Salsa Verde: The Irish in Argentina
By Harry Dunleavy, Contributor
June / July 2014
On the bicentennial of Combate de Montevideo, May, 1814, which won the River Plate and secured Argentina’s independence from Spain, Harry Dunleavy writes about the considerable contributions made by Irish people, such as Admiral William Brown, in the formation and development of the country.
In the southeastern part of South America lies the wedge-shaped country of Argentina, the Land of Silver. Covering more than a million square miles, it is Latin America’s second largest country and one of the world’s richest in natural resources. Its topography varies from the snowcapped peaks of Tierra Del Fuego in the south to the arid, sunbaked regions of the north. The Spanish discovered it in 1515 and Juan Garay established the first settlement near the site of Buenos Aires in 1535.
To this land of contrasts and beauty went several thousand Irish men and women in days gone by. Of a mainly haphazard nature before the 1810 revolution against Spain, Irish immigration was afterwards predominantly organized by the Argentine authorities and Irish groups in the capital, Buenos Aires.
The first Irishman known to have set foot on Argentine soil was Tomas Fehilly, a Jesuit priest from Limerick, who arrived in 1556. After some time, he continued to Paraguay and died in Asuncion in 1625.
Irish immigration was a mere trickle for the next two centuries. However, several Irish names crop up in newspapers of the period. Many were clergy; others were likely descendants of the Wild Geese (Irish soldiers in the continental European armies) who came directly from Spain.
In 1762, a British expedition, which included many Irish, under the command of a Scotsman named McNamara entered the River Plate with the purpose of capturing Colonia, a Spanish settlement on the north side of the river in modern day Uruguay. The attempt failed and McNamara was killed. Many Irish serving in this British naval campaign were captured and sent to the interior, to Mendoza and Cordoba. Others were taken prisoner after the battle of Egmont in the Falkland Islands in June 1770. After short imprisonments, they showed no desire to leave Argentina and stayed on and made lives for themselves.
In 1806, the British, under Viscount Beresford, invaded Buenos Aires with the unwilling help of many Irishmen. (This was the first substantial group of Irishmen to arrive together in Argentina.) Beresford took the city, but most of the Irishmen deserted to the Spanish side. Prominent among them was Michael Skennon, who was in charge of a cannon in the Spanish attempt to recapture the city. Skennon stayed at his cannon long after his comrades had fallen back and was captured and executed (likely the first non-Spanish person to fall in the liberty of Buenos Aires), but the British were driven out.
Under General Whitelocke, the British made another attempt to capture the River Plate Provinces the following year, again with many officers and men, including an entire regiment of Irish birth, the 88th Connaught Rangers.
Commanders Duff and Vandeleur distrusted the loyalty of the Irish soldiers, which they had used as cannon fodder in the landing, and their fears proved to be well founded. After many desertions, Duff and Vandeleur surrendered.
The deserters helped the Spanish to repel Whitelocke. Another Irishman helping the Spanish was Thomas Craig, who had been shipwrecked off the Patagonian coast in 1798. He later served with the Argentine Navy under fellow Mayo man, Admiral William Brown against Spain and Brazil.
By the time the Spanish provinces of the River Plate rebelled against the mother country in 1810, Buenos Aires had an identifiable Irish community, many of them attracted to Argentina as a result of the trade that had long existed between southern and western Ireland and Spain and her colonies. That community distinguished itself in the War of Independence which ensued, none more so than William Brown, founder of the Argentine Navy.
Born in Foxford, County Mayo, in 1777, William Brown emigrated to North America with his father as a nine-year-old. He was orphaned soon afterwards and went to sea as a cabin boy, first visiting the River Plate in 1809. In 1811, in the midst of the War of Independence, he returned to the River Plate aboard his own ship, the Elosia.
In attempting to avoid the Spanish blockade, he ran his ship aground. But he succeeded in landing his valuable cargo and, with the proceeds, bought a new vessel, La Industria, which the Spanish captured. That was the turning point in his career. He was bent on retaliation.
Brown crewed two small boats with a few dozen English-speaking sailors and some Irishmen. Disguised as fishermen, they boarded a Spanish cruiser off Montevideo and overpowered its crew. This daring feat prompted the rebel leader, General Alvear, to commission Brown to organize a navy. By 1814, Brown was Commodore of the new fleet.
On March 8 of that year, Brown sailed out to capture the strategic island of Martin Garcia, which commanded the mouths of the mighty Paraña and Uruguay rivers. Brown’s capture of the island on St. Patrick’s Day was the major turning point in the war for Argentinean independence. It obviated previous setbacks by two other rebel leaders, Juan Bautista Azoparde at the naval battle of San Nicolas upstream on the Paraña River and Manuel Belgrano at the subsequent land battle of Tacuari.
The Spanish Fleet, under Jacinto Romarate, was set up in a circle, with support from canons and gunfire on the island. Brown decided to attack from the front and back while simultaneously sending three infantry divisions of 80 men ashore to silence the cannon and gunfire. Brown ordered the fife and drum band to play “Saint Patrick’s Day In The Morning” to increase the morale of the landing infantry. Initial setbacks on land and water were overcome and after five days of conflict, March 10-15, 1814, Brown had control of the island and, most importantly, the two major inland waterways.
Still a Lieutenant Colonel, Brown only had one major battle left before taking control of Montevideo and becoming an admiral.
The Battle of Buceo, just off Montevideo on the River Plate (Rio de la Plata, lasted three days from May 14 to May 17, 1814. The Spanish fleet under Admiral Sienna had eight ships while Brown had seven. Here, Brown’s skill and knowledge of one of the world’s widest rivers told its tale. After drawing the Spanish ships into shallow water away from the protection of shore batteries, five of them were burned, two were captured, and one surrendered. Brown himself was injured on May 16 when he was hit in the leg with a cannon ball. His losses amounted to four dead and one vessel destroyed.
Montevideo, which means “I see a mountain,” at the mouth of the River Plate was now at Brown’s mercy and surrender was the only option.
In 1825, war broke out between Argentina and Brazil, referred to as the Cisplatine War, over the Cisplatine province, which could roughly be equated with modern day Uruguay. The retired admiral was called back to duty and at the Battle of Juncal on the Uruguay River on February 24, 1827, he destroyed the Brazilian fleet. On June 11, 1827, his fleet routed the Brazilians at the Battle of Los Pozos on the River Plate near Buenos Aires. Peace was signed between the two nations on October 4, 1827, with the Treaty of Montevideo, bringing down the curtain on Brown’s military career, though he would go on to be director of Argentina’s National Bank and Governor of Buenos Aires Province.
In 1847, he returned to his native Foxford in Mayo. But Argentina was in Brown’s blood. and after four months, he returned to Buenos Aires, where he died ten years later.
After the war, the Irish began to filter out of Buenos Aires into the surrounding countryside where they took up sheep farming. Immigration from Ireland, particularly from Westmeath and Wexford, increased dramatically under new land schemes, and the new arrivals also went into sheep farming, with several becoming millionaires in the process. When Cavanman Peter Sheridan died in 1844 at the age of 52, his ranch, Los Galpones, in the Canueles district, boasted 10,000 sheep, 8,000 cattle, and 2,000 horses.
In 1848, a Dublin Protestant named McCann set up an agency in Buenos Aires to bring out emigrants for sheep farming. The passage cost £10 if paid in Ireland and £15 if paid after arrival. There were many takers.
In 1862, President Mitre of Argentina set up an Irish agricultural colony on a large tract of land at Bahia Blanca. It failed due to the lack of a railway and a shortage of supplies. The last big attempt at organized immigration from Ireland began in 1887, when two wealthy sheep farmers, Buckley O’Meara and John Dillon, went to Ireland to recruit. Unlike previous immigrants, these new recruits were from the cities – mainly Cork and Limerick. The City of Dresden sailed from Cork in 1889 with 1,800 aboard. They settled Naposta in Buenos Aires province. Most were unsuited to a life of farming and the colony collapsed within a year. Many of them ended up in the city of Buenos Aires, but some resettled on estates owned by Irishmen.
Before the 1810 revolution, most Irish immigrants were men. Afterwards, half of the new arrivals were women, and settlements began to spring up that were almost exclusively Irish. Countless Irish societies were formed, the first being the Irish National Society of Buenos Aires. The principal diversions seem to have been dancing and horse racing.
Clergy began to arrive from Ireland to cater for their spiritual needs, the first being Fr. Patrick Moran, who arrived in February 1830, and the most famous being Fr. Anthony Fahy, who arrived from Loughrea, Co. Galway, in 1843. In 1856, the Sisters of Mercy arrived; several schools and colleges sprang up and in 1858, an Irish hospital was opened in Buenos Aires.
In Buenos Aires Province, the district which best exemplified Irish society in the halcyon days of sheep farming was Carmen de Areco, 70 miles west of the capital. It had a Mercy convent school, colleges of Clonmacnois and St. Brendan, an Irish College of Carmen, a library, the Brehon Athletic Club, and the Clara Morgan Hospital. In 1867, a fund was established in the area to ameliorate the plight of imprisoned Fenians. One successful Irish farmer in Carmen de Areco was Thomas Donohue, a native of Cork. When he died in 1866, he had 12,000 sheep on his farm.
In the success story of the Irish in Argentina, the name Duggan is inescapable. When Westmeath man Michael Duggan died in 1888, his estate was said to be the size of Munster and he was considered the richest Irishman in the world. His descendants are still among the most prominent families in Argentina.
The Irish involved themselves in every level of politics, from local councils to the highest office, attained in 1944 when Edelmiro Julián Farrell became national president.
Today, around half a million Spanish-speaking Argentines trace their ancestry to Ireland. They have their own newspaper, The Southern Cross, which is over 100 years old. Originally, the paper was written mainly in English, but by 1977, it had only one English-language column.
Irish social life and traditions now revolve around the Hurling Club in Hurlingham, a western suburb of Buenos Aires, where Irish Argentines congregate in hundreds each weekend. There are still occasional hurling games, but the popularity of the sport dropped around the time of WWII when hurley sticks became impossible to import. Irish hockey and rugby teams continue to this day.
In the final analysis, when studying the history of Argentina, it is impossible to escape the considerable contribution made by the Irish in the formation and development of that great country.
For more on The Southern Cross, read Adam Farley’s interview with editor-in-chief Dr. Guillermo McLoughlin. And check out his profile of the Irish dance group Celtic Argentina, based out of Buenos Aires.
Harry Dunleavy lived in Argentina for a brief period. He currently resides in Augusta, New Jersey, U.S.A.