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Viva Irlanda! Exploring the Irish in Argentina

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They would, unlike today’s tourists, have had the time or resources to travel to see the wonderful sights of Patagonia like the Perito Moreno glacier in the south or the lakes and mountains  of the Andes to the west.

Rather, they would have had to endure the hard life working as gauchos on the farms or guarding the sheep, watched over only by the soaring Andean condor in the sky and coping with the Patagonian  wind, which sometimes reaches one hundred and twenty mile an hour as it roars  across the plains of that semi desert.

It was at the north western tip of Patagonia in Bariloche too that I stood and wondered how a small town in a strange land could name not one, but two streets with the Irish name of  O’Connor and thus heap eternal confusion on tourists and postmen alike.

Bariloche has a splendid lake side setting  at the foothills of the Argentinean Andes. It  is  not unlike Switzerland but doesn’t have that same clutter or fussiness and the yodeling in the valleys. Given its location, under the shadows of an volcano,  it has a deceptively genteel air in the street cafes  where the locals munch creamy chocolates and sip cappuccinos.

One of the clan , Juan, was an early settler in the area and the other, Vice Admiral Eduardo O’Connor was an explorer and revolutionary leader who was descended from an "Irish Yankee"  that emigrated from Chicago to Argentina in the early nineteenth century. He too became a commander of a navy,  leading the insurgent forces that fought against President Juárez Celman in 1890.

The Irish, of course have not been slow in providing their share of revolutionaries, and the most famous and iconic (or notorious depending on your point of view) of all Argentinian rebels, Che Guevera, was born in Rosario, a city not far from Buenos Aires. His father declared "the first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels."

His grandmother was a Lynch from Galway  and they were reportedly very close when Che was a child. It is sobering to think that the perennial teenage idol Che Guevara would be 82 wo now if he had lived  and Argentina has endured a lot of turmoil and change since his birth. The Argentinean Irish have changed as well.

Back in Buenos Aires , I sought out Dr. Guillermo McLaughlin, an eminent Argentine-Irish genealogist and historian of the Irish in South America.

Guillermo is the editor of the Southern Cross ,  which was established in 1875 and the oldest newspaper anywhere in the world catering for the Irish Diaspora. Guillermo is sixth-generation Irish, but  is as enthusiastic about his Irish connections as anyone might be who just landed off a boat from Ireland.

He told me there were seven or eight different waves of Irish emigration, the largest of which was the arrival of the farmers from the midlands mainly in the mid nineteenth century. He said the earliest mention of  the Irish in Argentina was the record of three Galway men who sailed with Magellan in 1520 when he sailed around Tierra del Fuego .

After that there were various arrivals of ‘wild geese’ from Spain; Irish soldiers serving with the unsuccessful attempts by the British in the early 1800s to seize control of the Spanish colonies  around the river Plata (many of these Irish soldiers deserted and swapped sides) and then there were the various missionaries and religious orders throughout the years and the landowners and workers and whole families who followed the first wave of settlers  in the mid nineteenth century.

"The first settlers did not integrate totally at first in the Argentine community," said Guillermo. "They had their own churches, hospitals, schools and clubs. They did not speak Spanish but their children did and they eventually  became part of the wider community  while still maintaining their Irish links. You  can find today, in some cemeteries in Argentina various graves with Celtic crosses and inscriptions in homage to Irish ancestors. And it is not surprising to find in some rural areas Irish descendants speaking with a notable Westmeath accent, though they have never been in Ireland and are grandsons or great-grandsons of Irish born emigrants to Argentina."

Guillermo could not confirm what I had heard, namely that the first Argentinean officer who landed on the Malvinas in the amphibious invading force in 1982 was one of those who spoke English with a Westmeath accent, but I thought it would have been quite a shock to the British Governor of the islands as he donned his ceremonial plumed hat that morning to be told that there was a man with and Irish accent at the door telling him to pack up and clear off the islands!

Argentina, of course, has had more than its share of internal strife and violence and particularly with the 1976-1983 dictatorship and the thirty thousand who disappeared in the dirty war.

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