Murder, sainthood and Irishness in Argentina
Dickie Kelly, the brother of a priest murdered in the Dirty War of the 1970s, is third-generation Irish and retains a strong midlands accent
Argentinian soldiers stand guard outside Government House in Buenos Aires, after the military coup in 1976. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Dickie and Tessie Kelly in the graveyard in Mercedes where Alfredo Jose Kelly is buried
Dickie Kelly, whose grandfather emigrated from Co Westmeath to Argentina in 1862, is showing me around the graveyard in Mercedes, a town about 80km from Buenos Aires, when he paused at the burial plot of the Pallottine order.
After a few minutes discussing the personalities of some of the Irish priests who ministered in the St Patrick’s parish in the town for more than 100 years, Dickie, who speaks English with a strong Irish midlands accent, points to a long marble gravestone in the corner of the Pallottine plot inscribed with three names.
“Did you ever hear tell of the Pallottines killed in Buenos Aires 1976?” he asks, and points at one of the names on the stone, Alfredo Jose Kelly. “He was my brother, Alfie,” he says simply.
The murder of three Pallottine priests and two seminarians by a death squad controlled by the military dictatorship was one of the most notorious incidents in Argentina’s Dirty War of the 1970s. The five murdered Pallottines have been declared martyrs of the church, and the process of canonising them as saints has begun.
Dickie mentions in passing that his brother knew Joseph Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – when the two were seminarians in the Jesuit college in Buenos Aires, and they remained friends until Alfie’s death. He doesn’t make too much of the fact that his brother is on the way to being declared a saint, nor does he discuss in detail the circumstances around his death.
“God took him for a reason. That’s all we can say,” he remarks without bitterness.
His wife, Tessie, remarks that at the time of the murders they were working very hard to make a living from their relatively small farm and had neither the time nor inclination to pay much attention to the politics and the violence centred on Buenos Aires.
Dickie and Tessie, whose family originally came from Keenagh, Co Longford, in the 1830s, are members of the church community in Mercedes. His grandfather took the train from Mullingar on his long journey to the pampas, while her great grandfather left by canal barge from Longford in the 1830s.
Tessie pronounces Keenagh as “Kaynagh”, just as the locals in Ireland have always done. Sitting in the front room of their house, drinking a cup of tea, you could be in the middle of Westmeath or Longford. Dickie retains the speech patterns and accent that his grandfather brought with him in 1862. It is clearly of the Westmeath/Longford region but free of the expletives that pepper the language of many who live there today.
The Irish Argentinians
Many Argentinians of Irish ancestry now speak only Spanish, and most of those who can speak English have learned it at school and have little trace of the brogue. However, Dickie is far from unique: a number of people, particular in the rural parts of Buenos Aires province, still speak English with strong Irish accents.
Fr Tom O’Donnell, the Pallottine priest who ministers at St Patrick’s parish in Mercedes, estimates that about 20 per cent of his flock have some Irish blood in their veins, although many of them now have Spanish or Italian surnames and speak little English.
I have travelled to Mercedes to stay with Fr O’Donnell, a native of Templeglantine, Co Limerick, because of a personal connection with the Irish community there. My grandmother Marcella Farrell, née Keegan, who spent her life in Ardagh, Co Longford, and died in 1972, corresponded with her Argentinian first cousin Maria Luisa Keegan for more than 60 years.
Fr O’Donnell knew Maria Luisa, who died in 1983, and has put me in touch with her niece, Bessie Kelly, who is now 85. Bessie and her daughter, Patricia, both of whom were teachers, entertain me in Mercedes and fill me in on the life of Maria Luisa. Both have visited Ireland and are extremely proud of their ancestry.
The annual fiesta for Our Lady of Mercedes takes place while I am there, with a procession to the town’s cathedral. It is more exuberant than religious processions in Ireland: respectful but not solemn. There are fireworks, a brass band, a concert in the town square and a barbecue, as well as the recitation of the rosary and Mass in the cathedral.
The Pallottines have been in Mercedes since 1887 and have ministered to the Irish and the wider Catholic community during that period. Fr O’Donnell loves the country but is worried about the continuing deterioration of the economy, which has steadily reduced what was one of the richest countries in the world to a sorry state.
Defaulting on its debt in 2001 may have given the country a temporary respite but it accelerated long-term decline by undermining the faith of international investors.
The tragedy of Argentina is that the country’s political class have for decades proved to be incompetent and often corrupt into the bargain. Despite the country’s educated population and vast natural resources its politicians have presided over a steady decline decade after decade.
A young Pallottine seminarian I met in Mercedes expressed the hope that just as the election of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, heralded the collapse of communism in that country the election of Pope Francis might help transform Argentina’s politics Sadly, parliamentary elections just over a week ago seem to indicate a continuation of the same populist politics that has brought the country to its present state.
San Patricio massacre: The road to sainthood
The San Patricio massacre, in which three Pallottine priests and two seminarians were murdered, took place on July 4th, 1976, during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina.
It subsequently emerged that they were murdered on the orders of the military junta then ruling the country, but left-wing guerrillas were blamed by the authorities.
“This parish has been blessed by the presence of those who chose to live not for themselves, but to die so that others may live,” the then archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio – now Pope Francis I – said in 2001 during a service marking the 25th anniversary of the killings.
The pope was friendly with Fr Kelly, with whom he had spent three years as a classmate while training for the priesthood. In 2005 he formally approved the beginning of the process towards making all five saints.
Back in 1976, the massacre exposed strains within the Argentine church as the hierarchy for a time accepted the government’s denial of involvement. The pope has been accused of not doing enough to protect priests, although he was a young priest himself at the time.
In 2001 the Pallottine order asked the Argentine church to formally consider them to be martyrs. Normally, proof of two miracles is required for sainthood. But martyrdom, dying for one’s faith, counts as the first miracle. A Vatican tribunal will eventually rule on the issue of sainthood but the final decision rests with the pope.
Online Hear Dickie Kelly reciting the ballad The Glen of Aherlow in his distinctive midlands accent on irishtimes.com