How many people know that the man who raised the Irish flag over the GPO at Easter 1916 was from Argentina? I didn’t know this until I was told it earlier this month in Buenos Aires by Guillermo MacLoughlin, one of the leading members of the Irish community in Argentina and editor of its newspaper, the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross, founded 140 years ago – making it the oldest Irish newspaper in the world outside Ireland – has a particular resonance for me: on the day I started my first journalistic job in the old Hibernia magazine in Dublin in September 1972 I found it lying on my desk.
That 1916 rebel’s name was Eamon Bulfin, and he was the son of William Bulfin, who arrived in Buenos Aires in 1884, and was to become a close friend of Arthur Griffith, the best-selling author of Rambles in Eirinn and an early editor of the Southern Cross. The Bulfins were quite a family. Eamon’s uncle was Lord Mayor of Dublin and his cousin was Sir Edward Bulfin, a First World War general. His sister Catalina would go on to marry Sean MacBride, old IRA leader, co-founder of Amnesty International and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Irish-Argentines are the forgotten people of the Irish diaspora, even though more than half a million Argentines now claim some Irish ancestry. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but it is believed that around 40,000 Irish people emigrated to Argentina from the 1820s to the end of the 19th century. The largest number came from Westmeath, Longford and Wexford, largely because the pioneers of this movement were three entrepreneurial farmers from those counties. These were not the destitute Irish who fled from famine and poverty to the cities of North America. They were often the younger, non-inheriting sons of strong farmers, keen to make their fortunes on the broad pampas where the indigenous people had been cleared (in wars described as genocidal by some contemporary historians) and huge tracts of fertile land were going cheap as a result.
And make their fortunes some of them did. Many went as shepherds and took full advantage of the extraordinary ‘halves’ system under which they could look after large flocks of sheep and after a few years, when they had increased their number four and fivefold, divide the flock 50-50 between shepherd and owner. An interesting picture of the Irish community appeared in one of the earliest editions of the Southern Cross in January 1875. “In no part of the world is the Irishman more esteemed and respected than in the province of Buenos Aires, and in no part of the world have Irish settlers made such large fortunes. They possess 1,500,000 acres of the best quality land. They own about 5,000,000 sheep. This vast fortune has been acquired in just a few years.”
Irish ganaderos (ranchers) were thick on the ground in that province. Here is a list of names from a district with the wonderful name Exaltacion de la Cruz, taken from the 1869 census and reprinted in the Southern Cross: Patricio Kelly, Miguel Mally, Cristian Lynch, Juan Lennon, Guillermo Maguire, Diego Gaynor, Eufrasio Kenny, Tomás Dowling, Santiago Scully and nearly 50 others. As the names suggest, they integrated relatively quickly with their Spanish-speaking neighbours, so that today many Irish-Argentines speak little English and are only vaguely aware of their ancestry. Their strong Catholicism remains, cemented in particular by Father Anthony Fahy from Loughrea, Co Galway, who arrived in 1844 and was to become one of those formidable 19th century priests who built powerful Irish Catholic communities in so many parts of the world. Interestingly, his work was supported by a Protestant banker and merchant, Thomas Armstrong, from Offaly, who would become a member of Argentina’s wealthy upper class.
Fahy and Armstrong were among many people from Irish backgrounds who were to make their mark in Argentine society over the next 170 years. The list is a long one and makes for impressive reading (see the biography section of the excellent Society for Irish Latin American Studies website for a preliminary taster). I have room here to single out only a few particularly fascinating examples.
Probably the most famous Argentine in recent world history was the revolutionary leader Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. His grandmother was Ana Lynch, born in San Francisco to an Irish-Argentine family whose roots went back to a clan of 17th century Irish ‘Wild Geese’ merchants from Seville and Cadiz. The most famous Irish-Argentine of the 19th century was the founder of its navy during the 1810-1818 war of independence against Spain, William Brown from Foxford, Co Mayo.
In the fractured and often violent world of Argentine politics there have been people of Irish ancestry on every side. Dalmacio Velez Sarsfield was the 19th century lawyer and politician who drew up the new nation’s civil code, much of which is still in use today (he has also given his name to one of Buenos Aires’ top football clubs). The only Irish-Argentine President was General Edelmiro Julian Farrell, a military appointee in the mid-1940s, whose Vice-President was Colonel Juan Peron, soon to become a benevolent dictator of international renown. Rodolfo Walsh was a left-wing revolutionary, investigative journalist and outspoken critic of the 1976-1983 military regime which murdered or violently ‘disappeared’ an estimated 13,000 leftist guerrillas and other political opponents in the so-called ‘dirty war’ during that period: he was shot down in the street in a military ambush in 1977. José (Joe) Baxter, from an Anglo-Irish Protestant family background, was another revolutionary: his almost unbelievable trajectory led from a far right nationalist organisation in the 1950s to Cuba, the Tupamaros urban guerrillas in Uruguay, training in North Vietnam, various armed Trotskyist groups and death under an assumed name in a plane crash outside Paris in 1973.
People of Irish ancestry have also distinguished themselves in more benign sectors of society. Juan P. Garrahan (died 1965) was one of modern Argentina’s most distinguished physicians and paediatricians, and its National Children’s Hospital is named after him. Maria Elena Walsh (1930-2011) was an internationally-known singer, poet and children’s writer who has been compared with Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen. Carlos McAllister is the latest in a long line of celebrated sports stars of Irish background: he was formerly a star footballer with Argentina and Boca Juniors and now represents La Pampa province in the national parliament. Did you know that Argentina also have a cricket team? In 2007 they reached the final of the World Cricket League Division 3 tournament in Australia under the captaincy of a handsome young man called Esteban ‘Billy’ McDermott. [In 2013 Argentina sent a gaelic football team to their first ever international tournament, coming second, and are now looking forward to the GAA world championships in Abu Dhabi next month].
The contribution of the Irish to Britain, the US and Australia is well known. But let’s not forget the high achievements of the world’s fifth largest Irish community in the huge, complex and sophisticated country that is Argentina.