irish immigration into argentina         a tale of pampas past  

Click for today's edition of the Herald!Article by Michael John Geraghty. Published in Buenos Aires Herald, 1998


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Early Irish immigrant: William Brown, known in Spanish as Guillermo Brown, the Irish-born first admiral of Argentina (Click on image for bio)


Agriculture and education are the legacies of Argentina's 19th Century Irish immigrants and their descendants. The 1869 Handbook of the River Plate Republics reported that some of the Irish farmers "are the most important landowners in the province of Buenos Aires, and it is estimated they own more than 30 million head of sheep."

However, with the passing of time the Irish failed to maintain their huge holdings and their importance in agriculture decreased. On the other hand, the Irish influence on education started small and grew in importance over he years. In 1925, The Standard wrote: "Wherever he Irish settled, their priests went with them to direct their progress and hare their trials." In Argentina, the priests made sure that the first Irish immigrants who had become wealthy farmers donated land to build chapels which became not only places of worship but also schools and social centres or the whole community - from the owners to the labourers and their families.

Many Irish-founded schools still exist today, and it would be impossible to say how many Argentine boys and girls got their primary and secondary education from the sons and daughters of Erin.

Land and Lambs

The first Irishman in Argentina was a Jesuit priest, Rev Thomas Fehily, who arrived in 1587, when Buenos Aires was ten years old. Towards the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th, there were a few hundred others who came in the service of Spain or as sailors on British ships. Immigration in larger numbers began in 1820 and ended in 1889, with the largest numbers arriving between 1840 and 1849, the height of the famine in Ireland. The 1895 census registered 18,617 native Irish and Irish Argentines. By today, this group of people has grown to between 350,000 and 500,000.

Many of the towns founded by the Irish Duggan, Gahan, Murphy, Heavy, which today are often only a few abandoned buildings - were once thriving community centres where from Monday to Friday school was held. On Saturday, there were community gatherings, confession and benediction. Sunday morning mass was a religious and social event.

When sheep breeding and wool trading became profitable in the early 19th Century, the English, Scots and Irish developed this business in Argentina. The Irish who made immense fortunes in this period were the earlier arrivals like Peter Sheridan, who came in 1820 and started one of the first sheep herds in Buenos Aires province. He, like some of the other Irish who arrived at around the same time, came with some money in his pocket. Those who came later, during the 1840s, went to work for these land-owning Irish.

When the ships bringing the Irish docked in Buenos Aires, the men generally headed into the country while the women stayed in the city to work as servants, governesses, teachers or office-workers. The farm labourers were not paid in money, but in lambs. When they got enough lambs, they tried to get a piece of land of their own. Those who came towards the end of the immigration period found it harder to find work, not to mention acquire land and lambs.

During the height of the immigration, the Irish spread out across fertile farmlands from Chascomus in Buenos Aires province to Venado Tuerto (originally called Caseytown after the founder, Edward Casey) in Santa Fe province.

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Chapels and schools

According to The Southern Cross, the first chapel was built in 1849 in Barracas al Sur on land donated by tannery-owner Don Patricio Brown. As the communities grew and the little chapels which crisscrossed the pampa were no longer large enough, religious teaching orders began to come from Ireland to found schools which were open to all comers.

In 1856, the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Argentina. They took over the lazaretto, the women's section of the city hospital, the Irish Girl's Orphanage and the Irish Hospital on Rio Bamba between Tucuman and Viamonte (it closed down in 1874). The sisters were soon familiar figures on the streets of the city, visiting the sick and assisting the abandoned.

In the early 1860s, they opened their first school in Chascomus. Many of the schools they founded Mater Misericordiae (1897) in Almagro, Santa Maris (1901) in San Antonio de Areco, Santa Ethnea (1931) in Buenos Aires province - were always symbols of educational excellence and thrive to this day.

In 1866, Father Largo Michael Leahy - an extraordinary man whose importance was overshadowed by the great Father Fahy - founded St. Brendan's College in Carmen de Areco. Only the weed-covered foundation is left, although some bricks were rescued and incorporated into St. Brendan's, the well-known bilingual school in Belgrano "R." In 1868, Leahy founded a chapel on land donated by the Maguire family in Capitan Sarmiento. It eventually became St. Paul's College under the Passionist Fathers who arrived in Argentina in 1879. In 1875, Fr. James Foran founded Our Lady, Star of the Sea, the first permanent church and school on the Malvinas Islands.

Irish Pallotine priests arrived in Argentina in 1885 and they opened St. Patrick's School in Mercedes in 1887. This is probably the oldest Irish Argentine school. In 1891, the Ladies of St. Joseph founded the Fahy Institute on Cochabamba Street, which later moved to Moreno where it is today. In 1899, the Irish Catholic Association founded St. Brigid's College in Caballito, now one of the oldest bilingual schools in Argentina. It is also an important community centre and hardly a month goes by without some Irish-Argentine group holding its annual gathering there.

The Irish educational tradition continued well into this century, with eight more institutions founded.

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SS City of Dresden

Big scale immigration from Ireland very effectively ended in February 1889 when about 2,000 people arrived at the port of Buenos Aires on board the SS City of Dresden. The episode was a total fiasco. When the ship docked, the Hotel de Immigrantes was full and the parched, starving passengers were forced to sleep in the open.

La Prensa wrote that "about two hundred families were led into stables, which had been turned into an immense pool of stagnant putrid filthy water." The Buenos Aires Herald said that "lying government agents basely deceived and cruelly inveigled poor and ignorant people into coming here where no preparation to receive them has been made." According to The Southern Cross, "Some of the women were forced into prostitution."

These immigrants were finally moved to lands in Naposta, near Bahia Blanca. The project failed and "in March 1891 five hundred and twenty Naposta colonists trekked their weary way back to Buenos Aires, broken in spirit, utterly destitute." The adults were left to fend for themselves. The girls were taken into the Irish Girl's Orphanage and the boys went into the first Fahy School.

The Southern Cross

Founded in 1873 as a fourpage weekly newspaper in English, it is presently a 16 page monthly colour publication written in Spanish, English and Gaelic. One of the oldest newspapers in Argentina, it is probably the oldest Irish-community newspaper in any part of the Irish diasphora. It covers a broad range of topics ranging from Argentine politics to the comings-and-goings of the Irish-Argentine community. During the years of the military dictatorship and under the editorship of Passionist priest Federico Richards, the Southern Cross - along with The Buenos Aires Herald pulled no punches in its condemnation of the military juntas that ruled Argentina.

Camila O'Gorman

The most famous Irishman in Argentina was Admiral William Brown, who commanded the Argentine Navy during the War of An Irishwoman with a different sort of renown was Camila O'Gorman. Irish on her father's side and French on her mother's, Camilla was born in 1828 in Buenos Aires into a well-to-do family. Her great-grand-uncle was the famous physician Michael O'Gorman and her grandmother was the equally famous - or infamous - Ana Maria Perichion.

Camila was little more than a teenager when she fell in love and absconded to Corrientes with Ladislao Gutierrez, a young priest at the Socorro church. When the scandal broke, the local establishment went into paroxysms of self-righteousness. Juan Manuel de Rows ordered the pair hunted down and captured. The lovers, on their way to Rio de Janeiro, decided to look up Fr Michael Gannon, an Irish priest, in Goya. However Gannon, who had been a frequent guest at the O'Gorman residence in Buenos Aires before he was transferred to Corrientes, turned over to the authorities his fellow priest and the lassie at whose table he had often wined and dined.

Brought back to Buenos Aires in chains, they were blindfolded and executed by a firing squad on a cold August morning in 1848. Camila was twenty years old and more than five months pregnant. Ladislao was twenty four. Justice had been done. Michael Gannon prayed for the repose of their immortal souls.

Immigration from Britain & British Empire Extensive site which includes many links to all aspects of 19th century Irish emigration to Argentina.
Immigration policy & settlement: Britain & late 19th century Argentina Survey of the British Argentine immigration experience, from UK agents to actual settlement from Andrew Graham-Yooll.

Welsh immigrants in Patagonia: Mimosa, the old ship that sailed into history Useful outline history of the voyage by Susan Wilkinson
Welsh settlers to Argentina: Gaiman, an unforgettable people Short article by Joe Schneider about the Welsh settlement
Immigrants to Argentina from Eastern Europe

Argentina, 1852-1942: Economics Links to the background context of the period

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