Under southern stars

An Irishman’s Diary about Argentina

Mon, May 5, 2014, 02:00

Taking photographs outside number 712 calle San Martin in Buenos Aires I felt like a private detective. The address was one occupied by my great-granduncle, John J Healy, who emigrated from the midlands of Ireland in the early 1900s. As I stood there on calle San Martin I had his handwritten letters in my pocket.

In 1904 he wrote home to his brother: “There are a million people in the city of Buenos Aires – that is one fifth of the entire population of Argentina. It is very beautiful – well-lighted, cleaned and policed, and has excellent electric tram service. It is modelled on Paris – all streets are straight and the houses built in blocks. It is impossible to go astray or miss a house. No expense has been spared to make it as the people fondly term it – The Queen City of South America.”

I too found the city very beautiful but I was itching to find out more about my relative’s time in the countryside. In his letters home, John Healy mentions Irish surnames such as Morgan, Duggan, Kelly and Gearty, the names of men with whom he worked in the city, but also on a ranch about 60 miles inland from the capital.

The ranch, La Estancia la Margarita, was called after the owner’s wife, Margaret Morgan.

“I like the country well,” Healy wrote. “There is no place where one can make a decent living so easily, and the people are very nice. The rural parts are rather lonesome to one unaccustomed to the life, but soon become agreeable ... Life is lonely at first but afterwards people find it irresistible and cannot live anywhere else. This fascination is peculiar. It must be the space. I suppose man likes room. The houses are very far apart. Rich people have leagues of land and he with 800 acres is accounted poor.”

I was reading this part of John Healy’s letter on the bus to San Antonio de Areco in Buenos Aires province. At the station I was collected by the current occupant of the estancia, Matías Mendez, whom I had phoned a day earlier. He is a fifth-generation Morgan on his mother’s side and I was able to tell him of Healy’s friendship and dependence on the Morgan family, in the early 1900s.

He took me to meet several older men of Irish ancestry in Areco. Some of them still dressed in the Argentine gaucho style. Diego Kelly, a large man with white hair, told me that both of his parents had come from Ireland.

Another man, who was seventy-five, spoke English fluently, as his mother had been Irish and his father English. He said that his parents didn’t want him to speak with “the brogue”, so he spoke with an English accent. The other older men all spoke a little English as they had learned their prayers in English as children, at the town’s Church of San Patricio.

Later Matías took me to La Estancia la Margarita. The ranch is located about 15km from Areco and he is the only person who lives there now. Until a few years ago it was open to guests, so it has been partially restored. It was bought by the Morgan family around 1845. According to Matías, the house already existed, probably built by Spanish or Italians. The building includes a look-out tower built by these early colonists to keep an eye on the local indigenous population.

Upstairs in one of the bedrooms I imagined John Healy at the writing desk scripting the letters I now held. Outside, flat grasslands, or pampas, spread for miles, but the avenue leading up to the house is lined with eucalyptus trees. The gardens are planted with imported trees to give a European feel. As well as the house, there are stables where the labourers lived.

Matías explained that originally sheep were reared as wool was profitable, but later the switch was made to cattle. The original ranch was huge, much bigger than it is today. Nowadays most of the fields are rented out, and they are used to graze horses and grow soya and wheat. Before I left, Matías told me that he would be leaving the ranch soon as he is getting married next year and will move to his fiancée’s farm. And the surname of his wife-to-be? “She’s a Duggan,” he said proudly.

Healy spent the next decade in Argentina, returning a few times to Ireland to visit family, before coming back to settle in Dublin by 1914 and study medicine as a mature student. He never married and sadly died in the 1918 flu epidemic while carrying out medical duties.

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