Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region: Irish Influences

By Hugh FitzGerald Ryan


Wanderers Football Club, 1902
(Montevideo Wanderers)

The Bank of London opened a branch in Montevideo in 1863, and in 1865 Montevideo Waterworks was set up by a British company to provide a source of clean drinking water, encouraging more British settlement and investment. Thousands of comparatively affluent Brazilian troops passing through Montevideo during the Paraguayan war [5] brought about a large injection of cash into the economy. The first railways were also built at this time. In 1876, during a period of political stability and prosperity, Uruguay purchased English railway equipment and a further influx of British immigrants took place. The employees of these enterprises all gravitated towards the sports clubs already in existence or founded their own along similar lines. Names of football clubs such as the Carmelo Wanderers are evidence of the direct influence of the ingleses in their foundation. President Pedro Varela in 1875, noted for his progressive and egalitarian education policies, remarked that he felt like the manager of a great estancia, the owner of which lived in London. Indeed the impact of the British community would in less than two decades manifest itself in the highest echelons of political power, when in 1894 a Scottish-Argentine, Duncan Stewart was appointed interim President. 

A cricket match against Buenos Aires Cricket Club, scheduled for 1864, was postponed until 1868. The first international competition of its kind in South America was delayed various significant events: the Cruzada Libertadora of Venancio Flores; the overthrow of the Blanco government; the massacres at Paysandú; the war against Paraguay; the assassination of Flores; the subsequent assassination of Berro; and a massive outbreak of cholera on both sides of the River Plate. 

From 1863 to 1865, Flores, with troops from Brazil and Argentina, raised a revolt against Berro and the Blancos and ravaged the country north of the Río Negro. He was responsible for the massacre of the citizens of Paysandú and the destruction of their town. He wrested power from the Blancos and began to roll back the reforms instigated by Berro. In this he was supported by the Catholic Church and conservative elements in society and in the military. He involved Uruguay with Brazil and Argentina in a war against Paraguay that resulted in the devastation of that country.

On 19 February 1965, during a heatwave and with an outbreak of cholera in the city, Berro, regarded as a man of peace and reconciliation, staged a coup, beginning with the assassination of Flores and seizure of the government buildings. The young son of Flores came to do reverence to the decapitated body of his father. Tearfully he embraced his former mentor and friend, Bernardo Berro, drew a pistol from his coat and shot him dead. There followed a reign of terror, partly precipitated by an English telegraph operator in the new Proudfoot Telegraph Company, who confused ‘vénganse’ (come!) with ‘vénguense’ (take revenge!), in a message to military commanders. The episode exhibited to perfection all the elements of Shakespearian tragedy, especially the dramatic unities of time and place. The heatwave abated. The executions petered out and play was resumed. In calmer times both clubs played the first international rugby match in the region in 1874.

Montevideo Cricket Club

The first football match in Uruguay was played between a team from MVCC and a team from a visiting British ship in 1878. The story of the expansion of Association Football in South America is well known. The game of rugby was eclipsed by the increasing passion for fútbol.

English cricket clubs were the incubators of rugby’s development in the River Plate region (Richards 2007:54). Rugby later gained a firm foothold in the clubs established by the English schools during the 1870s and 1880s. Significantly, these schools also enrolled Uruguayans and Argentineans, integrating the colleges and their sports into the mainstream of Uruguayan and Argentinean life and leading to the formation of clubs throughout both countries. The game advanced rapidly in Argentina and in 1899 the River Plate Rugby Football Union was formed, later to be Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR). However, the club had to wait until 1987 to be affiliated to the international board (IRB), when they were invited to compete in the inaugural World Cup. ‘Rugby criollo’ was introduced in 1949 at the Carrasco Polo Club (Richards 2007: 164). Uruguay did not form its own union until 1951. Appropriately the first president of the union was Carlos E. Cat, a leading figure in Montevideo Cricket Club, who had played rugby for San Isidro Club in Argentina. There would also appear to be an Irish link with the foundation of the Uruguay Rugby Union, as its first honorary secretary was a Mr D McCormack. The game is constituted on an amateur basis in both countries.

Irish Involvement

Two events of significance occurred in Montevideo in May 1955. Firstly, the last tram of the crumbling British transport system rattled along the route from central Montevideo to Punta Carretas, a suburb on the coast. Britain had amassed large debts to Uruguay for the supply of foodstuffs during the Second World War and arguably, a debt of honour for its assistance in the destruction of the German warship Admiral Graf Spee at the outbreak of hostilities. Drained by the cost of the war, Britain, in the grip of rationing, harsh winters, poor harvests and facing the imminent loss of its Empire, could not or would not pay the debt. Instead, British interests were persuaded to sign over ownership of the rattle-trap, ill-maintained transport infrastructure to the Uruguayan state. Most of the system was decommissioned forthwith. This was perhaps a shrewd deal for Britain, but definitely not for cricket! [6] Secondly, a small group of Irish Christian Brothers opened a school at Carrasco, a leafy suburb on the outskirts of the city. This school, Stella Maris, was to attract worldwide attention in 1972, following the crash of Flight F-227 of the Uruguayan Air Force, high in the Andes.

The Irish Christian Brothers, colloquially known as ‘the Brothers’, were founded in County Waterford, Ireland, by Edmund Ignatius Rice, a devout Roman Catholic and philanthropic businessman in that city. He opened his first school for the education of poor boys in a stable in Waterford in 1802 with the support of the local Roman Catholic bishop Thomas Hussey. Using his own money to provide food, clothing and books for the students and the teachers who came to join him in his work, and having overcome many difficulties, the order of the Irish Christian Brothers was finally sanctioned by Rome in 1821. It was designated as a religious congregation of men, as opposed to ordained clergy. By this time they had founded schools in many parts of the country, under the patronage of local bishops (Cullen & O’ Toole 1979).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

FitzGerald Ryan, Hugh, 'The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region: Irish Influences' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 29-37. Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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