The alarm clock rang. My consciousness slowly roused. 5:30, the illuminated digital figures hazily proclaimed. I steadily regained my faculties after what amounted to about four hours sleep. What in God’s name was I doing getting up at this unearthly time? I was supposed to be on vacation.
Forty-five minutes later, following a tepid shower and a breakfast consisting of coffee and croissants, I was hastily making my way down Calle Peru heading towards San Telmo, the Buenos Aires barrio that is the home of tango. The purpose of my early-morning excursion however was not to sample the sensual and emotive environment of the milonga. I had arranged to meet up with a group called the Asociación Argentino — Irlandesa de Pilar who were making a memorial pilgrimage to Capitan Sarmiento, rural Argentina, to honor a deceased Passionist priest called Fr. Fidelis Rush.
My presence on the trip was initiated the evening before over dinner with Luis Delaney, an Irish-Argentine whose grandparents hailed from County Cork. Luis, who works as an administrator for the Buenos Aires-based Irish newspaper The Southern Cross, told me of the upcoming trip and I was soon in contact with a lady by the name of Patsy Doyle to whose house I was now headed on this Saturday morning to rendezvous with the group.
You don’t have to walk far in Buenos Aires to notice an Irish influence. Whilst briskly making my way toward San Telmo I happened upon a small square called Plazoleta Rodolfo Walsh at the intersection of Calle Peru and Avenida Chile. The Rodolfo Walsh to which this humble corner of Buenos Aires refers was a notable writer and left-wing activist during the 1960s and 1970s. The grandson of famine immigrants, Walsh proudly described himself as “an Irish descendant on all sides.” In the early 1960s he followed in the footsteps of perhaps the most famous Irish-Argentine, Che Guevara, and moved to Cuba where he worked as a journalist for the state-run news agency Prensa Latina. By the mid-1970s Walsh had taken the decision that would ultimately lead to his premature death: he followed his daughter in joining the Monteneros, a left wing armed revolutionary group in Argentina. In March 1977 a military death squad gunned down Rodolfo Walsh not far from the point at which I now stood.
Strolling in the glorious warmth of a late spring morning I reached Patsy’s apartment block on Avenida Carlos Calvo a couple of minutes early. Noticing a white Ford minibus waiting outside the building, I didn’t know whether to board the vehicle or press the apartment buzzer. My mind was made up for me when I heard an elderly woman call from the van. “Young man, you can get on board, you know. We won’t bite you.” Rather embarrassed I sheepishly boarded and greeted the two ladies already seated. They introduced themselves as Maura Bannon and Mafia Egan and both of them had grandparents that came from County Westmeath.
Patsy arrived with her daughter and granddaughter soon after. We made two more stops in the city to pick up Jose Mafia Kenny and Kate Rush, the sister of the late Ft. Fidelis, both of whom can trace their ancestry back to Westmeath.
What astonished me most about the Irish-Argentines was their almost faultless Irish accents. I had heard accounts of Irish-Argentines who spoke English with an Irish accent yet it still took me aback. Some had only traveled to Ireland once or twice but their accents were as clear and as correct as that of any Irish person from the midlands.
Irish immigration to Argentina is a remarkable feature of a dynamic Diaspora. However, what stands out in this particular Hibernian population movement is the association it has with the small midland county of Westmeath. From the young auburn-haired Irish dance student to an administrator at Buenos Aires’ British Cemetery, most of the Irish-Argentines that I met on my two-week stay in the country had family ties to Westmeath. It is estimated that around 60 percent of the Irish that settled in Argentina came from that county. Natives of Ballynacarrigy, Ballymore and Moyvore in the Longford/Westmeath border region are as likely to have relatives in Buenos Aires, Arrecifes or San Antonio de Areco as they are to have them in New York, London or Sydney.
As the minibus steadily made progress through Buenos Aires’ northern barrios and on to Route 8 headed west, I began conversing with Patsy and Maura about their experiences. I discovered that Patsy, the only individual on the bus whose ancestors did not come from Westmeath, and I had a connection. Her maternal grandfather, Matthew Carmody, came from Kilkee, a humble, seaside town on County Clare’s Atlantic coastline. My paternal grandmother was from the village of Querin, just outside the selfsame town, and I have no doubt that she would have known the Carmody family.
Both Patsy’s and Maura’s families emigrated from Ireland in the mid- to late nineteenth century. On reaching Argentina they settled in the vast agricultural region to the west of Buenos Aires. Like the Welsh in Patagonia, the Irish came to Argentina to continue a rural existence that they had strived and struggled for in the old country. Patsy’s parents migrated to Buenos Aires in the 1920s where her father worked on the railways, which was then a very British institution. She recalled how the railway management had requested that her father, Gerard Doyle, obtain a British passport as he ascended the company ladder, to which he had replied “You can stuff your British passport, I’m an Irishman.”
Patsy explained that growing up in Buenos Aires had been an altogether confusing situation for her. “I went to an Anglican primary school, a Catholic secondary school, had Irish parents and spoke English as a first language in a Spanish-speaking city…I suppose you could say that I was pretty mixed up from the start.”
We made one further pickup in the town of Pilar midway between the Argentine capital and our destination. Once past Pilar the landscape became very flat, the topography reminiscent of the great plains of the American Midwest.
Many Irish immigrants came to this area and amassed fortunes farming the lush, fertile land of the pampas. The Gahan, Duggan, Lalor, Gaynor and Cavanagh families, to name but a few, owned vast estancias (ranches) and became very influential not only in the locality but in Argentine society. Driving through the area you can clearly see the Irish influence. There are shamrocks and clovers emblazoned across signs, Irish surnames on business advertisements and road-signs that tell you the distances to the towns of Duggan and Gahan. Coming across these signs I began to think more about the Irish immigrants who came to this part of the world. I found it hard to imagine why people from small villages in West-meath, Longford, Cork, Clare and Wexford came to Argentina. It was easy to comprehend why people went to the U.S., England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; there were language and colonial links to these places. Argentina on the other hand was a Spanish-speaking country at the opposite end of the world. What made them make the trip was the opportunity to own their own land.
In the town of San Antonio de Areco we pulled in at a service station where we met up with three men, Kevin Farrell (President of the Irish-Argentine Associations), Gerry Rush (nephew of Fr. Fidelis) and Johnnie Rattigan, who were also going to the memorial.
Johnnie, an extremely affable man, looks considerably younger than his 78 years. Although his grandparents left Westmeath for Argentina in the 1890s he still maintains good links with Ireland through his Wexford-born wife. Johnnie explained to me that this rural area around San Antonio de Areco, Capitan Sarmiento, Arrecifes, Pilar, Lincoln and Carmen de Areco was one of the main focal points of Irish immigration in Argentina. The region, known as Capital Federal, was second only to Buenos Aires in terms of its Irish population. By 1895 nearly 3,000 Irish or Argentineans of Irish descent had settled in the region.
In direct contrast to their homeland, many Irish acquired vast amounts of land. James Gaynor, a native of Westmeath, owned 90,000 hectares of land whilst Eduardo Maguire’s land added up to 85,000 hectares. The Longford-born Duggan brothers Michael, Thomas and Daniel arrived in Argentina in the mid- to late- 1850s. By the 1890s their leather and wool company “Duggan Brothers” possessed 300,000 hectares in the province. One of their estancias contained 65,000 hectares and took four days to fully cover.
Just outside the town of San Antonio we turned off the main highway and on to a country road. Along the sides of the road we passed gauchos mounted on their horses. I wondered how many of these Argentine cowboys had family links to Ireland. After about thirty minutes the driver turned off the road and into the grounds of the Passionist monastery. Now defunct, the Monastery of St. Paul’s Retreat used to be the main provider of education and religious teaching in the area. Catholic, particularly Irish Catholic estancia owners and workers, sent their children here as boarders to be educated by the Passionist priests.
I strolled in and around the monastery searching for examples of Irish influence. It didn’t take long. In the priest’s graveyard I noticed numerous gravestones in the shape of Celtic Crosses and names such as Juan O’Carolan, Patricio Lennon and Eugenio Walsh. I assumed that these men were born in Argentina because of their Hispanic forenames.
On either side of the entrance hall to the chapel there are memorials to two Irishmen. One is in memory of Rev. John Baptist Leahy who was born in County Kerry in 1845 and who died at sea in June 1882. The other is to William Farrell who died in 1895 and in whose memory the chapel was erected by his father, Patrick.
Gerry Rush called us into the chapel for the commencement of the memorial. The cooler temperature inside offered a refreshing respite to the uncompromising pampas heat outside. The thick stone walls provided a simple but effective form of air-conditioning. Architecturally, the chapel is an outstanding piece of workmanship. An exquisitely tiled central aisle leads up the nave to the chancel where an imposing stone arch signals the entrance to the altar. Murals of saints and the crucifixion of Christ adorn the walls together with impressive sculpted statues. In the upper right hand corner of the church Gerry, Johnnie and Kevin placed a well-crafted wooden plaque on the wall in memory of Fr. Fidelis. It says simply `Father Fidelis Rush. Homenaje de la communidad argentino-irlandesa a cinco anos de su fallecimiento, 15-11-2002′ (A tribute from the Irish-Argentine community on the fifth anniversary of your death).
Gerry then began to say some words in Spanish about his uncle. From what I could make out, he described him as a humble man who had a very caring and considerate manner. He was a man who worked hard throughout his life for his family, his parishioners, the poor and the Irish-Argentine community. Then looking at Fidelis’ sister Kate, seated in the front row, Gerry said that her brother continues to be loved and missed by all those who knew him.
So who was Fr. Fidelis? The group could not speak highly enough of him. Maura described him as “a wonderful and generous man.” Born into a Westmeath family in December 1914, Fidelis was ordained into the Passionist Order in 1940. As well as his priestly duties he worked hard at keeping the various Irish-Argentine groups in close contact with Ireland.
When the memorial finished we adjourned to the main hall of the monastery for food and refreshments. The small staff who carry out the upkeep of the monastery prepared a meal of beef ravioli in tomato sauce which we washed down with the ubiquitous Malbec red wine. Not expecting a culinary masterpiece, I was pleasantly surprised by the standard of the meal. In true Irish fashion stories were exchanged around the dinner table and songs, both Irish and Argentine, were sung. They questioned me about the political situation in Ireland and expressed pleasure when I suggested that the on-going peace process, despite the odd stutter, was on the way to achieving a lasting settlement.
It was also around the table that I learned of the discontent that many in the community were feeling towards the Irish government with regard to Argentina’s current economic crisis.
The devaluation of the Argentine currency, the peso, has crippled the economy and the only hope for the country’s youth is to leave. Maura and Patsy mentioned that their grandchildren had visited the Irish embassy in Buenos Aires with the hope of seeking residence in Ireland. They were refused entry visas even though they could prove ancestral links.
I had heard a similar account the previous night at the apartment of a woman called Mabel Ryan. Her granddaughters Sheila (20) and Eileen Geoghagen (18) had also been refused visas. They had tried to claim Irish citizenship through their great-grandparents but were refused. The Irish government will only issue visas to those with Irish parents or grandparents.
The elder members of the Irish community are furious. They point to the fact that both Sheila and Eileen are well-educated young people of Irish descent, and that a country they had looked up to and respected is shunning them in a time of need. They reason, with some justification, that Argentina had provided relief and shelter during Ireland’s periods of hardship, and now the favor should be returned by an economically-thriving Ireland.
After dinner it was time to return to Buenos Aires. But first, I took one last stroll around the grounds of the monastery. In the late afternoon heat I began to reflect on those Irish who came to this part of the world. Although I have always respected the ability of the Irish to adapt to any given situation, those who ventured, settled and prospered in these parts must surely have been a special breed.
I felt an overwhelming pride in the courage displayed by those early Irish settlers in coming to this Spanish-speaking country so far removed from any other area of Irish migration. They were true pioneers. ♦