argentine at all! (for instance, if he or she is not aware of his or her family origins). The central point of this discussion is the difference between a history focused on the Irish Argentines and an Irish-Argentine history. The former is, or could be, free of the values and ideological discourses of the Irish in Argentina, meanwhile the latter would be more or less influenced by those values.

We developed this web site with the awareness of, but without a blind adherence to, the prevailing historical discourses in Argentina and in Ireland. A simplified (albeit introductory and superficial) panorama of traditional Argentine historiography reveals two polarized positions: liberals (Unitarios, an intellectual and urban elite, followers of Northern-European Romantic models), and nationalists (Federales, supporters of populist caudillos and mass leaders with traditionalist ideologies). On their turn, few writers of Irish history (including the Irish Diaspora history), could stay away from the Nationalist/Revisionist historical (now historic) Manichaeism.

Regarding the history of the Irish Argentines, the situation is rather peculiar. Most of the published chronicles about the Irish in Argentina were (and still are to some degree) written with the contribution discourse in mind, i.e., an Irish-Argentine ideological framework which signifies the Irish settlers and their families as (positive) contributors to their adopted land, and therefore sets them as exemplar models of what this discourse often terms the 'Irish race.' From a psychological perspective, the contribution discourse would balance the (negative) view that many Irish have of themselves vis-à-vis the English (cf. Patrick O'Sullivan 1992).

Paradoxically, the Irish-Argentine contribution discourse would be judged too liberal by the largest part of Argentine nationalist historians, and too nationalist by the Irish revisionists. In point of fact, most cases of the contribution discourse neglect at least two fundamental realities: the voiceless settlers who did not bear the mainstream ideology, i.e., the Catholic nationalistic dogma, and the negative contribution of a few Irish Argentines to the Argentine state of affairs. The Irish Argentine Historical Society is an open invitation to articulate alternatives to stream ideology, i.e., the Catholic nationalistic dogma, and the negative contribution of a few Irish Argentines to the Argentine state of affairs. The Irish Argentine Historical Society is an open invitation to articulate alternative discourses about the history of the Irish Argentines, and our expectation is to make known learned (i.e., enlightenment rather than description) texts and documents covering the diversity of Irish-Argentine experiences.

Within the context of Irish-Argentine history, family history is one of the first interests. Irish-Argentine historians need to validate their role by demonstrating family links with Ireland. Subsequently, they transfer their genealogical research to others in the community. Conversely, a history of the Irish Argentines uses genealogy to understand family connections among different actors of the Irish-Argentine community. However, the focus is not on genealogy but on the study of relations. Certainly, I propose family historians to consider a genealogical rhizome as an alternative to their genealogical tree. Richer than pedigrees, cultural roots follow hidden stimuli and grow under the surface of kinship, and sometimes produce the unexpected inflorescence of a new ethos that challenges the established heritage (Deleuze & Guattari, 'Milles Plateaux', 1980).

As Thomas Murray did in 1919, I encourage now your own participation: 'Whether you be young or old, man or woman, if you know anything worth while, bearing on the Irish in Argentina, set to and write it off to some paper - get it into print, and you have done something - you have laid your stone on the cairn of the race' (Murray 1919: 479).


Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari (1980). 1730 – Devenir-intense, devenir-animal, devenir-imperceptible, in: Capitalisme et schizophrénie 2 : mille plateaux. Paris: Les éditions de Minuit.

Kiberd, Declan (1996). Inventing Ireland: the Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Jonathan Cape.

Murray, Thomas (1919). The Story of the Irish in Argentina. New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons.

O'Sullivan, Patrick (ed.) (1992). The Irish World Wide: History, Heritage, Identity. Vol. I: 'Patterns of Migration'. London: Leicester University Press.

Shumway, Nicholas (1991). The Invention of Argentina. Berkeley: U. of California Press.

Wolf, Eric (1982). Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: U. of California Press.

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