Ireland and Argentina in the twentieth century: Diaspora, diplomacy, dictatorship, Catholic mission and the Falklands Crisis, by Dermot Keogh, Cork University Press, 566 pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1782055112
Argentina is a magnificent country. If any destination nearer Europe or North America had the Andes mountains, the ski resorts around Bariloche, the immense pampas plains, the Iguacu waterfalls, the Mendoza wine-growing region and the architecturally sublime city of Buenos Aires, it would be a tourist paradise. One of Argentina’s problems has always been that it is very far away from the centres of nineteenth and twentieth century civilisation, and has often presented a picture of political instability, violence and dictatorship. For those reasons it has always been a relatively unknown country to Europeans (this despite the fact that it is populated almost entirely by European immigrants).
We Irish are particularly ignorant of its history, politics and culture. The Irish-Argentines are the forgotten people of the Irish diaspora, even though more than half a million Argentines now claim some Irish ancestry. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but Dermot Keogh (echoing the Argentine historian Edmundo Murray) estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 arrived after the 1830s, around a half of whom stayed. The largest number who stayed came from the midlands and Wexford, largely because the pioneers of this movement were entrepreneurial farmers from those regions. These were not the destitute Irish who fled from famine and poverty to the cities of Britain and North America. They were often the younger, non-inheriting sons of strong farmers, keen to make their fortunes on the broad pampas where the indigenous people had been cleared in genocidal nineteenth century wars and huge tracts of fertile land were going cheap as a result.
And make their fortunes some of them did. Many went as shepherds and took full advantage of an extraordinary system which allowed them to keep one-third of the value of the wool and sheepskins sold and thus to build up their own large flocks in a short number of years. An interesting picture of the Irish community appeared in one of the earliest editions of their community newspaper, the Southern Cross, 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.”
This wealth meant that in the twentieth century the Irish-Argentine community would be a largely conservative one. A 1934 profile in the Southern Cross carried photos of the estancias of the leading Irish ranch-owners and portrayed them as a “confident, prosperous and strongly patriotic Catholic community”.
Their early integration with their Spanish-speaking neighbours means that today many Irish-Argentines speak little English and are often only vaguely aware of their ancestry. They have produced some outstanding people. The whole world knows about Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose grandmother was Ana Lynch, born in San Francisco to an Irish-Argentine family whose roots went back to a clan of seventeenth century Irish “Wild Geese” merchants from Seville and Cadiz. Some of us will know of the founder of the Argentine navy during the 1810-1818 war of independence against Spain, William Brown from Foxford in Co Mayo. But who has heard of President Edelmiro Farrell, the military general who was President Juan Peron’s immediate predecessor; or Dalmacio Velez Sarsfield, the nineteenth century lawyer and politician who drew up the new nation’s civil code; or Rodolfo Walsh, a left-wing revolutionary and investigative journalist who was one of the many thousands killed by the murderous 1976-1983 military regime; or Maria Elena Walsh, an internationally celebrated singer, poet and children’s writer who has been compared to Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen?
Dermot Keogh’s book is therefore something of a trailblazer. Keogh is a fine historian, known for the rigour of his research, which was particularly evident in his prize-winning study Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland. For his latest book, he has gained access to the files of the Department of Foreign Affairs, enabling him to trace Irish-Argentine diplomatic relations from the sending of the first pre-independence envoy (Eamon Bulfin, an Irish-Argentine who had raised the tricolour over the GPO in the 1916 Rising) to Buenos Aires in 1919. This is both a strength and a weakness.
The first diplomat from independent Ireland to be formally sent to Argentina in 1947, Matthew Murphy, a friend of taoiseach John A Costello who spoke little Spanish and was hostile to the country’s charismatic leader of the time, Juan Peron, was clearly not up to the job. He was more sympathetic to the views of the ultra-conservative Jockey Club in Buenos Aires than to the people of the slums who followed Peron because of his radical social programmes, including universal social security, free education, housing for lower income families, paid holiday and pregnancy leave for workers and trade unions in every industry. Many commentators look back on this period as arguably the most socially enlightened in modern Argentine history (though also populist and authoritarian, with fascist tendencies).
Keogh is damning in his criticism of this first envoy. He writes: “Murphy lived for nearly seven years within the hermetically sealed worlds of the diplomatic corps and the upper echelons of Argentine society. Without any irony, the Irish envoy and many of his diplomatic colleagues reported that the success of the recent military coup [which overthrew Peron in 1955] was a victory over tyranny and dictatorship. At best, Murphy and other members of the diplomatic corps suffered from ‘groupthink’. They failed to test their presuppositions and never ventured to try to understand the mystery and mysticism behind the appeal of Peronist populism.” His views chimed perfectly with the confessional nature of Irish foreign policy in the late 1940s, concerned (apart from an obsession with partition) to align itself as closely as possible with the Vatican and thus appalled at Peron’s attacks on the Catholic church.
In contrast, during the second half of the twentieth century Keogh sees the role of Irish Catholic priests and nuns in Latin America and the Caribbean as a positive one. He notes that in 1990 Argentina had fifty-four Irish missionaries working there, compared to 195 in Brazil, 108 in Peru, sixty-two in Trinidad, sixty-one in Chile, thirty-eight in Ecuador and smaller numbers in eighteen other countries. As its head of programmes, the inspirational human rights specialist Sally O’Neill “brought Trócaire into even closer contact with the roots of social justice in Central and Latin America. Her work highlighted the challenges and the dangers facing church workers defending basic civil and human rights through its projects and fieldwork.”
Keogh includes detailed sections on the Irish religious orders in Argentina, notably the Passionists and Pallottines. One of the book’s strongest sections is on the Fermoy-born Divine Word missionary Father Patrick Rice, who came to Argentina in 1970 and quickly became unhappy at the close links between the Catholic church, the military and the oligarchy there. He was particularly influenced by the Italian liberation theologian Arturo Paoli, leader of the Little Brothers of Charles de Foucauld in Latin America, whose members in Argentina were full-time worker priests who had set up a cooperative for poor forestry workers. Rice soon left the Divine Word missionaries to join Paoli’s cooperative, and eventually to live in a slum community near the city dump and get a job as a carpenter on Buenos Aires building sites. He would later be abducted and tortured by the post-1976 military regime.
In June 1973 a physically frail Peron returned to Argentina from eighteen years exile in Spain. His last chaotic period of rule lasted less than a year and was marked by increasing violence, not least from both wings of Peronism: the left-wing Montonero guerrillas and the far-right terrorists of the Triple A anti-communist alliance. After Peron’s death the regime staggered on under his widow Isabel until the military coup of March 1976.
Keogh deals forensically with the 1976-1983 period of terrifying military rule, with particular attention to Father Rice’s case and many insights from the communications of Irish ambassadors James Lennon (although he was absent on sick leave for the important months before and after the coup), Sean Ó hÉideáin and Patrick Walshe. The impressive young third secretary Justin Harman, who was temporary head of mission in Ambassador Lennon’s absence (there were only two diplomats in the embassy), was forecasting as early as January 1976 that it was only a matter of time before the military left their barracks and took control of the country. He believed the Montoneros and their Trotskyite counterparts, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), constituted one of the largest and probably best organised guerrilla movements in Latin America. Having realised their objective of provoking a coup, he predicted, the guerrilla leadership would “undoubtedly try and lead the military into a policy of repression in order to gain support among the general population”.
That is exactly what happened, although even the guerrillas were surely not prepared for the sheer savagery of the military’s response. Up to 30,000 people – anti-government political activists, trade unionists, students, artists, intellectuals, relatives of and sympathisers with the guerrillas – were “disappeared” by its police, army and navy death squads. In his 2019 book, Irish-Argentine Identity in an Age of Political Challenge and Change, journalist Patrick Speight described prisoners being tortured on medieval-style racks; being skinned alive; electric drills and cattle prods being applied to mouth, testicles and vagina (Father 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.
After Father Rice was snatched from a Buenos Aires street in October 1976 ‑ along with Fatima Cabrera, whom at the time he barely knew but would eventually marry ‑ they were both tortured for several days, with constant and savage beatings, water torture and electric shock treatment. Justin Harman in the embassy moved fast. He spent two nights in his car outside the federal police headquarters to make sure the authorities knew that an Irish citizen’s life was in danger and mounted a press campaign to direct the glare of international publicity onto the actions of those authorities. It took seven weeks for Rice to be released and deported to Ireland, which was a real achievement in that nightmare period. On his release, Rice singled out Harman for special praise, calling his support “really fantastic”. The third secretary regularly reported back to Dublin that members of the armed forces were participating in right-wing death squads and terrorist groups. In this he differed from Lennon’s successor as ambassador, Sean Ó hÉideáin, an Irish army reservist who “proved to be all too credulous in his dealings with the high command of the Argentine armed forces”.
The other Irish hero of that period was the first secretary at the papal nunciature, the Meath-born Monsignor Kevin Mullen. His deep commitment to human rights caused him to constantly harass the authorities for information about the fate of the many thousands of kidnapped and missing people, with the result that the military and police awarded him the unenviable nickname “Monsignor Rojo” (the Red Monsignor). The editor of the English language Buenos Aires Herald, Robert Cox ‑ another courageous critic of the regime ‑ called him “lion-hearted”. After being publicly humiliated by a senior police officer, Mullen was moved to Paris. It was a sad irony that he would die prematurely in 1983 during a very stressful posting to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Keogh also recounts the notorious murder by a death squad in July 1976 of three Argentine priests – Father Alfredo Leaden, Father Alfredo Kelly and Father Peter Duffau ‑ and two seminarians, all belonging to the Irish Pallottine order. The man who succeeded Father Kelly as priest of St Patrick’s parish in Belgrano, an upper middle class Buenos Aires suburb, said the killings came after a whispering campaign that the Pallottine community was made up of left-wingers and “subversives”. They followed a bomb planted by the Montoneros two days earlier in the federal police headquarters which killed twenty-two policemen and one civilian. Police who were called to the St Patrick’s church and monastery after a report of a suspicious car in the vicinity left after they were overheard being told by the driver: “We are on an assignment. Get out of here!” On the floor of the room where the five bodies were discovered was written: “These left wingers died because they were indoctrinators of innocent minds and were members of the Socially Active Movement of Priests for the Third World.”
Another courageous editor, Passionist priest Father Federico Richards, of the Southern Cross, wrote that the blood of the martyrs of Belgrano, the murdered anti-junta Bishop Angelelli (since beatified) and many others would lead to victory, and quoted Martin Luther King’s words “We Shall Overcome”. A number of leaders of the deeply conservative and anti-communist Irish community were not at all happy with his stand.
The most granular detail of this meticulously researched book – and the part that relies most on diplomatic papers – is in the long chapter on Irish foreign policy during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, provoked by Argentina’s invasion of those islands on April 2nd, 1982 (Buenos Aires had claimed the islands as part of Argentina since the 1820s). Ironically this very small war on the far side of the globe led to “arguably the most serious crisis in modern Anglo-Irish relations since the early 1940s”, says Keogh.
The British representative on the UN Security Council quickly moved a resolution demanding the complete withdrawal of Argentine forces. Ireland then, as now, was sitting on the Council and its Irish representative, the highly respected Noel Dorr, spoke on the duty to uphold the rule of law in international relations, making clear that Ireland’s concern was not with the merits of the dispute over ownership of the Falkland Islands. Britain was counting on the votes of fellow EEC members who were on the Security Council, and Dorr – supported by the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sean Donlon – recommended after lengthy consultations with Dublin that Ireland should vote in favour. The foreign ministers of the ten European Community member states issued a statement condemning the Argentine action, calling on Buenos Aires to withdraw its forces and adhere to the Security Council’s appeal to refrain from the use of force and pursue a diplomatic solution. The EEC also imposed economic sanctions on Argentina.
There was outrage and incomprehension in the Irish-Argentine community. How could Ireland side with the traditional enemy against a country trying to right the wrongs wrought by British imperialism, asked Father Richards and other community leaders. Ambassador Patrick Walshe explained to Dublin that the raw patriotic conviction that the Malvinas “were, are and will be Argentine” was “partly as a result of genuine anti-colonial feeling and partly of massive, demagogic quasi-totalitarian manipulation of opinion by many administrations over many years”. It did not help that the government doing the invading had been one of the world’s most notorious dictatorships over the previous decade.
All this changed on May 1st when a Royal Navy submarine torpedoed and sank the Argentine battleship the General Belgrano, costing the lives of 362 young Argentine conscripts. Three days later the Irish government said it would be asking for an immediate meeting of the Security Council to call for a cessation of hostilities by both sides and negotiation of a diplomatic settlement under the auspices of the UN. Most damagingly for Britain, the government said it would be seeking an end to EEC sanctions against Argentina. Taoiseach Charles Haughey said Ireland had been forced to act because the situation in the South Atlantic “threatened world peace”.
This time the British were outraged. The Department of Foreign Affairs had not been consulted about what Keogh calls Haughey’s “new-found but ill-defined and ill-thought-out foreign policy radicalism.” The episode brought to an abrupt end an apparently warming relationship between Haughey and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Keogh pays tribute to Noel Dorr’s “energetic, creative and subtle attempts” to deal with the challenges caused by Haughey’s solo run and says he has not received full credit for his “diplomatic deftness” in defusing a very difficult situation at the UN. “The rupture in Anglo-Irish relations was temporary rather than lasting due in no small part to the diplomatic skills of both Dorr and Donlon,” he writes. Few would have forecast that within three and a half years the mould-breaking 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement on Northern Ireland would be signed.
This book is significant principally as a diplomatic history of Irish-Argentine relations, and the insights it thus provides into periods like the 1946-1955 rule of Juan Peron, the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and the Falklands/Malvinas war. Keogh himself admits that it “sheds new light on the workings of the Department of Foreign Affairs in an area of secondary foreign policy importance”. Its access to previously unseen DFA papers makes this a central part of the book’s interest.
However, those looking for a more general history of the fascinating Irish-Argentine community, the world’s fifth largest Irish diaspora, may be disappointed. Elements waiting to be further explored include the extraordinary entrepreneurship and wealth of many in that community, making them among the world’s wealthiest Irish people in the early twentieth century; the tensions in the community between conservatives and radicals during Peron’s regime and the late seventies-early eighties dictatorship; and a pen portrait of the role of the community in contemporary Argentina. There is still much to be written about the part played by the Irish in building the huge, contradictory and often unhappy nation that is Argentina.
Andy Pollak was 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.