The Camps: Irish Immigrants in Argentina

Hilda Sabato and Juan Carlos Korol
Translated by Edmundo Murray

Landscape without trees between St. Paul's Monastery and Carmen de Areco

Irish and Irish-Argentine Landowners in Buenos Aires 1778-1922
by E. Murray

This list includes 1,113 landowners in the province of Buenos Aires, with lands purchased between 1778 and 1922 in 80 departments. The sources for this list are: (i) surveys filed in the topographic service of the provincial government in La Plata, transcribed by José Pedro Thill from records of the Ministerio de Obras Públicas, Departamento de Investigación Histórica y Cartográfica, Dirección de Geodesia (La Plata, Provincia de Buenos Aires, May 2002); and (ii) landowners included in Lista de Propietarios de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, by Estudio Edelberg (Buenos Aires, 1922). Records were not deduplicated. The complete database is available to IAHS members.

‘In no part of the world is the Irishman
more estimated and respected than in the Province of Buenos Aires,
and in no part of the world, in the same space of time,
have Irish settlers made such large fortunes.’

The Southern Cross, January 6th, 1875


They began to arrive from Ireland as early as 1840. They were forced by hunger, poverty and by their eagerness to try their luck. They were seduced by a young country: an unknown but promising, distant yet possible land. Only a few decades later, they had become an affluent and prestigious community within the larger and complex society that was taking shape in the Argentine. In the following study, we will track the itinerary of these Irish immigrants, analyse their incorporation into the productive structure of developing Argentina, and consider their life and organisation.

Between 1830 and 1950, sixty five million people abandoned Europe to settle in other regions of the world. The scale of this process was unprecedented. The majority of that colossal mass of people chose as destinations the newly created American countries and, to a lesser extent, the British colonies (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). Up to the 1880s, they came largely from the North-eastern part of Europe; after the 1880s, the demographic shifted to the Southern part of the continent. Argentina was one of the destinations for those immigrants.

For a young and relatively sparsely populated country as Argentina, the inflow of this people had a significant effect. The percentage of foreigners in the local population amounted to one of the highest ratios in the world. In the first decades after the Independence War in 1810s, immigrants from different parts of Europe had already started arriving, with the peak being reached in the fifty years between 1880 and 1930. While there are several essays on the history of the massive immigration, however, studies about the early migrations are comparatively neglected. We do not even have such statistics on those immigrants, as would allow us to evaluate their impact on a region that was accelerating its capitalist development and its insertion in the international market.

Early immigrants played a key role in the transformation of the country, particularly in the pampas region. The River Plate was the final destination for Basque, French, German, Scottish, English and Irish immigrants. Each group followed a different path, but all of them contributed to define the shape of the society in which they settled. In the next fifty years, the country developed those enduring features that defined its economic and social structure: Argentina became a world exporter of raw materials and foodstuffs, and an importer of capital, labor, and manufactured goods.

Within this context, the Irish immigration distinguished itself from others because of its early and definitive role within the configuration and transformation of the agrarian structure, and the shaping of the rural bourgeoisie in the Buenos Aires province. In a few years, in spite of barriers erected because of their peculiar language, customs and traditions, and their relatively small number and lack of wealth many Irish immigrants advanced from menial positions as shepherds and cow-hands to the ownership of estancias, or became midsized landholders. The Irish also advanced to positions of political influence or leadership in the richest and most important regions of the country. In this way, names like Ham, Kavanagh, Casey, and Duggan joined the circle of the most traditional families of the Argentinean rural bourgeoisie. However, upward social mobility was not invariably the fate of the Irish immigrant, and many who arrived as workers remained workers during this whole period.

In retracing the paths followed by these "new men," our goal will be to show how some of them became part of the expanding agrarian bourgeoisie, while others joined the provincial petit bourgeoisie, and yet others remained among the ranks of the rural working classes. We will also describe the formation of an Irish "community" and its transformation during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Our first chapter narrates the experiences of the first Irish who arrived to the shores of the River Plate. These pioneers attracted other countrymen to join them in the new land, and thus initiated in the 1840s the first wave of immigration from Ireland. Precisely in those years, emigration increased sharply in that country due to a complex combination of factors. Chapter III surveys some of the problems experienced in Ireland at the time, exploring their effects on the demographic dimensions of the Irish immigration to Argentina. Where did these men and women come from in Ireland, how many were they, were did they go once in their country of destination and what was the demographic structure of the settlers are some of the main questions addressed in that section. Chapter IV, in turn, focuses on the economic and social conditions of the River Plate, where the largest number of Irish settled, and pays particular attention to sheep breeding.

In Chapters V and VI, we tackle the core subjects of our research, that is the study of Irish assimilation into the productive sphere, and its effect upon the stages of Irish community development. Here we examine the socio-economic context within which the Irish community became relatively successful in terms of the biographies of men and women whose everyday struggles were crowned by success.

Finally, we must add that many of the problems arising from this research cannot be elucidated within the strict context of one immigrant group, and that these problems should be resolved within the broader study of the social structure in the Buenos Aires province during the second half of the nineteenth century, and of the role played there by the early immigrants. Furthermore, additional studies about similar groups may enrich the discussion with regard to the internal organisation of the total Argentine community. In this way, our research must be considered only as a case study indicating a set of problems and solutions historically enacted in one community within a broader problem area.


Chapter V
Joining the Productive Structure


Towards Sheep Breeding

For the Irish who arrived in the River Plate, the only way out was hard work. When arriving in the country, they easily managed to obtain situations as servants, cooks, governesses, nursemaids, or labourers to lay foundations or to wire fences. Since their objective was to settle the countryside and to purchase land, most of them looked for positions that could take them to the countryside and they quickly established in the interior of the province. Few of them stayed in the city, and usually only for a limited period of time. There, they represented a group constantly augmented by those who arrived from Ireland, but reduced by those who passed through to the hinterland areas.

Sources agree on the relatively high salaries obtained by the early waves of immigrants. This allowed them to save some money, sometimes to settle the debt incurred for the passage from Ireland, and sometimes to start a small capital that would be extremely useful in the country (1). However, these jobs were always temporary in the case of male workers (or at least that was the aspiration of those workers), but it was quite possible that some of them kept working all their lives in that condition. Women, who generally aspired to marriages with more prosperous, landowning fellow nationals than they could hope for in Ireland, also became temporary workers. As a matter of fact, women had a high chance of marriage because the number of men arriving (at least during the first two decades of immigration) much higher than the women, and Irish men seldom mixed with the ‘native’ girls.

The country was the final destination for many of these Irish immigrants. They were attracted by sheep breeding rather than cattle, as it required less start up capital, it could be organised on a family level, and it began to yield earnings almost immediately. The Irish made up for their shortness of financial capital by exploiting their advantages in training and experience in this field in order to become independent producers.

Through contacts established by the community and its leaders (i.e., the Catholic priests) with local cattle breeding groups, the newcomers immediately got jobs in sheep breeding. This was, as we have already seen, undermanned. In addition to the shortage of hands, the existing native workers specialised in traditional cattle-related occupations, and were lacking in the specific skills and knowledge required for sheep breeding. The Irish farmers could take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the emerging wool market, having been trained in farm work and being willing to perform any task to acquire the means necessary for economic independence. In this way, the Irish who arrived during the first twenty years rapidly obtained jobs in those Argentinean ranches which were experimenting in sheep breeding. They were especially valued by English and German stockbreeders, who at that time were promoting this industry in the country. The Irish played a key role in the preliminary formation of the sheep industry before 1840. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish themselves became important ‘estancieros’ (2) dedicated mainly to sheep, and they used their influence within the developing community to lead the arriving labour towards this activity. Likewise, they became employers of the new Irish immigrants.

For the newcomer Irish immigrants who embarked on sheep breeding, there were three forms of incorporation: as wage labourers, sharecroppers or tenants. Labourers were employed as puesteros and shepherds, who were assigned the responsibility of a sheep flock (1,200 to 2,000 head) in return for a monthly salary paid partly in cash and partly in kind (food and housing). Different writers of the period provide vivid and detailed accounts of the lives of these men: McCann and Vicuña MacKenna during the 1840s and 50s, Latham for the early 1860s, Gibson and Daireaux for the 1880s and Bulfin, specifically for the Irish (3).

During the first two decades of the sheep breeding growth, the Irish got relatively high salaries. There was a considerable demand for specialised labour, and the foreign worker was preferred to the native because he was not subject to military levies (very frequent during those times). In this way, the Irish hired during this time as wage-earning ‘puesteros’ and shepherds were able to save some money on their wages. During the expansion of the demand for labour, these savings reached significant levels (4). However, during the periodical crises of the sector, wages declined, as in the crisis of 1864, for example, when the estancieros asked for a reduction of wages (5). Furthermore, as the century moved forward, the increase in supply of immigrant foreign labour reduced demand for Irish labour, and their earnings tended to decrease to the same level as that of the other rural workers.

The second kind of agrarian activity preferred by Irish immigrants and their descendants was sharecropping. Whether after working for a period of time as wage labourer, or directly when arriving in the River Plate, the Irish worker heading to the camp (6) frequently contracted to sharecrop for landowners. This was the predominant form taken by the Irish started sheep breeding business. A contract would be drawn up between a capitalist-worker (who brought his workforce and a share of the necessary assets to undertake the business), and a capitalist-landowner (who brought his lands and the remaining share of assets required to undertake the business) that gave the landowner a half share of the results at the end of the contract term, and allotted the worker the other half.

However, we need to distinguish between two types of contracts. Frequently, during the first two decades of immigration, most of the Irish shepherds going into sharecropping contracts only provided their work to tend a sheep flock. In some few cases, they also contributed a small amount of capital to pay for a share of the operating expenses during the contract period (frequently, this capital was deducted from the results when the contract was due, i.e., the contribution was realised at the end of term). In his turn, the landowner contributed the stock and the operating expenses. Additionally, in most cases the landowner provided the shepherd with working tools and housing during the contract term. When the contract was due, the shepherd retained a proportional share of the results (7), whether they were wool, skins and tallow produced by the flock, or the new head born during this period. The landowner or capitalist got the remaining share of the yield.

This type of sharecropping differed from the typical sharecropping arrangements developed in Europe (8), which could also be found among the Irish settlers in the Buenos Aires province. In this case, the shepherd contributed not only his labour and a small capital to cover a share of the operating expenses, but also a portion of the flock. In this way, he participated almost as a minority partner in the business. The proprietor supplied the land (the shepherd did not own land), and provided the assets necessary for the business (head and cash). In the first case, the situation of the shepherd was closer to that of the wage-earning worker, because he sold his labour to the capitalist in return for a share in the profits. Conversely, in the second case, the shepherd played the role of acting as ‘his own capitalist’ by owning a part of the means of production. We will study these circumstances in more detail when analysing the production units.

closer to that of the wage-earning worker, because he sold his labour to the capitalist in return for a share in the profits. Conversely, in the second case, the shepherd played the role of acting as ‘his own capitalist’ by owning a part of the means of production. We will study these circumstances in more detail when analysing the production units.

At the beginning of the period of the expansion of the sheep breeding activity, Irish immigrants were frequently signed to ‘mediería’ o ‘tercería’ contracts with the owner of lands or flocks. In this way, after a year, they could build up capital (which was the product of selling their quota of wool, skins and tallow), and they increased their stock from their share of the lambs born during that year. This was a fast way to build their own capital, and at the same time to reach the ownership of the means of production, i.e., sheep. In three to four years, a flock of 1,200-2,000 sheep could double its size, enabling a ‘mediero’ (9) to own his own flock and sign on to the second type of contract, and maybe even lease a piece of land. This possibility tended to wither as the century moved forward. Sharecropping arrangements of this sort gave way to other forms of production less favourable for the worker. Forms like ‘medieria’ gave way to ‘tercieria’ and ‘cuarteria’ whereby only a third or a fourth of the produce went to the sharecropper, and also to wage labour (10). However, old forms endured and the sharecropping contracts may be found throughout the Buenos Aires province even up to the beginning of the 20th century.

The third entryway for the Irish immigrants into the sheep industry was to lease a piece of land using their own small capital, frequently obtained from previous jobs as cattle-hands, ‘puesteros’ or sharecroppers. In this case, as with sharecropping arrangements, many authors and sources agree in pointing out that the possibilities of obtaining high profits in the short term were quite good for sheep breeding (11).

Notwithstanding the generalisations and contradictions found among those sources, their calculations confirm a reality observed by them and other authors of this period, namely the high potential earnings available to the immigrants through sheep breeding, whether as sharecroppers and tenants, or as landowners (see below). In this way, for the period just before the 1864 crisis, Olivera estimates for the sheep breeding business an annual return on investment of 21% (12), versus 7% interest rate for bank premium deposits and 9% for rediscount interest rates. In the same period (beginning of 1863), the annual return expected from lands varied from 5 to 10% (13). Indeed, during the crisis this situation reversed, and profits fell to 8-10.5% p.a. (14), bank interest and rediscount rates to 12% and 15% respectively (January, 1865), and interest on private loans reached 24% (15). When the crisis ended, cattle raisers recovered and they managed to survive the 1873 crisis in a much better fashion than other industries. During the 1880s, sheep breeding returns were still high, and in 1885 they were estimated between 11% and 20% p.a. (16) Furthermore, sharecroppers and tenants profited from the currency devaluations, which were more frequent during the second half of the 19th century than monetary stability or upward currency trends.

Tenants managed their production units in a similar way to those owned by small and medium-sized landowners, i.e., the ‘farmers.’ (17) (see below). Most of these tenants rented areas of less than a square league (2,500 hectares or 6,178 acres), they produced for the market and basically used family labour, although sometimes they hired wage labour for the shearing season.

During the second half of the 19th century, in spite of the generally favourable conditions of both national and international markets for the sheep-breeding industry, the situation varied considerably through the years for the Irish settlers, whether engaged as employees, sharecroppers or tenants. The period between the 1840s and 1860s proved decisive for them. As a matter of fact, they had not only the possibility of saving money earned through their work, but of transforming it into capital, investing in means of production, namely sheep and land. Later on in the century, although sheep business profits continued to be relatively high, and wages were kept at a reasonable level, other economic conditions developed, hindering the access of the worker to these resources.

During the 1850s and 1860s, it was not difficult for an immigrant to have access to a sheep flock, either by buying it with his savings or by acquiring it through sharecropping contracts. Nevertheless, in a short period of time, prices of stock soon went up abruptly and despite fluctuations due to many factors, they never returned to the low levels of the 50s. In addition to this, as we have seen, sharecropping gradually developed toward less favourable labour contracts, whereby the worker did not receive a share of the new-born stock. Sheep then had to be bought in the market, paid in cash or on credit.

But landownership was the decisive factor for a sheep-owner in the Argentine of the second half of the 19th century. Owning land meant that the producer would not only obtain the profit expected in the business, but also keep the rent of the land, and particularly the differential rent. This rent was the main source of the rapid capitalisation process experienced by the Buenos Aires province during this period. We need therefore to analyse the land ownership patterns among immigrants and their descendents].


The Path to Landownership

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, land was a plentiful resource, which generally belonged to the State. Land occupation by private settlers was performed occasionally, with Indian attacks as its sole hindrance (18). However, the situation changed swiftly after the State devised new policies in matters of land in order to secure the development of the cattle-raising industry, followed by sheep-breeding. It was necessary to secure the appropriation and incorporation for productive use of millions of hectares that until that time had been effectively squandered. The new strategy towards the public lands revolved around the consolidation of private property, the systematic transfers of those lands to private owners, and the expansion of the frontier due to the extermination of Indians. By 1880, the process was completed.

What was the situation of the Irish in this context? It is not easy to estimate the amount of Irish settlers who owned land, but a significant quantity of landowners of Irish origin were to be found in many ‘partidos’ (19) of the Northern and North-western Buenos Aires province. We have selected twenty ‘partidos’ of the province, where according to E. Coghlan (20), Irish immigration was both larger and more stable throughout the period under consideration. For these counties, in order to study the structure of property in Irish hands, we have analysed the Cadastral maps of 1864, 1890 and 1904. Since some of the smaller holdings are not registered or have no name assigned to them on these maps, these calculations probably underestimate the number of holdings in Irish hands. Nevertheless, in 1890 the proportion of land belonging to the Irish families in the twenty ‘partidos’ averages 17.34%, exceeding 25% in the case of seven of these counties. Altogether, 300 (Irish) families owned 610,415 hectares.

How did the Irish immigrants and their descendants come to own so much land?
To answer this question we shall now describe the characteristics of the operations of land purchasing by the Irish and their descendants, and the structure of the property on their hands. To do this, besides the bibliography and sources used in general for this study, we have examined a sample of 90 title deeds (21) whereby persons with Irish names bought land between 1850 and 1880, the above-mentioned Cadastral maps of 1864, 1890 and 1904 for twenty ‘partidos’ where the Irish have a significant presence, the Tax on Property Registry (22), mainly land and livestock for the Buenos Aires province for 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860, 1865 and 1867, and the Records of National Census (23) of 1869 and 1895 for a sample of five ‘partidos.’

In examining this material, we observe the following:

  1. Most Irish immigrants and their descendants purchased land from private individuals, who in their turn had either inherited it, or bought it from other private individuals or from the State. Only on an exceptional basis, we find Irish surnames among the tenants of State-owned land, who afterwards purchased it thanks to the favourable laws on public land sales. In most of the cases, buyers acquired only a portion of the local landowner’s land, i.e., the landowner decided to sell a part of his holding to the new proprietor, and he kept the remainder to himself or divided it among many buyers.


  3. Most of the families of Irish origin purchased their land between 1860 and 1875. Although we find some Irish landowners before 1850, they were generally early settlers established in the River Plate before 1840. Those who arrived from the 1840s on, in a first stage generally went southwards, where the sheep-breeding industry was more developed. They settled there as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, in counties such as Ranchos, Cañuelas and Chascomús. But it was not easy to buy land in this area, where prices were relatively high. Thus, the Irish turn westwards looking for more inexpensive land, to Monte, Lobos, Navarro, Las Heras, Chivilcoy, Mercedes and Suipacha. In the 1860s, the districts of the North, the West and the Northwest were still beginning to be settled, and their land prices were not high, thus becoming a favourite area for Irish settlement. In this way, in 1865 Irish families preferred to buy land in Luján, San Andrés de Giles, Carmen de Areco, Pilar, Exaltación de la Cruz, San Antonio de Areco, Baradero, Rojas and Salto. This process continued at least until 1875 in Exaltación de la Cruz, Carmen de Areco, Las Heras, Lobos, Mercedes, Monte, Rojas and Salto, and expanded to Chacabuco, 25 de Mayo, Bragado, Pergamino, San Pedro and Saladillo. But at that time, in the districts nearer to Buenos Aires city, the process was already declining. Between 1875 and 1885, the process slowed down, and the expansion of the Irish and their descendants only continued in Arrecifes, Pergamino, Salto, Chacabuco and 25 de Mayo, and at a lesser extent, in 9 de Julio, Junín and Lincoln, where we found relatively few landowners with Irish surnames. The Irish landownership situation was already consolidated in 1890. The maps of 1890 and 1904 show practically the same structure of property. Table XII was developed for 1890, including number of Irish landowners, amount of land on their hands, and the percentage of the holdings in each county.
  1. Between 1850 and 1880, most families of Irish origin and their descendants who purchased their land in the Buenos Aires province acquired extensions under 2,500 hectares. We are now approaching the problem of the size of the properties owned by Irish families, subject that will become relevant when speaking about the management of the holdings and the social relations that developed herein.


Table XII

Land in Irish hands in twenty counties of the Buenos Aires province – Cadastral Map 1890


Number of landowners with Irish names (a)

Quantity of hectares (b)

% on total of the department (c)

Number of English real estate owners – 1895 Census (d)











Carmen de Areco










Exaltación de la Cruz





Las Heras


















































San Andrés de Giles





San Antonio de Areco





San Pedro










25 de Mayo












Notes for Table XII:

  1. We have included as landowners with Irish names all persons appearing on the map with Irish surnames, although they had the same surname, i.e., they may have belonged to the same family or be heirs of the same original landowner. In all cases, to confirm the Irish origin of the owner, we verified with sources such as Mulhall, Murray and Coghlan.
  2. Calculations have been made by measuring the areas in the Cadastral maps, and therefore in all cases we might expect an error, the magnitude of which depends on the scale of the map of the respective county, but this is never expected to exceed 10%. Errors in design and construction of the maps are also possible, but we cannot estimate their magnitude.
  3. Total area of the county according to the National Census of 1895, except for San Pedro and Baradero, where the Delta of Paraná has been deducted.
  4. Includes all British-born real estate owners, both in the countryside and towns, registered in the National Census of 1895.


(1) This fact is pointed out by most contemporary observers, especially MacCann (1853), Daireux (1888), Gibson (1893), Murray (1919), Nevin (1946).

(2) TN: in Argentina and Chile, an ‘estancia’ is a property dedicated mainly to cattle raising, and ‘estanciero’ is its owner or principal. Neither farmer nor rancher are accurate renderings of the meaning of Spanish ‘estanciero,’ because they either imply a smaller area of land (farm), or are used exclusively for cattle raising (ranch) [cf. María Moliner, 1998]. This word will not be translated throughout the text but it will be highlighted with quotation marks.

(3) MacCann (1853), especially p. 25, Latham (1868), especially pages 27-31, Daireaux (1888), especially pages 310-311, Bulfin in: Murray (1919), pages 190-195.

(4) Cf. MacCann (1853), Murray (1919), Mulhall (1875), Daireaux (1888), Hutchinson (1860), Latham (1868).

(5) Panettieri (1965), chapter IV

(6) TN: Irish immigrants in Argentina (as well as in Australia and New Zealand), used the term camp instead of other terms indicating countryside and rural holding. In the Argentina case, it is a borrowed word from the Spanish ‘campo,’ and it is widely recorded by many Irish-Argentine writers and newspapers (Ussher, James M., ‘Father Fahy’, 1951; The Hiberno Argentine Review, 1907; The Southern Cross 25-01-1935, P.J.R.’s ‘Jim Kelly’s Rancho. A Christmas Camp Story’; Delaney, Juan José, ‘The Language and Literature of the Irish in Argentina,’ 2000). We will use camp in the same way throughout this text.

(7) According to the type of contract, the shepherd’s share may have been represented by a half (‘mediería’), a third (‘tercería’) or a quarter (‘cuartería’) of the results.

(8) Among others, cf. Beaufreton, M., ‘Share Tenancy in France,’ in: International Review of Agricultural Economics, new series, Vol. II, 1924, pp. 317-342; Marx, C., ‘El Capital,’ México, 1972, vol. 3 p. 743; Sereni, E., ‘Il Capitalismo nelle campagne,’ 1860-1900, Italia, 1947.

(9) Shepherd engaged in a ‘mediería’ contract, viz., partnership with the landowner to get half of the results.

(10) Among others, cf. Latham (1868), Rodríguez Molas (1975), Gorostegui de Torres (1972). For those immigrants arriving (especially from Italy) during the last decades of the 19th Century, sharecropping is also a regular form of incorporation into the rural production, yet focused on agriculture and cattle raising. However, during this second stage, the characteristics of sharecropping differ from the above-mentioned features, and gradually disappear by the end of the century.

(11) Among others, cf. Hutchinson (1860), Daireaux (1888), Seguí (1895).

(12) Olivera (1910), pp. 109-110.

(13) Chiaramonte (1971), p. 49.

(14) Olivera (1910), p. 110.

(15) Chiaramonte (1971), p.49.

(16) Gibson (1893), p. 126; Zeballos (1881-88); Mulhall (1875, 1885).

(17) TN: In English in the original.

(18) In 1830, whether as enfiteusis or as proprietorship, only 5,516 square leagues of land in the present Buenos Aires province were registered as nominally owned. Hence, two thirds of the territory was not legally occupied. Cf. Carretero, A., La propiedad de la tierra en la época de Rosas (Buenos Aires, 1972).

(19) TN: as the United States county is a political and administrative unit of a state, ‘partido’ is a political and administrative division of an Argentinean province. Throughout this translation, we will use both county and ‘partido.’

(20) Coghlan (1975).

(21) TN: ‘escrituras de compra-venta’ in the original Spanish version.

(22) TN: ‘registros de Contribución Directa’ in the original Spanish version.

(23) TN: ‘Censos Nacionales de Población’ in the original Spanish version.


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