Irish-Argentine Identity in an Age of Political Challenge and Change, 1875-1983, by Patrick Speight, Peter Lang, 356 pp, ISBN: 978-1788744171
The Irish-Argentine community, an estimated half a million people of Irish descent, is the fifth largest such emigrant group in the world. It is also, by a distance, the least-known Irish kinship group in its country of origin. We may know of Admiral William Brown from Wexford and Ernesto “Che” Guevara Lynch, but who in Ireland has heard of distinguished Irish-Argentines like General John Thomond O’Brien, Father Anthony Fahy, writers Rodolfo and Maria Elena Walsh, Peronist ideologue John William Cooke or politician Dalmacio Vélez Sarsfield?
It is also one of the most interesting of groups. The Irish-Argentines are unique in that they were generally not poor when they left Ireland in the nineteenth century and some of them quickly became very rich not long after they arrived in their host country. They came mainly from Westmeath, Wexford, Longford and Offaly, and mostly between the 1840s and 1890s. They were encouraged and overseen by one of those mighty nineteenth century Irish priests, Father Fahy, originally from Loughrea, Co Galway, who from his arrival in 1843 “strove to maintain a self-reliant, insular Irish community free from vice and assimilation into an unfamiliar foreign country”.
Fahy urged the new arrivals – most of them from farming backgrounds – to move away from the temptations of Buenos Aires and seek work in the Pampas, which were opening up as the native inhabitants were driven off their land and largely exterminated by successive Argentine dictators and military chiefs. Many went as shepherds and took full advantage of the extraordinary “halves” system under which they could look after large flocks of sheep and after a few years, when they had increased their number four and fivefold, divide the flock fifty-fifty between shepherd and owner.
Unlike in North America and Australia, there was no antagonism between these new Catholic immigrants and any Protestant establishment: firstly because there was no such establishment in Argentina, and, even more significantly, because the successful Irish quickly became identified with the prosperous English business and ranching community. Many upwardly mobile Irish were happy enough to be considered Ingleses if it helped them get on. An interesting picture of the Irish community appeared in one of the earliest editions of The Southern Cross, the community’s newspaper, in January 1875. “In no part of the world is the Irishman more esteemed and respected than in the province of Buenos Aires, and in no part of the world have Irish settlers made such large fortunes. They possess 1,500,000 acres of the best quality land. They own about 5,000,000 sheep. This vast fortune has been acquired in just a few years.”
As Patrick Speight points out in this fascinating study, these Irish settlers did not appear to see any contradiction between leaving an Ireland wracked by land conflict and moving to a country where they could quickly occupy land from which the native people had recently been expelled. The Southern Cross rejected any analogy between the landless Irish in Ireland and the land-grabbing Irish in Argentina, responding in true nineteenth century fashion that the Irish were “a civilised people” whereas the indigenous natives were “savages” whose wrongs would “be avenged at the great Tribunal at the other side of the grave”.
Of course only a minority of Irish immigrants became prosperous, but they were the ones who would make their mark on Argentine society. It is a pity that Speight does not tell us more about the single – and tragic ‑ failed effort to bring in a group of 1,800 poor Irish to Argentina on the immigrant ship City of Dresden in 1889. Seven hundred of them were taken to a bleak site outside Bahia Blanca in the south to start an abortive Irish colony. In the end, most of these unfortunates either died, returned to Ireland or re-emigrated to the United States.
However Speight’s book is not in any sense a history of the Irish in Argentina (Professor Dermot Keogh, formerly of University College Cork, published a major work on this in Spanish in 2016, and a second volume is due). Speight is more interested in two key episodes in the last century. He makes clear that he is tracing the community’s origins as part of an effort “to find an explanation for the Irish-Argentine community’s rejection of [President] Peron’s redistributionist policies during his first two terms of office (1946-1955) and their support for the last military dictatorship (1976-1983)”, one of the late twentieth century’s most violent and cruel regimes.
Thus his central research question in the book is: “How could Irish descendants whose great-grandparents had ‘braved the sword of persecution’ and ‘suffered from hunger and want, dying down in the ditches, wild-howling for bread’ [quotes from a 1919 sermon by an Irish priest in Buenos Aires] reject Peronist politics that addressed inequality and then in the 1970s support a military regime that murdered and disappeared its own citizens?”
A large part of his evidence is culled from The Southern Cross, the oldest continuously published Irish emigrant newspaper in the world. For most of its existence this took a strongly Irish nationalist and Catholic editorial line, which gelled well with the superiority the successful community quickly came to feel in its new home (combined with the traditional Irish emigrant belief that they were the “most oppressed people ever”) . An 1882 St Patrick’s Day editorial combined the two, comparing the British empire’s subjection of other nations for financial and political gain with Irish Catholicism’s leadership of a spiritual empire that disseminated the Word of God.
In the more dangerous early twentieth century, The Southern Cross’s combination of needing to protect its community’s economic achievements and its conservative Catholicism saw it veering towards fascism. A 1937 editorial opined: “Fascism provides an orderly basis of life, it cuts out demagogy, and has many other estimable features, so that for many thinking men and women it provides a way out of the impasse in which ill-regulated democracy has landed more than one country.”
The 1943 military coup which saw Colonel Juan Peron gaining high office – initially as minister for labour – was at first welcomed by The Southern Cross and the community it represented, largely because the new regime restored compulsory religious education – meaning Catholic education ‑ in schools after a break of sixty years. It also supported the new government’s banning of all political parties.
However, when Peron was elected president three years later with the support of the army, the church and the trade unions and initiated the most radically reformist era in Argentine history, this began to change. His reforms included the eight-hour day, improved working conditions for both factory and farm workers, a minimum wage, social security, family assistance, sick leave, paid holidays, retirement benefits and equal treatment for men and women. Peron was no socialist. In a 1944 speech to the stock exchange he said: “Never has capitalism been firmer than now. What I want to do is organise the workers through the state, so that the state shows them the way forward. In this way revolutionary currents endangering capitalist society in the postwar can be neutralised.”
However The Southern Cross had its conservative doubts about Peron, even though he was keen to stress that his social policies echoed papal encyclicals. The paper told its readers that while it respected the “genuine humanitarianism” that informed the Beveridge Report, which outlined the postwar British welfare state – admired by Peron – it could not support a similar model in Argentina. It supported social justice, but only if it was inspired by two ideals: the primacy of the family and that of private property. It set out its reservations in an editorial entitled “The Servile State”, after the book of the same name by the English Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc. The Belloc reference summed up its chief concern: that the extension of state control into the lives of private citizens would not only be “to the detriment of individual freedom” but would conflict with “the general trend of the papal encyclicals on social reconstruction” and lead inexorably to a totalitarian state. Such sentiments would not have been out of tune with those of the Irish hierarchy, notably Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, in the same era.
Peron was a deeply contradictory figure, claimed by both right and left. Many saw him as a military caudillo in the Latin American mould, and an admirer of Mussolini-style Italian fascism. However the Argentine Catholic hierarchy’s traditional political strategy had been accommodation with the ruling elite, and this was particularly in evidence during Peron’s first term of office (1946-1952), when the church believed Peronism’s promotion of Catholic values would deter the working class from any move towards socialism or communism.
One outspoken Irish-Argentine priest, Father José Maria Dunphy, would become an early victim of Peron’s authoritarianism and of a submissive hierarchy. In December 1945 he preached a sermon in which he denounced Italian and German fascism for having trampled on human conscience and liberty, and warned that the greatest evil occurred when the state was subject to “the crazy whims of a man out of control”. He underlined his argument by pointing to Pope Pius XII’s recent speech favouring democracies over totalitarian regimes.
The priest’s sermon did not endear him to his bishops, who had recently published a pastoral letter giving implicit support to Peron in the forthcoming election. He was summoned to justify his sermon, although on this occasion no disciplinary action was taken. That changed in September 1948 when Dunphy wrote to a Catholic newspaper objecting to the church’s silence in the face of calls from Peron to erect scaffolds across the country to hang the opposition. A furious Peron summoned the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Coppello, and told him he had two months to get rid of his turbulent Irish priest. Dunphy was quickly “dismissed and prohibited” from his city parish. In Speight’s words, he was “rubbed out of the life of the church”. The Southern Cross ignored the story.
In the end, however, the Catholic hierarchy turned against Peron, as he started to promote his secular philosophy of justicialismo, which “sought state supremacy in both secular and spiritual matters” during his post-1952 second term. Peron reversed the decision on religious education in state schools, called for the separation of church and state, and made provision to legalise divorce and prostitution. The public celebration of holy days like Corpus Christi was banned. In September 1955 he was deposed by a military coup. The Southern Cross’s opinion was that under Peron Argentina had become a police state, but he would still be in power had he not interfered with the “final imponderables: the Church and the Army”.
Speight then includes a chapter on the left-wing (and occasional far-right-wing) Irish-Argentines The Southern Cross ignored, “whose radical political ideas threatened the comfortable middle-class lifestyles generations of Irish-Argentines had built for themselves”. “Che” Guevara being already a figure of world renown, he focuses instead on two left-wing Peronists, John William Cooke and Rodolfo Walsh. The youngest and most independent-minded Peronist MP in the late 1940s, Cooke spent some time in Castro’s Cuba in the early ’60s and returned to Argentina convinced that the only way to overthrow the anti-Peronist forces then in power was through guerrilla warfare. He played an influential role in the formation of two early rural guerrilla movements. He died of cancer in 1968, but his ideas inspired the Peronist Montonero guerrillas in the 1970s.
Rodolfo Walsh was a brilliant investigative journalist and short story writer. His writings and political commitment have made him famous in Argentina. He first came to public notice in 1956 when he exposed a secret massacre by the then military government. He moved to Cuba after the 1959 revolution to work in the Castro government’s news agency, Prensa Latina, where his major scoop was his discovery of the US plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In 1973 he followed the example of his daughter Vicki and joined the left-wing Peronist Montonero guerrillas as their intelligence officer.
There followed several years of low-level but bloody conflict between various left-wing guerrilla groups and the Argentine armed forces. When in March 1976 a military junta overthrew the government headed by Peron’s widow, Isabel, they put into operation a plan involving the systematic abduction, torture and “disappearance” of anti-government political activists, trade unionists, students, artists, intellectuals, relatives of and sympathisers with the guerrillas, or “people who just look suspicious” (in Walsh’s words). In the next seven years up to 30,000 people were “disappeared” by the regime. The torture used was demonic: medieval-style racks; skinning alive; electric drills and cattle prods applied to mouth, testicles and vagina (Cork-born priest Father Patrick Rice said his burning flesh reminded him of bacon being cooked); and the “retroscope”, which involved inserting a tube into the anus or vagina and forcing a rat through it so that it gnawed at the victims’ internal organs as it tried to get out.
In July 1976 Walsh organised a bomb attack on the Federal Police HQ in which twenty-three policemen and a woman civilian were killed. Two days later a naval death squad retaliated with an attack on St Patrick’s parochial house in the wealthy Belgrano neighbourhood of Buenos Aires and killed three Pallotine priests known for their support of the Latin American church’s “preferential option for the poor” ‑ two of them Irish-Argentine – and two seminarians (one critical Irish priest told Speight it seemed to him that the seminarians’ spiritual mentor was not the founder of the congregation but Che Guevara). The headquarters of the Pallotine order was in Thurles, Co Tipperrary.
Walsh’s daughter’s death in a shoot-out with the army the following September convinced him of the futility of the Montoneros’ war. He pointed out that their operations were “suicidal” and were alienating them from people who once supported them. He retreated to the countryside and resolved to fight the military with words from his typewriter instead. To mark the first anniversary of the coup he wrote an extraordinarily courageous “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta”, listing their tortures and murders, political and neo-liberal economic crimes. While posting copies of the letter in Buenos Aires, he was cornered and shot down by a military patrol. Gabriel García Márquez called Walsh’s letter “one of the jewels of universal literature”.
What was the attitude of the Catholic church and its faithful adherents, the Irish-Argentine community, to all this terror and horror? “The Church in Argentina was fiercely conservative and so too was the Irish-Argentine community” is Speight’s view. In contrast to the Brazilian and Chilean hierarchies, the church leadership in Argentina rarely condemned the military government’s human rights abuses. In his 1986 book Witness to the Truth: the Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina, 1976-1983, Emilio Mignone, a devout opposition Catholic lawyer whose daughter had been “disappeared” ten years earlier, said of the more than eighty Argentine bishops only four denounced “the human rights violations committed by the terrorist regime” (one of these, Bishop Angelelli, recently beatified, was murdered by the military).
Many – perhaps most – in the middle-class Irish-Argentine community feared the left-wing guerrillas would take over the country and impose a communist regime. They agreed with the pro-military priest Father Ambrose Geoghegan, who believed the regime’s “Dirty War” “was a way of cleaning the society” of communists. During this period The Southern Cross was in the unprecedented position of having a left-wing editor, Father Fred Richards of the Holy Cross parish in Buenos Aires, who supported the Latin American bishops’ stand at their 1968 Medellín conference in solidarity with the continent’s poor and oppressed.
One anonymous source who knew the Richards family well told Speight that Father Richards “provoked division within the Irish community” by “always attacking the military governments and favouring the poor and sympathising with the left”. His approach was “absolutely against the mentality of 90% of the Irish community”. The “principal influential families, maybe 200 families, people well off, they had a very different view on life to the one that Fred Richards promoted in the newspaper which belonged to all of them”. Speight’s analysis of that paper’s letters columns showed that the community was deeply divided over Father Richards and his stand for human rights.
Speight says that many in the Irish community harboured the view that the murdered priests in St Patrick’s in Belgrano “must have been killed for something”. The same anonymous source went so far as to claim: “The Pallotine killings of 1976 were caused by a mistake of location. Instead of going against Father Richards and his friends [who] were supporting the Montoneros, they went against the Pallotines.” Father Fred Richards was a Passionist.
The Holy Cross priest is one of the most interesting characters in Speight’s book. In his early years in the priesthood he was faithful to the traditional, conservative Catholicism of his Irish community. After the Medellín conference he became converted to its left-wing liberation theology. He was a nationalist who resented the growing influence of the US in Argentina (and its support for the junta), and a follower of St Francis of Assisi, who, like Jesus, did not shed “any brotherly blood” but knew what it was like to drink from the cup of “incomprehension and persecution”, Under Richards The Southern Cross courageously criticised the Argentine dictatorship for its human rights abuses and “disappearances”, and incurred the wrath of many in the Irish community for doing so. In 1979 the Federation of Irish Argentine societies publicly rebuked his editorial line, and at a St Patrick’s Day celebration in the famous Hurling Club he was asked to leave “because he was not a welcome guest”.
These divisions have lasted into the present century. After a 2014 Southern Cross editorial had suggested freeing military officers jailed for murder, torture and other evil-doing in the 1970s, 115 left-leaning Irish-Argentines wrote to President Michael D Higgins, who had visited a former torture centre during a 2012 state visit, to inform him that the paper’s position in relation to the “Dirty War” was not consistent with his “long-standing convictions and commitment in favour of Human Rights principles”.
This short book is an excellent introduction to the Irish in Argentina, and a thought-provoking critical analysis of their attitudes during the Peron era and (in more detail) the 1976-1983 period of military dictatorship. Its style is refreshingly clear and readable, a lesson in how a good journalist – Speight is a former BBC Northern Ireland radio presenter and reporter – can explain the historical and political complexity of a little known and largely forgotten Irish emigrant community. It deserves a much wider readership than its hitherto almost non-existent coverage in the Irish media has so far brought it.
Andy Pollak is the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies; a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin; and co-author of Seamus Mallon: A Shared Home Place (Lilliput, 2019). In the 1970s he was a journalist in Mexico, Venezuela and Central America.