The Cork-born beauty who was the mistress of Francisco Solano López, president of Paraguay, and is today revered in Paraguay as a national heroine.
Ireland’s Potato Famine forced 10-year-old Eliza from her native Cork to France, then to Algeria where she endured a bad but brief marriage to a French doctor whom she later dismissed as “a minor beast.” She left her husband for Paris where the voluptuous Irish girl, reinvented herself as La Lincha and attracted rich and generous lovers. Refusing to be defined as a courtesan, she termed herself a “Grande Horizontale” and became a popular fixture in the salon of Mathilde Bonaparte. Eliza was 18 years old.
When she met Francisco Solano López, a somewhat trollish dictator from a country no one had ever heard of – Paraguay – Eliza found eternal love. The glamorous redhead captivated López with her green eyes and what was termed a “Junoesque” body. Eliza, in turn, was captivated by… something only she could see. López was in France buying armaments and scandalizing the French with his garish wardrobe and bad breath. Fancying himself the South American Napoleon, he ordered replicas of Napoleon’s crown to wear when he was anointed Emperor. Unfortunately, the dictator, unlike his idol, had no military training or strategic skills, a failing that became tragically evident 16 years later when López – and Paraguay – both lay dying, their insides gutted out by the Brazilian army.
In the beginning of their lives together he took his paramour, heavily pregnant with their first child, home to Paraguay. When her common-law mother-in-law met Eliza for the first time she shrieked and grabbed her heart while López’s sisters went for the smelling salts. Undaunted, Eliza began her new life as La Lincha (or the less flattering La Concubina Irlandesa), a trendsetter who alternately horrified and captivated her new country. The aristocracy, like the López family, continued to snub her, behavior that they would come to regret when, in later years, López had them all (his mother included) tortured and executed.
Though they never married, she bore him seven children, became the country’s largest landowner and amassed a fortune in gems including those she appropriated from the Virgin of Caapucú. This earned her a new and particularly nasty epithet, the Paraguayan Pompadour. Eliza, always prone to putting on airs, found Asunción a provincial backwater and was determined to bring Paris culture to the capital. But even after introducing theatre, opera, French cuisine and education for women, she was still considered a common Irish whore in too much silk with too many out-of-wedlock children.
While her style made her a much-imitated fashionista, her influence over López – who was quickly becoming more demented, paranoid and huffy (it was illegal for anyone to turn their back on him) – made her a much-feared consort. It was said that when the carriage carrying the now double-chinned Eliza (she blamed the French food) passed the Cathedral of Asunción, real tears streamed from the statue of the Madonna. For years historians accused Eliza of feeding López’s delusionary dreams of empire, convincing him to declare war on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-1870). She was now called the Lady Macbeth of Paraguay, a nod to her supposed role in the struggle that still remains the bloodiest in South America’s history: it was landlocked, pipsqueak Paraguay against three much larger powers. Within six years, 90 percent of the men and boys of Paraguay (and 50 percent of its women) were dead.
The country barely survived and a century later, Brazil apologized to Paraguay for genocide.
Ever loyal to her lover, she went into battle with him. Often pregnant, always dressed in finery, Eliza played her grand piano during battles. The music didn’t help. At the end of the war, López’s army was mostly naked child soldiers in false beards carrying sticks. He was killed along with their teen-age son. When their bodies were brought to Eliza, a Brazilian general ordered her to bury them both in the mud…with her bare hands. Several times she circled the dead bodies and, with the crowd looking on, she spat at the Brazilian officers.
Because she was a British citizen Eliza’s life was spared, but the provisional government took away all her property and shipped her back to France. It is generally believed she spent her final days secluded in deep mourning, though there were rumors she was seen driving around in Paris in a lacquered carriage, her hair (and that of her poodle) dyed an unbecoming red.
Revisionist history has been kind to both Eliza and López: sometime in the 1930s they made a seamless transition from tyrants to patriots. López became the icon of Paraguayan pride, a hero who resisted imperialism and fought to keep his country’s access to the sea. His body was moved to a shrine in Asunción and today his picture still hangs in the President’s office. Eliza, too, has emerged as a symbol of Paraguay’s fighting spirit. (Ironically, then-actress Eva Perón once played her on South American radio. Eva went on to be “Evita” and Eliza, the “Irish Evita.”) Her body was brought back to Paraguay where it now lies in the country’s largest and most lavish mausoleum. On top stands a statue of Eliza, holding two crosses against her bosom. In 1961, Eliza was officially declared the Joan of Arc of Paraguay, a name that, hopefully, will stick.