Limerick's Own Exile J. J. Scanlan Helped the Greening of Argentina

By Gerard Skehan
The Limerick Leader, 29 March 2003

St. Patrick's Day in downtown Buenos Aires. The Argentine Navy, clad from head to toe in dazzling white, line up in front of the Admiral William Brown monument and play an unusual brass rendition of Amhráin na bhFiann. It is late summer, and the weather is glorious.

Also present at this ceremony honouring the Irish founder of the Argentine navy are key members from the Irish Argentine community, the Irish Ambassador and representatives from the many Irish schools in Buenos Aires.

St Brendan's, a school founded by Limerick man John Joseph Scanlan 37 years ago, is most noticeably represented. Girls and boys of Saint Brendan's bear both the Irish and Argentine flags, and stand patiently through the band's medley of Irish tunes. John Scanlan's son and present-day owner of St Brendan's, Dr Juan Scanlan, keeps a watchful eye.

Judging by the expressions on most people's faces, this is a solemn duty rather than a pleasure. The real San Patricio celebrations kick-off well after midnight, when some of the cobbled streets of Buenos Aires are closed off for the occasion. The Saint's day has become hugely popular in Argentina over the past five years, and it is not only the country's sizeable Irish-Argentine community who celebrates. But for the moment, Dr Scanlan and his students have a whole afternoon of school ahead of them.

As soon as the ceremony finishes it is back to school they go. They clamber onto the school bus, and make their way through the treacherous traffic of central Buenos Aires to the saner and leafier enclave of Belgrano. The suburb of Belgrano shows no signs of the economic crash that devastated the country one year ago. Large houses, complete with high walls, security guards and perfectly manicured gardens, are the area's trademarks.

"For Argentine baptism laws I am Juan Patricio Scanlan, but everyone calls me John or John Patrick," explains Dr Scanlan, as he leads me up the steps of St Brendan's and through its trophy-festooned lobby. "My father, John Joseph Scanlan, was born in Limerick City in 1925. He joined the Christian Brothers when he finished school and he came to Argentihn Joseph Scanlan, was born in Limerick City in 1925. He joined the Christian Brothers when he finished school and he came to Argentina in 1948 to help the Brothers set up a school here in Buenos Aires." Dr. Scanlan's English is perfect, but he speaks with an unmistakably Argentine twang.

John Scanlan did not remain a brother for long, his son explains, "The Christian Brothers started Cardinal Newman College. That's where my father met my mother, a teacher. They fell in love and finally married and had two boys and two girls; myself, my sister Veronica, Maureen and Billy".

Marriage forcing him out of Brotherhood, John Scanlan Senior still wanted to teach; "So a moment came when he realised he wanted to carry on in schooling. He was a born teacher, so he decided he wanted to start his own School; an Argentine-Irish school, and that's how St Brendan's was born".

Thirty-seven years later, St Brendan's is now one of the most exclusive private schools in the city. As most of the Irish who immigrated to Argentina did very well for themselves, the Irish connection gives the school a certain prestige. Since the crash in 2001, however, Dr Scanlan says that some parents have had trouble paying the fees, and the school has had to "accommodate the situation with sensitivity".

Dr Scanlan is a frequent visitor to Ireland, and remembers a time when it seemed a poor country by comparison to Argentina. (At one stage, Argentina was the third richest country in the world); "I visited Ireland for the first time in 1975. Then I went in 1979. The third time was in 1986. It was a very grey, but easy-going place. When I went again in 2001 I saw how much the county had progressed. There was a lot of colour and strength - I just couldn't believe what I saw!"

He has only visited Limerick once, however, when the school's rugby team travelled to play Crescent Comprehensive (beating them 12-0!). While in Limerick, Dr Scanlan went in search of his ancestral home; "I had an address from my Aunt Josephine for the old family house. When I went there I saw a speed wash, a sort of automatic laundrette. It wasn't that I was disappointed or sad with the discovery, but I did think it was funny!

"I would have loved to have knocked on the door and said 'this is where I come from', but I took it with a lot of humour. It was an old house, but inside it was re-done, with a lot of machinery," he says.

Unfortunately Dr Scanlan can't remember where the building is located, and explains that "My father left his hometown at the age of 18 to study in England, in Cheshire, so his stay in Limerick wasn't very long. There are so many things I still don't know about the Limerick connection. I'm going to have to start emailing cousins," he says.

As for the bad press Limerick has been getting recently, Dr Scanlan seems blissfully unaware. When asked if he has heard about Limerick's perceived crime problem he seems quite surprised by the question; "Not only in Limerick, but in all of Ireland, I never felt unsafe. Not even through references have I heard about crime in Limerick. I didn't know that!" he says.

Summing up his view of the relationship between Ireland and Argentina, Dr Scanlan explains that "Argentine people are very fond of the Irish. The Irish are seen as the Latins of northern Europe, because we have the same blood, the same way of smiling and expressing ourselves. The same way to get annoyed, to get angry. That's why people here feel very comfortable with the Irish."


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Copyright © The Irish Argentine Historical Society. 2004