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Empress of Asunción

Tom Hennigan

The Lives of Eliza Lynch, by Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning, Gill & Macmillan, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717146116 The Priest of Paraguay, by Hugh O’Shaughnessy, Zed Books, 176 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1848133136Since Helen of Troy, literature and popular history have delighted in blaming women for starting wars. In the case of South America’s bloodiest and most destructive conflict the guilty siren has long been the Cork beauty Eliza Lynch. Even before the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) broke out, Lynch’s detractors had shunned her as an avaricious whore, a Parisian courtesan whose wiles had snared Francisco Solano López when the son of Paraguay’s wealthy dictator was in Paris visiting the court of Napoleon III in 1854. By the time Solano López inherited the presidency on the death of his father in 1862 she was his de facto first lady, though they never married. To the outrage of deeply conservative and xenophobic Paraguayan high society, Lynch already had a failed marriage behind her and had not obtained a divorce before leaving for Paraguay.She never lived under the same roof as her president partner, but bore him seven children, including his first and favourite son, Panchito. This secured her an exalted position from where she could rain down humiliations on polite society, which was scandalised when she dressed up as Queen Elizabeth at a masked ball she threw to celebrate her lover’s inauguration as first magistrate. Solano López’s family never accepted Lynch and his sister Inocencia recalled with disgust years later how she would get drunk and dance in public plazas: She endeavoured to make herself popular with the low class in this way, and she hostilized [sic] decent families, who did not wish to follow her example … All this is public and notorious in Asunción, for there were always some ladies, Paraguayans and foreigners, who would have nothing to do with this adulterous woman.1After war engulfed the countries along the La Plata river system in 1864 the enemy press in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay conducted a campaign of slander against the “Tyrant of Paraguay” and his woman La Lynch, who became a favourite of scurrilous cartoonists in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian officers would lead European visitors to the battlefields along the Paraguay River to view sites from where they said she had directed military operations. English adventurer Richard Burton was one such sightseer and wrote of her: “Madame Lynch must be somewhat ambitious. It is generally believed that she … worked upon President López and persuaded him that he might easily become Master and Emperor of the Platine Regions.”2 Burton even recounts the scene where on his return to Buenos Aires the Argentine president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, showed him the plaster model of a crown, apparently that of Napoleon Bonaparte, which had been sent out from Paris for any alterations that Solano López might suggest. He would never get to crown himself emperor, or Lynch his empress. Instead he lost the war, which in its final years saw his obstinacy combine with the brutality of his opponents to destroy his country. As paranoid dementia gripped him, Solano López turned on his own circle. The wives of officers who surrendered in the field were executed if they did not renounce their husbands. Whole swathes of



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