The Westmeath connection with Argentina

Tens of thousands of Argentinians can trace their ancestry back to the Irish Midlands.

A number of Westmeath families from several locations throughout the county emigrated to Argentina throughout the nineteenth century, achieving high positions in political, business and ecclesiastical circles. The above title may surprise many readers. Even more surprising is the link between places like Buenos Aires, Pergamino, Salto and San Antonio de Areco with Westmeath towns and villages such as Ballymore, Ballynacarrigy, Castlepollard and Moyvore.

So how did this connection come about? To find the answer, we must take ourselves back to the beginning of the nineteenth century when Spain was the imperial power in Argentina. In this period a wave of wars of independence swept Spanish America, led by Simon Bolivar, Bernardo O’Higgins, Jose Artigas and Jose de San Martin. San Martin was the hero of the Argentine War of Independence which was achieved in 1816. Admiral William Brown from Foxford, Co Mayo played a prominent role in the war of independence, being the founder of the Argentine Navy.

Another Irishman, John Thomand O’Brien from Wicklow, also played a prominent role in the war, being adjutant to San Martin. It is said that San Martin asked O’Brien to go back to Ireland for 200 emigrants at a time when Argentina was a country of vast unclaimed lands and there was an opportunity for advancement in the wool and meat trades. O’Brien spent the 1827/28 period trying to recruit emigrants in Ireland, without success. However, he met John Mooney from Streamstown, near Ballymore and persuaded him to move to Argentina. His sister Mary Bookey and her husband, Patrick Bookey went with him and they began work on a sheep farm in the Pampas area.

Mooney soon earned enough money to purchase his own land and he became a large cattle and sheep farmer. He founded a saladero, a factory where the lean cattle of the Pampas were slaughtered and their meat salted, with the salted meat being exported to Brazil to feed the slaves on the coffee plantations. He also set up a gracina in Buenos Aires, a factory that produced fat and tallow from the offals of cattle, sheep and horses.

Mooney’s farming and business interests grew to such an extent that he was soon sending money home for relatives and neighbours to join him. Thus was started the flood of Westmeath emigration to Argentina that occurred during the remainder of the nineteenth century. Many of those who went were the younger, non-inheriting sons of large tenant farmers, with the education and management skills to allow them to become wealthy farmers in a foreign country. The heart of this emigration was localised in a quadrangle stretching from Athlone to Ballymore to Mullingar and on to Kilbeggan.

Virtually the whole population surrounding the town of Ballymore emigrated to Buenos Aires by 1860.
The settlers did not initially integrate with the rest of the Argentine community. They formed their own schools, hospitals, schools and clubs, and married among themselves. It is reckoned that there were around 300 Irish emigrants in Argentina by 1830 (the first arrivals came as part of the abortive British invasions of 1806 and 1807) and 60% of those were of Westmeath origin. The emigration started by John Mooney saw Westmeath providing two thirds of all the emigrants throughout the nineteenth century.

In 1844, William McCann, during a 2000-mile trek through Argentina said, ‘at least three quarters of the emigrants are from county Westmeath.’

During the 1830’s there was a continued rise in emigration to Argentina, coming from three sources: Ireland, the Irish coming down from the United States and those coming in from Brazil. Some Irish had gone to Brazil but having received a hostile welcome, crossed into Argentina.

The famine of the mid-1840’s saw another stage develop and it boosted emigration from Westmeath to Argentina. People in this stage prospered enormously and achieved greater success than later emigrants. They were influenced by Daniel O’Connell and were less nationalistic than those of the post-famine era. By the time of the famine many of the early emigrants had become part of the Argentine establishment.

Rev Antonio Fahy, a chaplain in Buenos Aires who was originally from Galway, urged the emigrants to avoid the cities and head for the vast countryside.

The 1850’s show a lot of Irish-owned estancias (ranches) which in turn employed new emigrants. Women began to arrive in greater numbers around this time and they often worked as cooks or maids. Women soon comprised half of the emigrants and they provided wives for the male settlers, with marriages between Irish and Argentine couples being very rare. Indeed, up to the third
generation Irish people rarely married outside the Irish community.

Another wave of emigrants arrived in the 1860’s, bringing names like Ryan, Casey, McCormack and Mullaly. It is hard to trace other families because of the hispanicisation of their surnames, e.g. Kelly became Cueli and Campbell became Campanas. Most arrived to join their relatives while others came after the Fenian Rising. As the 1870’s approached there was a clear political division between emigrants, with the early wealthy emigrants pro-Home Rule in Ireland while the new arrivals – like the post-famine arrivals – being more nationalistic.

An interesting picture of the Irish community in Argentina appeared in the Southern Cross newspaper, the oldest Irish newspaper outside Ireland dated January 16th, 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.”
John Mooney was a very charitable and patriotic man and he contributed large sums of money to the famine Relief Fund of 1847 and to the Fenian Prisoners Fund of 1867. He also made contributions towards the erection of churches, schools and hospitals in Argentina.

The 1880’s witnessed a further influx from Westmeath, many of whom were joining an earlier generation of relatives. During the 1875-1880 period there was a great development of organisations and educational institutions by the Irish community. Newman College, St Brendan’s College and St Brigid’s College were established, and still exist. Branches of the Gaelic League and
Sinn Fein were formed. The Irish Catholic Association was formed and hurling clubs were organised in Buenos Aires and Mercedes.

By the 1890’s there were only limited opportunities for new emigrants. The sheep industry was in decline and cattle and tillage were taking over. With the decline in the sheep trade Irish emigration slowed down. The emigrants had been Irish people with agricultural skills who adapted easily to farming life in the great Pampas of Argentina. Only a trickle of emigration continued from Westmeath until 1914.

Today there are about 350,000 Argentines of Irish decent. Many of the younger generation have moved to the cities and can be found in all walks of life while the majority still work their estancias. Ireland has even developed diplomatic relations with Argentina. Some people have kept in touch with their Irish relatives, but for many contact has been lost years ago.

An Irish journalist who visited a cemetery in San Antonio de Areco, north of Buenos Aires, was astounded at the number of tombstones showing Westmeath names like Murray, Kelly and, of course, Mooney. The community has now totally integrated into Argentine life and have intermarried and moved to the cities. Nevertheless, it is also possible to find Irish descendents in rural areas speaking with a notable Westmeath accent, though they have never been to Ireland.

Argentina warmly welcomed Westmeath natives from the 1820’s onwards, and is always assured of a special place in our hearts.