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CULTURE | 19-12-2020 09:18

Imperfect yet invaluable contribution to Irish-Argentine studies

In recent years, there has been an unexpected revival of published works on Irish Argentina. This latest effort, by ex-BBC radio presenter and presenter Patrick Speight is a serious and different contribution.

During the last years, following a slow publishing process related to the Irish Diaspora in Argentina – an irregular output that includes the classic Story of the Irish in Argentina (1919) by Thomas Murray – an unexpected revival on Irish Argentina became the trigger for the production of several professional works written by Argentine, European and American investigators, and scholars. 

An incomplete but significant list includes Cómo fue la inmigración irlandesa en la Argentina (1981) by Juan Carlos Korol and Hilda Sábato, Argentina: Land of Broken Promises (1999) by Michael Geraghty, Wherever Green is Worn (2000) by Tim Pat Coogan, The Forgotten Colony (2000) by Andrew Graham-Yooll, Irlandeses en la Pampa Gringa (2006) by Roberto Landaburu, Irish ‘Ingleses’: The Irish Immigrant Experience in Argentina (2009) by Hellen Kelly, Narrativas de la diáspora irlandesa bajo la Cruz del Sur (2011) by Laura Izarra, La independencia de Irlanda: la conexión argentina (2016), by Dermot Keogh, Irish Diasporic Narratives in Argentina (2017) by Sinéad Wall, Linguistic Diasporas, Narrative and Performance (2017) by Sarah O’Brien and Orality in Written Texts (2019) by Carolina P. Amador-Moreno, among others. 

It is in this context that Patrick Speight, a former BBC radio presenter, reporter, and producer who holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast, offers an original essay on a topic hardly frequented: under the title Irish-Argentine Identity in an Age of Political Challenge and Change, 1875-1983, he explores the behaviour and reactions of the Irish-Argentine community in relation to decisive questions such as the 1916 Easter Rising, the two World Wars, Peronism, the military dictatorship and the Malvinas /Falklands war. 

The author begins giving an account of the story of the Irish in Argentina, in what is not one more narrative since he also stresses the actions of the Gaelic League and the leit motiv rarely mentioned by other investigators, namely the idea that “the Irish were different”; reflections on language is a plus as well. These and other references and considerations are functional to the whole book. We read on page 102:

(...) the Southern Cross failed to demonstrate prescience about the revival of the Irish language as an identity marker. Instead, the best the Southern Cross could suggest regarding the role of language in the preservations of identity was to recommend that Irish-Argentines gradually drop English in favour of Spanish.

Other allusions, like Fr. Michael Quinn’s defence and promotion of the Irish language, are also pertinent to the identity dilemma the Irish-Argentine community suffered.  

He referred to how ‘the homely brogue of their fathers’ brings back recollections of ‘the ancient land we came from. He urged schools ‘to cultivate a taste for reading English’ and especially Anglo-Irish literature which would persuade young people to appreciate ‘that the Saxon tongue on the lips of the Gael is very rich, very beautiful and well worth preserving’. (p. 106). 

The Southern Cross appears to be an essential source that nourished the main subjects of the book: the two World Wars, Catholic Education, Fascism, Peronism (a very interesting section is devoted to a scarcely known Irish-porteño priest called José María Dunphy Harrington), the military dictatorship, the Malvinas / Falkland war...  But up to a certain point, a problem is that the Southern Cross underwent, generation after generation, an irreversible decay course in terms of subscriptions and influence; actually, during the 1976 dictatorship –a crucial theme in this study–, the paper printed about 1500 copies (200 destined to promotion and propaganda); what’s more, this insignificant figure was drastically reduced during editor Fred Richards’ leftist crusade. The writer knows this and he states it at the end of the book:

The Irish-Argentine community analysed in this book cannot claim to represent the estimated half million Argentines of Irish descent living in the Republic. My field research put me in contact with just a fraction of that community and the majority of those were very conservative.

In a way, this limitation explains certain lopsided assessment that pervades sections of the book.    

Another pertinent issue has to do with all those who, although being members of the Irish-Argentine community, cared nothing about their ancestry and, assimilated, felt they were nothing but genuine members of Argentine society: their voices are not heard in the debate. The Southern Cross represented only part of the Irish (always conservative) community: people associated with the Hurling and the Fahy Clubs, churchgoers who used to go to mass to St. Patrick’s in Belgrano or in San Antonio de Areco, or celebrated Ireland’s patron saint on March 17 at Holy Cross church… Most of them – in or out of the Irish community– kept “resolutely aloof from politics, more through a sort of carelessness than from any good reason” as explained in the Hiberno-Argentine Review on December 3, 1920, in a statement quoted by Dr. Speight.

Anomalous Irish-porteño characters, their words, and actions are fully analysed by the essayist: John William Cooke, Rodolfo Walsh, Fr Federico Richards, Irish-Argentine Pallotines (Alfredo Leaden and Alfie Kelly)... María Elena Walsh is named but receives no special attention although she was more than the author of popular books for children. Not to speak of Luis Alberto Murray, poet, historian and right-wing “Peronista,” who is not even mentioned. The massacre at St. Patrick’s Church in 1976 gives the scholar an opportunity to give a fascinating account of the infighting within the Pallottine congregation, similar to the ones the Passionist congregation knew during the same period, the 1970s. These religious communities, originally devoted to the Irish in Argentina and their descendants, and mostly integrated by Irish-porteño priests, were a kind of a microcosm of the crisis that the Irish-Argentine community and the country as well were facing, namely the confrontation between the conservatives and the so-called “progressive” individuals.  

A comprehensive bibliography completes the work. 

Beyond debatable points and certain occasional Manichean approach, this book – with its treatment of unexplored zones, and deep reflections – becomes a serious and different contribution to the increasing corpus of studies on Irish Argentina, an unavoidable work for scholars, writers and whoever wants to know who the Hiberno-Argentines were and who they are.

 

* Irish-Argentine Identity in an Age of Political Challenge and Change, 1875 – 1983, by Patrick Speight; Oxford, Peter Lang; 2019; 346 pp.

   

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Juan José Delaney

Juan José Delaney

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