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Ireland and Latin America

By Edmundo Murray


Part 1 - Part 2

Irish Landlords in Argentina and their Workers (1840s-1880s)

John J. Murphy and family (ca. 1900).

The arrival in Buenos Aires of 114 Irish immigrants onboard the William Peile on June 25, 1844 may be viewed as the beginning of the most important emigration from Ireland to Latin America and, indeed, to any Spanish-speaking country. The Peile emigration, though arranged by Irish merchants in Buenos Aires, was not an organized colonization scheme. To the successful integration of the immigrants followed spontaneous chains attracting family members, neighbors, and friends in Ireland.

Although the number of emigrants to Argentina is still debated by historians, the latest estimates include 45-50,000 emigrants during the one hundred years ending in 1929. At least 50 per cent of the emigrants did not stay in the country and sooner or later re-emigrated to other destinations, most notably the US, Australia, or back to Ireland. Arduous working conditions, accidents, and epidemics increased significantly the death rate among those who settled in Argentina, resulting in a 10-15,000 Irish-born population who survived, founded families, and left descendants who made up the nucleus of the Irish-Argentine community. Among the latter group, the success ratio measured in ownership of their means of production was disproportionate compared to other communities of the Irish Diaspora, though immigrants in Argentina from other European regions in the same period (especially French-Basque and Catalonian) were equally successful.

Most of the candidates to emigrate were the children of tenant farmers in the Irish midlands (counties Westmeath 43 per cent, Longford 15 per cent, Offaly 3 per cent) and Co. Wexford (16 per cent). They were lured by the possibility – often imaginary – of becoming owners of 4,000 acres in Argentina instead of being tenants of 40 acres in Ireland and, therefore, belonging to a fanciful Latin American landed gentry instead of to the Irish farmers' circle. Most of the emigrants in this period were young men in their early twenties, and later young women, from families with Roman Catholic background. Upon arrival they were hired by British, Irish, or Hispano-Creole estancieros (ranchers) to work in their holdings, and sometimes to mind their flocks of sheep. Sheep-farming and the impressive increase of wool international prices in 1830-80, together with convenient sharecropping agreements with landowners, allowed a substantial part of the Irish immigrants to establish themselves securely in the countryside, and progressively acquire sheep and, finally, land. A few of them, particularly in 1850-70, managed to acquire large tracts of land from provincial governments in areas gained from Indian control or beyond the frontier. However, the vast majority of the Irish rural settlers were ranch hands, and shepherds on halves or on thirds, and never had access to landownership. Stories circulated in Ireland of poor emigrants who became wealthy landowners in the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. These stories, frequently exaggerated, were sometimes fuelled by those who failed to achieve a successful settlement in Argentina, but did not want to recognize it at home.

Typically, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, members of the Argentine landowner class with Irish origins perceived themselves as English and their identity was frequently balanced towards British rather than Irish traditions. Likewise, the middle and lower classes composed of shepherds and ranch hands in the countryside, and servants and laborers in the cities, began to be attracted by Irish nationalist appeals from the church and the press. The existence in Buenos Aires of two newspapers owned by Irish-born people, The Standard and The Southern Cross, may be viewed as a consequence of this differentiated identities connected to diverse social groups.

Nationalism in Ireland and in South America (1880s-1930s)

The Southern Cross, 22 March 1912

The massive European emigration to Argentina in 1880-1920 was an incentive to attract further emigration from Ireland. However, the failure of a government colonization scheme from Ireland in 1889 known as the "Dresden Affair" put an end to other official initiatives. Irish emigrants to Argentina in this period usually came from urban areas in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, and Limerick, or from cities in England or the British empire. Except from those of the Dresden Affair (who were mostly laborers and servants), the emigrants in this period were professionals, technicians or administrative employees hired by railway companies, banks, or meat-packing plants, and several were from families with a Church of Ireland background. They rapidly integrated into the Anglo-Argentine community, following their social and economic patterns, while some of them actively worked to support Irish nationalism.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, most Irish families were living in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, and Córdoba, as well as in Entre Ríos, Mendoza, and in distant Patagonia and Falklands-Malvinas Islands. The trend to move from the camp (sheep-farmers' lingo for countryside) to the cities was led by the wealthiest families, thus imitating the residence patterns of the Argentine landed elite. A majority of the Argentine-born children of Irish immigrants spoke English as their mother tongue and learnt Spanish at the school. Those who were bilingual English-Spanish had a linguistic advantage and were often employed by British and later US American companies. Their social activities were shared with Irish or British relations, being horseracing and later rugby-football, cricket, and hurling the most popular athletic activities for men, and lawn tennis for women.

After the years of the World War I (in which some Irish Argentines fought in British regiments), there was a new peak of emigration from Ireland to Argentina, particularly in the period during and after the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21 and the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. However, the financial crisis of 1929 as well as conflicts and political and social catastrophe in Europe and later in Latin America were serious barriers to emigration. After 1930 Irish emigration to Argentina virtually came to a halt. Many Irish Argentines did rather well out of the World War II. Some thousands of Anglo Argentines (and a few Irish Argentines) joined the British armed forces, vacating jobs with British companies which needed to be filled by bilingual English-Spanish speakers.

Paradoxically, Irish nationalism in Argentina represented a hindrance to new immigrants who did not want to be identified with chaos and turmoil in Ireland, but rather with a perceived notion of British organization and working habits. Furthermore, the new-rich Irish of Argentina, and particularly their Argentine-born sons and daughters, did not want to be considered by the anglophile Argentine elite as belonging to the same circles of their poor relatives in Ireland. A social hiatus arose between the Irish in Argentina and the Irish in Ireland, which gradually weakened the links among members of the same communities – even of the same families – in both sides of the Atlantic. In other countries of the region the British commercial and investment predominance was gradually occupied by US companies and diplomacy. By the 1920s most of the families with Irish surnames in Latin America were considered – and considered themselves – Brazilians, Chileans, Mexican and others rather than Irish.

Society and State-building: Diplomatic, Religious, and Trade Links (1930s to date)

There have been some Irish diplomats gaining experience in Latin America before 1930, including Robert Gore in Montevideo and Buenos Aires in the 1850s, Thomas Hutchinson in Rosario in the 1860s, the Irish-Americans Martin MacMahon and Patrick Egan who represented the US in Paraguay in the 1860s and in Chile in 1889-93 respectively, and Daniel R. O'Sullivan and the Irish patriot Roger Casement in Brazil in 1906-11.

The first diplomatic envoy of Ireland to Latin America was Buenos Aires-born Eamonn Bulfin, who began working in Argentina in March 1920 after his participation in the Easter Rising and further banishment from the British Isles. Bulfin established a contact network in South America and started an Irish Fund. In 1921, two of Ireland's eight diplomats, Bulfin and Laurence Ginnell, were based in Latin America. Patrick J. Little arrived in 1922, being the first representative of the Irish Free State. The establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Latin America had to wait until the end of the World War II. In 1947 Matthew Murphy was appointed as chargé d'affaires in Buenos Aires, with Lorenzo McGovern as the first Irish Argentine to be appointed to the Argentine mission in Dublin in 1955. Irish diplomatic missions were established in Brazil and Mexico in 1975 and 1977 respectively, and both countries opened embassies in Dublin in 1991. In other countries, ten honorary consuls of Ireland operate with the supervision of Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Mexico, and New York embassies.

One of the most recurrent goals of Irish trade missions in Latin America is to foster mutual economic links. However, Ireland is still an almost completely insignificant market for Latin America. The Irish exports to Latin America have been increasing over 60 per cent in 1996-2002. In this period, total Irish exports to Latin America averaged $711 million per annum, though being only one per cent of Ireland's total exports. Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Costa Rica are some of the major Latin American markets for Irish products. Imports from the region remained at less than one half of the exports (International Monetary Fund "Direction of Trade Statistics Yearbook 2003" pp. 270-71). Some Irish companies have performed well in Latin America. A note-worthy example is Fyffes, an importer of fruit from Jamaica, Belize, Surinam, Honduras, and Ecuador into Europe since the 1920s. Powdered milk is an Irish product frequently exported to Central and South America. Smurfit has subsidiaries manufacturing paperboard and packaging products in Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. Guinness Peat Aviation works with Latin American airlines in many countries. Travel and education are other aspects of the exchange, with a steady flow of boys and girls going to Ireland to boarding or day schools since the 1870s and, more recently, to study English as a foreign language. Genealogical travel has been exploited sometimes by Argentine and Irish travel agents, and in the 1970s Aer Lingus ran a weekly flight to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. In the latter years Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and the Caribbean islands are increasingly attracting Irish visitors.

Apart from the ever-present pseudo-Irish pubs in many Latin American cities, and the sporadic boom of Celtic music in Argentina and Brazil, very few manifestations of Irish popular culture have had much success in Latin America. University of São Paulo offers a postgraduate course on Irish literature since 1977. The Associação Brasileira de Estudos Irlandeses publishes the ABEI Journal: The Brazilian Journal of Irish Studies, edited by professors Munira H. Mutran and Laura P.Z. Izarra since 1999.

Irish Spiritan missionaries in Brazilian favelas, 2004

Quite apart from official diplomatic efforts and trade missions in the twentieth century, the most efficient Irish representatives in Latin America have been the religious missionaries. In many parts of Latin America, to be Irish means priests and nuns. Likewise, in Ireland a part of people's knowledge of Latin America is derived from notices from these missionaries circulated through churches. Furthermore, returning missionaries have had an impact on the Catholic church in Ireland as they seek to promote the new model of post-Second Vatican social church frequently associated with Latin America. The pioneering work of Fr Fahy and other Irish chaplains in nineteenth-century Argentina, Uruguay, and Falkland-Malvinas Islands was followed by religious orders. The Sisters of Mercy, and the Passionist and Pallotine fathers served the Irish community and followed the pattern of the Irish missionary movement elsewhere in the nineteenth century – following the Irish Diaspora or British colonization. Missionary work with Latin Americans was not established until 1951-52, when the Columbans opened parishes in Peru and Chile. Furthermore, lay people were sent to Bogotá in 1953 to establish the Legion of Mary. From Bogotá the work of the Legion extended to other parts of Colombia and then to Venezuela, Ecuador, and almost all countries of Latin America in subsequent years. The Redemptorists established in Brazil in 1960, the Kiltegans also in Brazil in 1963, the Irish Dominicans in Argentina in 1965, the Holy Ghosts in Brazil in 1967, and the Irish Franciscans in Chile and El Salvador in 1968. The St James Society has worked in Peru since 1958. Priests and sisters from Cork were sent to work in Trujillo as an institutional initiative of the diocese of Cork and Ross. One of these Cork missionaries was Fr Michael Murphy, who would later become bishop of Cork. The image of the Latin American church exercised a fascination among Irish people. In the early 1980s the US policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua occasioned widespread condemnation in Ireland. This culminated in the unprecedented wave of protests which greeted President Ronald Reagan when he visited Ireland in June 1984.

Gradually, in a process that for the Irish in Argentina and other countries in the region may have ended during the Falklands-Malvinas War of 1982, the Irish in Latin American countries began to perceive themselves as Argentines, Brazilians, Uruguayans, or Mexicans with Irish family names. A few among them held some distinct Irish family traditions. Present-day Latin Americans with Irish background are estimated by some in between 300,000 and 500,000 persons. Although some may be residents of Mexico and Central America, the northern part of South America, Uruguay, and Brazil, most live in Argentina. A vast majority among them do not speak English as their mother tongue nor keep the traditions brought from Ireland by their ancestors. Inter community marriage during the twentieth century has allowed most of the families to assert their local Latin American identities.

Nevertheless, perhaps seeking some kind of recognition of their Irish identity, in 2002 a group of about two thousand Irish Argentines submitted a petition to reside and work in Ireland to the Irish Justice minister John O'Donoghue. The petition, which was accompanied with a press campaign targeting Irish politicians and policy-makers did not obtain a favorable response from the Irish government. However, it is a demonstration that the links between Ireland and Latin America which were lost more than a century ago can still be reshaped to accommodate the actual needs of Irish-Latin Americans.

Attracting thousands from Latin America to Ireland, present-day successful Celtic Tiger economy imposes both a public perception of "best place to live" and a government policy of restrictive immigration. However, Argentines who have secured an Irish passport rarely use it to live in Ireland but rather in other EU countries. The one significant Latin American community in Ireland are Brazilians in counties Galway and Roscommon. Most come from the interior of the state of São Paulo and came with the experience of working in slaughterhouses in Brazil.


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Note: adapted from the author's article in Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics and History, Jim Byrne, Philip Coleman and Jason King (eds.) (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008), with kind permission of the publisher.

Part 1 - Part 2

Online published: 30 August 2005
Edited: 07 May 2009
Murray, Edmundo, 'Ireland and Latin America' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" November-December 2005 (www.irlandeses.org).

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2005

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