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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Banner used in St. Patrick's Day 1934 'God Save Ireland - Erin Go Bragh' (at Our Lady of Luján basilica of Buenos Aires)

Banner used on St. Patrick's Day 1934 'God Save Ireland - Erin Go Bragh' (at Our Lady of Luján basilica of Buenos Aires).

Photo: Edmundo Murray 2003.

Within and beyond the Empire: Irish settlement in Argentina (1830-1930)

Edmundo Murray, Society for Irish Latin American Studies, University of Zurich

Aristotle would smile contemptuously at my untaught use of his metaphysical taxonomy of causes. (1) I will take the risk anyway, and have recourse to it to elucidate the perception of 'border' by migrant populations. From the emigrant's point of view, borders can be perceived as material or formal. Material borders divide territories based on tangible and external factors, such as topographical accidents (mountains, rivers, forests), linguistic differences, religious, political and legal systems, which may take generations or even centuries to take shape or to be modified. Formal borders are the result of social paradigms, usually associated with the concept of nation or national identity, and include the welcome signage in the receiving country, the national colours, the officers' uniforms, protocols and customs offices, taxes to imported goods and health regulations among many others, all factors that are relatively easy to change by the adequate governing authority. The case of people migrating from Ireland to Argentina in 1830-1930 represents an interesting pattern of borders that were materially solid but formally diluted, a combination which was in the base of these emigrants' change of identities, from colonized to colonizers, or from Irish to ingleses.

For the emigrants, the material borders between so different places were tangible, numerous and sometimes almost impossible to cross. First was the problem of logistics to cross the Atlantic from north to south and from east to west. From their areas of residence in the Irish Midlands, Wexford, Clare and a few other counties in Ireland, the emigrants used a combination of Bianconi coaches and Royal and Grand Canal boats - and later the railway - to reach Dublin. Some chartered ships sailed directly from Dublin to South America, though the majority of the emigrants purchased passage tickets in established companies with scheduled departures from Liverpool. In the South Atlantic seaway, sailboats were used up to the early 1850s and steamboats thereafter, with an average journey of six to eight weeks. The passage ticket cost was significantly higher - about four times - than the one to North America, with an average of £16 per adult passenger in steering. In the mid-nineteenth century that amount was the equivalent to the whole annual wage of an Irish labourer, which is a reason why only a few were able to pay for it. In fact, several tickets were advanced by the employers in Argentina, so the emigrants would work for them during one year to pay for the expenses of their journey. (2)

As material as the Atlantic ocean was the linguistic frontier between Argentina and Ireland. Only a few educated Argentines spoke English (3) and the Spanish language was almost completely unknown in Ireland, even in academic circles. (4) Once in Buenos Aires, most of the emigrants were hired by English-speaking residents, particularly in the 'camp' (the countryside) or to work with certain city merchants. Therefore, in a country where Spanish was the lingua franca among Amerindian, African, Creole and immigrant groups, communicating exclusively in English was less a hindrance than an opportunity to find a good job and to swiftly join the influential English-speaking community. (5)

In theory, for the newly-arrived Irish immigrants the Catholic religion established in Argentina was an opportunity to easily adapt to the larger society. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the Irish Catholics in Argentina joined the local Irish chaplaincy, led between 1843 and 1871 by the celebrated Fr. Anthony Fahy (1805-1871), who worked successfully to isolate his flock and to maintain their identity as English-speaking Catholics, as distinct from the native parishioners. This was perceived at one time as a sectarian approach and was the origin of several complaints to the hierarchy from the local clergy. Immigrants with a Church of Ireland background generally joined the Anglican local community. Among its members were the founder of the Argentine armada, William Brown (1777-1857) and the businessman and railway promoter Thomas Armstrong (1797-1875). However, facing contempt to Irish rural immigrants in nineteenth-century Anglican circles, many Protestant Irish settlers preferred to join the Presbyterian congregation and thus followed their pastors.

To most of the Irish immigrants the arrival to the port of Buenos Aires and the first days in the city was a learning, rather shocking, experience. In Kathleen Nevin's You'll Never Go Back, the fictionalised memoirs of a Longford female emigrant to Argentina in the 1880s, the main character Kate described the men working in the port as 'wild-looking shaggy men in coloured shirts, and, indeed, one could have believed anything of them. [They were] extremely violent and passionate, [...] not to be trusted. The less you have to do with them, the better'. (6) Following this advice, which was consistent with the recommendation of the Catholic priests, the Irish went to the countryside without delay. Edward Edmunds and Thomas Roche from Murristown, county Wexford, arrived in Buenos Aires on 28 August 1864. Two days later they took the train to LujŠn, and from there they went on state-coach or horse-back to the estancia (ranch) of their new employer, John Murphy, in Salto, Buenos Aires province, about 200 kilometres from the capital city. (7)

The ultimate frontier was the countryside. It was a border line between the safety of the city and the hazards of the rural milieu, the comforts of European life and the bare necessities of the pampas desert, the culture perceived by the Argentine governing elite as modern and 'civilized', and the space viewed as backward and 'barbarian'. (8) In the 'camp' everything, or almost everything, was different from Ireland. The weather was extremely hot and dry in the summer and rather cold and humid in winter. The diet was based on meat, 'plenty of the best of mutton any way you choose to cook it'. (9) During raids by gauchos (the cowboys of the pampas) and Indians, the personal safety of the immigrant and his family was frequently threatened. It was a solitary life, with enormous distances between one house and the other, where the Irish shepherds usually lived in far-away huts minding flocks of 1,500 to 2,000 sheep. Shepherds would work on halves or on thirds with their employers. The shepherd was responsible for a flock of sheep, and at the end of the year owned a half or a third of the produce in lambs and wool. In two or three years a good shepherd was able to acquire his own flock. With the profitable wool business in the period 1830-1880, many shepherds were in a position to rent their place and, after ten or fifteen years, to purchase land.

Land was the fabulous El Dorado that enticed thousands of Irish emigrants (as well as Basque, Scottish, Welsh and others) to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in the first half of the nineteenth century. Actually, the dream of owning land came true for a small group of immigrants, and a few among them owned sizeable tracts of land. In 1888, the brothers Michael, John and Thomas Duggan of Ballymahon, county Longford, owned approximately 65,000 hectares of the best land in the province of Buenos Aires. When John Murphy of Kilrane, county Wexford died in 1909 his heirs received 40,000 hectares in Buenos Aires and Santa Fe provinces. In the early 1920s, John Maguire's son Eduardo Pedro Maguire (1865-1929) and Dublin-born brothers Edward and Michael Mulhall were among the thirty principal landowners in Argentina. Most Irish estancieros owned an average of 1,700-2,500 hectares, which were purchased directly from the previous owners or, after some years of leasing, from the government through the system of emphyteusis. Nevertheless, I estimate that only ten per cent of the Irish emigrants to Argentina could purchase land. One out of every two Irish who arrived in Argentina in 1830-1930 returned to Ireland or re-emigrated to the United States, Australia and other destinations. (10) Thousands of farmers and labourers from Ireland died during cholera and yellow fever epidemics in Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, or departed anonymously. When productive land was already impossible to acquire by most immigrants, the Irish remained in social situations that at best can be classed within the immigrant middle-class of late nineteenth century Argentina. However, the Irish middle-class families were able to take advantage of their only assets brought from Ireland, i.e., their British citizenship and their English mother tongue, which greatly helped them to find jobs in the British railways, banks and other companies, or at least as domestic help for well-off families. (11)

Beyond the empire

While visiting Kashmir's ceasefire line, the character Maximilian Ophuls in Salman Rushdie's novel Shalimar the Clown, asks himself: 'Could any two places have been more different; could any two places have been more the same? Human nature, the great constant, surely persisted in spite of all surface differences. One snaking frontier had made him what he was'. Beyond the material borders of the British Empire, represented in Argentina by the endless extension of the Atlantic as well as by linguistic, religious and other cultural differences, the ambiguous formal borders did more to unite Ireland and Argentina than to divide both territories, and actually shaped the identities of the British and Irish immigrants.

Like India, New South Wales or British Guiana, nineteenth-century Argentina was regarded in London business circles as a market where Britain could obtain all the benefits of investment and trade with very weak competition from other countries. Unlike those or other British colonies, Argentina added very little or no burden at all to the colonial administration and expenditure. Therefore, the influence and control that England could hold over Argentina meant that the South American country could be considered an informal, or de facto, British colony. Indeed, up to World War I, Argentina was one of the most important countries of the informal empire. (12)

The capital of the Argentine Republic, Buenos Aires, underwent an intensive process of identity, ranging from a neglected outpost in sixteenth-century Spanish South America, to capital of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, to Gran Aldea (big village) and finally to a cosmopolitan city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the late eighteenth century, Buenos Aires became the economic, social and political focus of the pampas in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. The Anglophile elite governed the country like an enormous estancia, in which a few hundred landlords owned thousands of square kilometres of prime land. During some periods in the first half of the nineteenth century, almost everything except the meat, hides and wool was imported from England. At the same time, the basic social structure of the Spanish colony remained untouched after the independence, allowing little or no social mobility to the poorer segments. With an impressive - in European terms - availability of agricultural land, the province of Buenos Aires represented to Irish and other potential emigrants the possibility of acquiring productive lands, and thus becoming part of the imagined South American landed gentry.

It was in this context that about 45,000 Irish emigrants arrived in Buenos Aires in the period 1830-1930. Some of them worked hard and managed to acquire their means of production, especially land and sheep, becoming landowners and members of the local landed elite. They went beyond the formal borders of the British Empire to settle in a former Spanish colony, which was essentially different in language, customs and social structure from their native Ireland. At the same time, they remained within the Anglosphere of British influence that had an impact on the economic, social and cultural values of the Argentine society.

The vast majority of the Irish who settled in Argentina considered themselves ingleses. Their Irishness was limited to geographic origins, and was overshadowed by parochial pride. By the 1860s, when several thousand Irish families were residing in the Buenos Aires countryside, feuds existed between the immigrants from Westmeath and Wexford. The Wexford people thought very highly of themselves, particularly in relation to the Ballinacarryas (Westmeath people). (13) As John Murphy wrote in one of his letters, 'they [the Westmeath people] collected in a ruffianly mob and so much disturbed the peace that the races had to be broken up. [...] I am glad to say that there were not a single individual of any other county mixed in fray' (John Murphy to Martin Murphy, 20 October 1867). However, against the Argentine gauchos and local people, the Irish united in a self-perception of British superiority.

Did the borders between Ireland and Argentina shape the Englishness of the Irish? Did the snaking frontier - in Rushdie's terms - make the people what they were? While the material borders were crossed with difficulty (expensive travel, long journeys, dangerous environment), the formal borders were erased by the emigrants in a way that made them feel at home in their new countries. In the Irish estancias sheep-farmers, shepherds, ranch hands, cooks, carpenters and other labourers lived and worked together, some of them with their families. They were primarily from a single Irish county or region, they spoke in English with their characteristic brogue, and they maintained frequent correspondence with their families and friends in Ireland, while their contacts with the native population were sporadic. In this context, as well as in urban situations with English-speaking merchants, dealing with the local people and cultures prompted the immigrants coming from a colonized island to regard themselves as colonizers. Confronted with, and sometimes feeling threatened by, the ways of living in Argentina and working in the various urban and rural business, the Irish believed they came from the most modern culture in the world. They realised that they could be carriers of modernity and take advantage of what they perceived as the local backwardness and uncivilised ways.

Some of the emigrant letters from Argentina include references to this process. 'I see but little reason for the tenant farmers of Ireland to indulge themselves with these hopes [to own land], as I think they cannot make out of the land the amount that is necessary to keep them living (even) comfortable' John Murphy wrote in 1864. About his experience in Argentina, Murphy observed that 'having now heard the way business is chiefly carried on in this country I hope to be able to do things more easier in future'. In a later letter he attached the national adjectives English and Irish to the colonizer term of the process. 'The habits and customs of the [Argentine] people are greatly changed, and they have taught a good lesson by English and Irish which are now overrunning the country with their flocks'. (14) To the typical determination of most immigrants to adapt to their new milieu, the Irish added the attitude of behaving as modern conquistadores in what they perceived as an uncivilised territory.

My experience from recent visits to Ireland is that most Irish people today consider their fellow countrymen who emigrated to Argentina 150 or 200 years ago something like Tarzan the Ape Man relocating to London or New York. My Latin American background plays with the opposite idea (English-speakers settling in the jungle). In fact, the majority of these emigrants were land-thirsty young men and women who wanted to seize the opportunity to improve their economic and social lives by leaving the security of a family farmstead in Ireland and settling in the uncertainty of the Argentine pampas. Their choice was not very different from that made by thousands of other Irish emigrants to North America or Australia. But the unique pattern of material and formal borders between Ireland and Argentina had a particular influence on their identities as colonized who became colonizers, or Irish who became ingleses.

  1. Aristotle, La métaphysique (Paris, 1991). Vol. I, 4:2. Back to (1)
  2. A detailed description of the travel patterns followed by the Irish emigrants to Argentina is available online in the website article The Irish Road to South America (http://www.irlandeses.org/road.htm). Murray, Edmundo. 'The Irish Road to South America: Nineteenth-Century Travel Patterns from Ireland to the River Plate', Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, available online (http://www.irlandeses.org/road.htm), accessed 26 July 2006. Back to (2)
  3. There is also the peculiar case of domestic workers and others who were taught the English language by their British and Irish employers. In the 1870 entry of his memoirs, Tom Garrahan wrote that with his family worked 'a peón [ranch hand] called Sixto Avila. He spoke English with as good a brogue as any Irishman': Edmundo Murray, Becoming Irlandés: Private Narratives of the Irish Emigration to Argentina, 1844-1912 (Buenos Aires, 2006), revised edition in English, p. 116. Back to (3)
  4. In 1921 a group of Irish in Argentina established a £50 annual grant to students of Spanish language in the National University of Ireland. Back to (4)
  5. Most of the emigrants were monolingual English speakers, though a small group of families from Clare and Cork spoke Irish. Back to (5)
  6. Kathleen Nevin, You'll Never Go Back (Boston, 1946, reprinted Maynooth, 1999), pp. 14-22. Back to (6)
  7. Murray, Becoming Irlandés, p. 55. Back to (7)
  8. Most notably, in Domingo F. Sarmiento's Facundo, o Civilización y barbarie (1845), translated as Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants. Back to (8)
  9. Murray, Becoming Irlandés, p.42 Back to (9)
  10. This ratio was significantly lower in 1830-1879 than in 1880-1930. Back to (10)
  11. A good example of the high esteem enjoyed by the Irish domestic help among the Argentine bourgeois families is in Maria Luisa Bemberg's film Miss Mary (1986), which depicts the life of Mary Mulligan, a governess hired by an Argentine aristocratic landowner to take care of his children. Back to (11)
  12. The significance of this informal colony to British global business may be weighted in terms of investment. In 1913, British public investment in Argentina was £319.5 million, well over the investment in New Zealand (£84.3), West Africa (£37.3) or Hong Kong (£3.1), and slightly below Australia (£332.1), South Africa (£370.2), and India and Ceylon (£378.8). Outside of the English Empire, British investment in Argentina was second only to the USA (£754.6), and represented 44 per cent of the investment in South America (William N. Goetzmann and Andrey D. Ukhov, British Investment Overseas, 1870-1913: A Modern Portfolio Theory Approach. Yale ICF Working Paper N° 05-03 (Yale International Center for Finance, March 2005), p.40, Table 3: Capital Publicly Invested by Great Britain Overseas). Further reading on British relations with Argentina includes H.S. Ferns's Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century (1960), and with Latin America, Rory Miller's Britain and Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1993). Back to (12)
  13. Ballynacarrigy, a town in county Westmeath near the border with Longford, which was the second area of emigration to Argentina up to 1880: Murray, Becoming Irlandés, p. 8. Back to (13)
  14. Murray, Becoming Irlandés, p. 47. Back to (14)

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