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Irish in Argentina provides new narrative for Ireland’s Global Diaspora

23 November 2017 - Sarah O’Brien’s new book Linguistic Diasporas, Narrative and Performance: The Irish in Argentina explores the complex relationship between language and identity amongst Ireland’s biggest emigrant group outside the English-speaking world.

Sarah O'Brien

Dr Sarah O’Brien, School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences at Trinity College Dublin,   has the interesting task of bringing together two research strands, history and linguistics, in a hybrid study of Ireland’s emigrant descendants in  Argentina. In one of the central questions which provides the basis for her new book, and which brought her to Argentina in search of its Irish emigrant community, she asks: ‘What happens to our mother langauge when we are forced to emigrate?’

The Irish in Argentina are the biggest emigrant group outside of the English-speaking world and they are Spanish speakers. ‘It’s an unusual emigrant movement. It looks very different to the Irish in Britain and the Irish in the US’, notes Dr O’Brien, who previously spent time looking at the Irish in England in the post-World War II period.

Sarah O'BrienDr O’Brien explains that the majority of  Irish emigrants who went to Argentina were from West Meath, with a smaller community from Wexford. This wave of emigration which lasted only 50 years was partly coordinated by localised Catholic Church members in Westmeath and Argentina, who actively encouraged Argentina as an alternative destination to the United States due to its Catholic foundations and pro-European value system. ‘The emigration completely ceased after 1889, so unlike Britain or the US there has beeen no reinforcement of Irish cultural or linguistic practices in Argentina in any systematic way since 1889.’

The distinctiveness of this community of around 60,000 was further exacerbated by the fact that they all left at a particular time from a particular place and largely settled in the Argentine Pampas. The Pampas are a region of Argentina known for its agricultural flatlands and remoteness. ‘The Irish figures, very often members of the Irish Catholic Association, that met them off the boat in Buenos Aires redirected them straight out to the Pampas, so that they avoided the ‘moral contamination and temptations’ of Buenos Aires and, moreover, so that they began to put their experience of agricultural practice to use in the sheep rearing ‘estancias’ or ranches that were to form the basis of Argentina’s developing economy.’

Nonetheless, there were further reasons as to why their desirability made them a very different type of emigrant community to that which could be witnessed in the U.S or Britain at that time. ‘The Argentina bourgeoisie of that time was invested in cultivating an elite, white, European community in South America and were intent on joining the highest ranks of the emerging global economy. That the Irish were white, English speaking and, at least theoretically, part of the British Empire helped to fulfil this new goal of a European-inflected South American nation. Furthermore, Irish immigrants shared the Catholic orientation of the Argentine republic‘s governing elite, so that they did not suffer the prejudices that their contemporaries experienced in North America at the hands of anti-Catholic political movements such as the ‘Know Nothing party’, says Dr. O’Brien.

Sarah O'BrienDr O’Brien, who has previously carried out a historio-linguistic analysis of the Irish experience in Birmingham, England, is particularly interested in the evolvement of the Irish accent in places like Birmingham in the period between the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement and the post 1995 Peace Process. One discovery of her research suggests  that the political acceptance of the Irish as an economic and social commodity in Argentina has helped to maintain the Irish accent and Irish-English linguistic conventions across four generations of Irish families whereas in Britain, where Irishness has been historically treated with animosity, Irish linguistic conventions are unsustainable for the second generation and often lost or discarded even amongst the first generation.

‘The sad weight of what it means to be Irish in Britain often came as a surprise to the present-day Irish in Argentina; theirs was a society in which Irishness was privileged, and they found it difficult to conceive of a situation, such as that of the Irish in England, in which this was not the case.’

However, interviewing on the ground proved that many Irish-Argentine families suffered extreme hardships as they eked out a living in the Pampas and still more shone light on the difficult backdrop of the 1976-84 Argentine military dictatorship and the social impact of economic crashes from the 1930s up to 2001 on their lives. These contemporary narratives provide an important counterbalance to the ‘mythical’ stories of their earlier estancia-owning ancestors and serve to portray a more inclusive present-day picture of the Irish Diaspora.

Travelling across Argentina and spending three years collecting narratives and stories from fourth and fifth generation Irish-Argentines, Dr O’Brien became acutely aware of the cultural memory of Irishness among this community, which was represented in certain symbols and personalities.   ‘It is interesting to note that Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch is never mentioned as a notable Irish-Argentine by the contemporary Irish community in Argentina. Similarly Rodolfo Walsh, a celebrated Argentine journalist of Irish descent, who reported on human rights abuses during the Argentine military dictatorshop and who was subsequently murdered by state forces, is also absent from this collective memory. The Irish in Argentina have certain emblems and certain personalities that they use to represent their community and they’re often conservative, white and male, embodied in figures such as Catholic priest, Fr. Anthony Fahy, who was central to driving this migration to Argentina and in Admiral William Brown from Mayo, who founded the first Argentine navy.’

Taking theories of memory and applying them to how people tell their stories, Dr O’Brien began to take a greater interest in the memories presented by this community, identifying themes in the collected narratives that validated the Irish-Argentine community’s current circumstances and future ideals. In essence, she notes that the community’s ‘memory’ could be better understood as a reflection of their present than a portrayal of their past. What remained poignant throughout her research, and as evidenced in the book, is the ongoing negotiation of identity and ethnicity among the Irish in Argentina.

‘The experience taught me much, not least that emigration is a lifelong, multigenerational process of negotiating identity, difference and belonging, and that implicit in every emigrant narrative is a perpetual search for home.’

Linguistic Diasporas, Narrative and Performance: The Irish in Argentina is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

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