Viva Irlanda! Exploring the Irish in Argentina


They commemorated Admiral William Brown in the sun at Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires the other day.

In the tree lined passageway between the marbled mausoleums for the once rich and famous,  the Argentinean naval band played "Saint Patrick's Day in the Morning" in their annual tribute to the national hero, who is credited with routing the Spanish fleet in the Argentinean  war of independence in 1814.

Quite how a poor cabin boy from Foxford, who first learned to row a boat on Lough Conn in Mayo, achieved naval victories to rank alongside those of Raleigh or Nelson and rose to be the father of the Argentina navy is a fascinating story perhaps not yet fully told.

Yet it is a monumental example of the enduring success of the members of the Irish Diaspora. Brown's impressive green memorial occupies a prominent place in the central plaza of the cemetery (unlike that of the populist heroine Eva Peron which is consigned to a back-alley).

Together with the more than one thousand streets in Argentina named in his honor, it is an acknowledgment of the special place that Argentinean people hold for him and other Irishmen.

The links with Ireland are lasting and still vibrant today .

"There are perhaps only two hundred or so first-generation Irish living today in Argentina," said James McIntyre, the Irish ambassador to Argentina, "but over half a million Argentinean nationals can trace  their ancestors back to Ireland and that is a hugely significant number in a non-English speaking population of just over 40 million."
The main wave of Irish immigrants,  arrived in Argentina from the early to mid-nineteenth century . In all a total of about fifty thousand emigrants arrived from Ireland between 1830-1930.

A majority  of these came  from the midlands of Westmeath and Longford and from Wexford . They undertook the long journey to  a mostly unknown and faraway land because they had heard about the opportunities in farming and the low land prices. ‘They worked hard and bought wisely’ said McIntyre. ‘A lot of them became ranchers  in the vast fertile Pampas  around Buenos Aires."

It is said that in those days the Irish-owned land as vast as Ireland itself and that you could travel 200 miles without leaving an Irish-owned ranch. Some Irish ranchers became so powerful that they had towns named after them.

Unlike their fellow emigrants who went to North America around the time of the famine, the Argentinean-bound contingents were in the large part personally unaffected by the ravages of that disastrous time for Ireland  but even so, coming from a  poor country which was struggling against a centuries old oppressor and the tyranny of religious intolerance  they must have been astounded by what was on offer.

Argentina is the eight largest country in the world, it is four times the size of France and  for the new emigrants it was wide, open and beautiful . The country was booming, it was one of the ten richest on  earth and the new Irish immigrants did well.

As another famous Irish emigrant Fr. Anthony Fahy from Loughrea in Galway, who is equally memorialized in Recoleta cemetery for his work as a chaplain with the Irish communities, wrote at the time

"Would to God that Irish emigrants would come to this country, instead of going to the United States. Here they would feel at home, they would have plenty employment and experience a sympathy from the natives very different from what now drives too many of them from the States back to Ireland. There is not a finer country in the world for a poor man to come to."

While most of the Irish remained in rural occupations in the north of Argentina, some of them ventured  further south to work on the vast sheep  farms in Patagonia. They profited from a special arrangement known as ‘halves’ whereby the owner of the farm would entrust say, 2000 to 3000 head of sheep to an Irish shepherd who was expected to cover all the expenses of looking after the sheep. If at the end of the period, the flock had multiplied say four or five times, then this number was divided between the owner and the shepherd.

These Irish shepherds settled in the area and became owners in their own right. In the country, the new immigrants  had to fight against the native ‘Indians’ and overcome  climatic conditions very different to rural Ireland.

It is hardly likely however that they came across the original famed giants that Magellan, the Portuguese maritime explorer who, at the service of Spain led the first successful attempt at world circumnavigation, encountered in 1520. He was so impressed with their size that he supposedly named the whole region from the word  "patagon" meaning "land of big feet."

And it is when you see the wide open spaces of Patagonia, an area of over four hundred thousand square miles almost bereft of vegetation , which in Argentina stretches from the Andes mountains to the wild Atlantic coast  and down to the ‘ends of the earth’ in Tierra del Fuego, you begin to realize how challenging and dangerous the new life was for these Irish emigrants.