11 July 2014

I wonder whether I’ll be cheering
or crying for Argentina on Sunday

President Michael D Higgins of Ireland and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Ireland shake hands at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires last year ... Argentina is home to the fifth largest Irish community in the world.

Patrick Comerford

Argentina faces Germany in Sunday’s World Cup final at the Maracana - the spiritual home of soccer in Brazil, after Brazil brutally eliminated by Germany on Tuesday night.

England made a very early exit from the World Cup, and Greece left a little later, with a little more of its glory intact.

So I suppose on Sunday evening I’ll be hoping for a win for Argentina.

The Irish-Argentine community numbers anywhere from half a million to a million, hich would make Argentina home to the fifth largest Irish community in the world. Many Irish families and their names have been handed down to this day.

Perhaps the most famous Irish person born in Argentina is the singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh, from Bargy Castle, near Tomhaggard, Co Wexford, who was born Christopher John Davison in 1948 in Buenos Aires where his father, Charles Davison, was a diplomat.

Che Guevara was also proud of his Irish ancestry. He was born in Argentina in 1928, a descendant of Patrick Lynch from Galway, who left Ireland and travelled from Bilbao in Spain to Argentina.

Irish emigrants from Wexford, the Midland counties of Westmeath, Longford and Offaly, and many other parts of Ireland arrived in Argentina mainly from 1830 to 1930, with the largest wave arriving in 1850-1870.

However, the first Irish people to arrive in Argentina were the brothers Juan and Tomás (John and Thomas) Farrel in 1536, who were part of Pedro de Mendoza’s expedition. Later, Ana Perichon de O’Gorman (1776-1847), was the renowned lover of the Viceroy of the Spanish colonies, Santiago de Liniers, First Count of Buenos Aires.

In the early 1800s, there was a wave of wars of independence across Spanish America, led by Simon Bolivar, Bernardo O’Higgins, Jose Artigas and Jose de San Martin. Admiral William Brown from Foxford, Co Mayo, played a prominent role in the war of independence in Argentina in 1816, and became the founder of the Argentine navy.

But the real waves of Irish emigration to Argentina begin in the 1820s, and those emigrants came mainly from Co Wexford and three Irish Midlands counties of Offlay, Westmeath and Longford. Most of the Irish emigrants to Argentina came from two areas: 16% were from Co Wexford and 61% were from a Midlands area along the Westmeath-Longford border and in north Offaly.

The Midlands dimension begins with John Thomond O’Brien from Co Wicklow, who also played a prominent role in Argentina’s war of independence. He returned to Ireland and in 1827-1828 tried to recruit Irish emigrants. He met John Mooney of Streamstown, near Ballymore, Co Westmeath, and so began the first great wave of Irish emigration to Argentina from the Midland counties.

John Mooney arrived in Buenos Aires in 1828, with his brother-in-law, Patrick Bookey, who soon became the owner of 900 acres with magnificent gardens and plantations, including two million trees. His model farm now belongs to the University of La Plata.

The Wexford connection with Argentina begins with the Liverpool-based shipping firm of Dickson and Montgomery. Their early representative in Buenos Aires was John Brown from Wexford, and in 1827, he was succeeded by his Wexford-born brother Patrick Brown (1806-1893). The arrival of the Brown brothers in Argentina in the 1820s marks the beginning of the significant wave of emigration from Wexford to Argentina.

A childhood photograph of Gloria Kehoe (1954-1977) ... a prize-winning shorty story writer and direct descendant of Margaret Comerford from Co Wexford, she was abducted and murdered under the military regime in Argentina in 1977

The Comerford family name continued to be used for generations in Argentina by the descendants of two sisters, Margaret and Bridget Comerford, who moved from Co Wexford to Argentina in the mid-19th century and married into the Kelly and Sinnot families.

Margaret and Bridget were first cousns of my my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford. Margaret was born in Co Wexford in 1836 and Bridget Comerford was born in Dublin in 1847. They were the daughters of Robert Comerford of Wexford Town and Bunclody and his wife Rose French.

Margaret Comerford (1836-1921) married James Kelly in the 1850s, Bridget (1847-1913) married James Sinnott in the 1860s, and both families emigrated to Argentina. Their children married into families with typical Co Wexford surnames such as Kehoe, Kavanagh, Redmond, Kelly, Richards, Doyle and Sinnott. The Comerford name continued to be used in these two family names in various combinations by their descendants in Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina until late in the 20th century.

Luly Kehoe y Kelly and her husband Jack Richards y Doyle in 1939

Their descendants include: Dr Mario Alberto Dolan (1918-2002), who studied medicine with Ernesto Che Guevara and was the founder of the Irish-Argentine Society of New York; the Revd Luis Dolan CP (1921-2000), who worked as a missionary in villages and estancias in Argentina; the folk musician Gustavo Kehoe (b. 1958); and his sister Gloria Kehoe (1954-1977), a prize-winning short-story writer and partner of Adolfo Infante Allende (1940-1977) – Gloria and Adolfo were abducted by a navy death squad in 1977 and were murdered. Gustavo Kehoe has written a poem and a song dedicated to his disappeared sister.

Father Ned Kavanagh, a native of Gorey, Co Wexford, is an example of the many Irish priests and emigrants from Co Wexford who moved to Buenos Aires.

After his ordination in Maynooth in 1826, Kavanagh was a curate in Blackwater, Barntown, The Hook and Ballycanew before moving to Gusserane in 1844, here he spent the Famine years. When he was made bankrupt by the shopkeepers of New Ross, he resigned in November 1850 and emigrated to Buenos Aires, arriving in 1851. He died at Estancia San Francisco Bragada, Buenos Aires, in 1888.

Many of the Irish emigrants to Argentina were attracted by the hope of better living conditions and the possibility of becoming landowners in the Río de la Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay. Others arrived as merchants, teachers, artisans and mercenaries. They settled mainly in Buenos Aires and the coastal provinces.

Irish and Basque emigrants became the mainstay of the sheep trade in Argentina, and helped develop a wool-based economy. English was the household language of the Irish emigrants, and up to the third generation, the Irish rarely married outside the Irish community.

It is difficult to put an exact number on the Irish immigrants. The records are often flimsy and incomplete, and many Irish arrivals declared they were Ingleses because they were British subjects and spoke English. Some estimates suggest the total number of Irish immigrants in the 19th century was anywhere between 10,500 and 50,000. But in the 19th century, one in every two Irish emigrants to Argentina went back to Ireland or re-migrated to England, the US, Australia and other places.

Many Irish organisations and educational institutions were founded in Argentina in 1875-1890, including Newman College, Saint Brendan’s College and Saint Brigid’s College, as well as branches of the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein, and hurling clubs in Buenos Aires and Mercedes.

Edward Mulhall from Dublin and his brother Michael founded the Buenos Aires Standard, the first English-language newspaper in Argentina, serving the Irish, English and Scottish families.

In the 1870s, there was a clear political division among emigrants, with the more prosperous descendnants of the earlier emigrants supporting Home Rule in Ireland, while the new post-Famine arrivals tended to be more nationalist. This led to the foundation of another English language newspaper in 1875, The Southern Cross, with Monsignor Patricio Jose Dillon as its first editor.

The 1880s saw a fresh influx from Ireland, but the “Dresden Affair” in the 1880s marked the end of mass Irish emigration to Argentina. The agents Buckley O’Meara and John Stephen Dillon, brother of the monsignor-editor, were sending 1,774 emigrants to Argentina in the steamer City of Dresden. Many died due to the conditions on board or died immediately after arriving in Buenos Aires. About 700 were takem to Bahía Blanca to establish the Irish colony of Napostá, but this too was a failure within a few months. The vast majority of these immigrants struggled to return to Ireland or moved on to the US.

The “Dresden Affair” became infamous and was denounced in parliament, press and pulpit. Archbishop Croke of Cashel later warned poor Irish people, if “they value their happiness ..., never to set foot on the Argentine Republic however tempted to do so.”

However, later in 1889-1929, large numbers of urban labourers, middle-class professionals and merchants from Dublin, Cork and Limerick became emigrants to Argentina. By the 1920s, up to half the Irish emigrants to Argentina were members of the Church of Ireland.

With the decline in the sheep trade in the 1890s, Irish emigration to Argentina declined. Although a trickle of emigration continued, Italy became the primary source of emigration to Argentina in the 20th century. Today, the population of Argentina is 32 million, with 40% of Italian origin.

The descendants of the Irish Diaspora have contributed much to life in Argentina, without ever losing sight of their Irish heritage and ancestry.

Eamon Bulfin, who hoisted the tricolour over the General Post Office in Dublin during the Easter Rising in 1916, born in Buenos Aires in 1892. His father, William Bulfin (1864-1910) from Birr, King’s County (now Co Offaly, emigrated to Argentina at the age of 20 became editor and proprietor of The Southern Cross. He returned to Ireland in 1909 with his wife, Anne (O’Rourke) and their children Eamon and Catalina.

Eamon Bulfin later took part in the Easter Rising in 1916, and hoisted the tricolour on the flag poles of the GPO. He was sentenced to death by a military court martial, but the fact that he was an Argentine citizen, born in Buenos Aires, saved his life. He was deported in 1917 and was jailed jail for leaving Argentine with the intention of “deserting from military service.”

He was released in 1919, and Eamon de Valera appointed him the Irish Consul in Argentina during the War of Independence. In 1922, he returned to Ireland and lived near Birr, Co Offaly, where he died in 1968.

His sister, Catalina (1901-1976), who was born in Buenos Aires in 1901, also returned to Ireland. She married Seán MacBride (1904-1988), the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Minister for External Affairs, founder member of Amnesty International, UN Commissioner for Namibia and President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

General Edelmiro Juan Farrell (1887-1980), the grandson of Matthew Farrell, an emigrant from a Co Longford, was the de facto President of Argentina from 1944 to 1946, and he changed the course of Argentina’s history by introducing Juan Perón into his government. This paved the way for the subsequent political career of Perón, who succeeded him as President in 1946, and Farrell makes several appearances in Evita, in which he is portrayed by the British actor Denis Lill.

Eduardo Francisco McLoughlin (1918-1983), the grandson of a Co Wexford migrant, James MacLoughlin of Morristown, who was one of the first settlers in Venado Tuerto. He was Argentina’s Ambassador in London (1966-1970) and Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He played a key role in discussions when the British Government was proposing to cede sovereignty of the Malvinas/Falklands to Argentina. The breakdown in those talks ultimately led to the Argentine military occupation of the islands and Margaret Thatcher’s subsequent war in 1982. He died a year later.

More recently, Diana Figueroa, wife of the late Juan Manuel Figueroa, a former Argentinian ambassador to Ireland, was born in Argentina but her parents were from Wexford.

I still keep in touch with my some of my distant cousins in Argentina through Facebook. I’ll be hoping for some happy messages on Sunday night and Monday morning.

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