An Irish man’s extraordinary search for his Argentinian land

How a Longford woman’s long-forgotten will led to a journey of discovery in the Pampas

Peter Geoghegan travelled into the vast countryside of the Pampas in Argentina to find out more about his ancestry, and other Irish tales. Video: Peter Geoghegan

 

I am staring, wide-eyed, over Gustavo Paez’s shoulder in the public records office in Laboulaye, a small town buried deep in the vast Pampas plains.

On his computer screen are three long fingers of pixels. Each represents more than 200 acres.

My great-grandmother was said to have left land in Argentina to each of her three children. And, almost a century later, I think I have found it.

“It seems you have a claim on this land,” says Paez, a tall, tanned clerk in his late 40s with an 11 o’clock shadow.

“We will need to do more investigations, but looking at this” – he points again at the screen – “this land could be yours.”

I was raised on tales of Argentina. I have fuzzy memories of my grandfather, Ned Geoghegan, a craggy-faced man in a thatched cottage in Colehill, Co Longford, talking about the Pampas, the land, the people, the possibilities.

In 1920, Ned was born near the town of Rosales, about 500 kilometres from Buenos Aires. His family left Argentina four years later.

However, it was often said that papers existed showing his claim to the estancia (landholding) called San Patricio.

“This is definitely San Patricio,” Paez says, printing off a series of maps. The notes attached to an adjacent holding mention “Catalina Maria Geoghegan”.

Kathleen Mary was my grand-aunt.

Soon, my Argentinian friend Abel and I are driving, fast, along the unbending Pampas highway.

Eventually we reach a dirt road, rising clouds of red dust billowing behind us. At the end is a sign, written in fading paint on metal, saying “St Patricio”.

I have reached my St Patrick.

The flat, featureless fields remind me of Longford. A cock crows in the distance. A little closer, a herd of cows loiters around a pool of water. A mottled chimango hawk circles menacingly overhead.

I travelled to Argentina largely to satisfy my curiosity about a part of my family history that has long been shrouded in mystery. Now I am looking at what could be my very own estancia.

My grandfather’s land would be worth about €1 million at today’s prices, Abel says with a wide grin. “This is the land of magical realism. Anything can happen here.” Anything?

Wedding photograph

On November 25th, 1916, Mary Mulvey and William Geoghegan married in Holy Cross Church, Buenos Aires.

The bride looks younger than her 28 years in their fading wedding photograph. She’s wearing liberty satin trimmed with Irish lace.

The groom is clearly older. Below a thick moustache a pair of white gloves is clasped tight in his left hand, as if a pressing engagement beckons.

The wedding ceremony was “pretty and interesting”, according to a report in the following week’s Southern Cross, an Irish-Argentinian newspaper that is still published today.

Friends and relatives who “thronged” the ceremony left a catholic selection of gifts: a prayer book; a Chinese coffee seat with tray; a gents’ toilet seat. Most of the guests have familiar midlands surnames: Farrell, Greene, Mulvihill, a raft of Geoghegans.

Mary Mulvey came from Ballintubber, not far from Colehill. In October 1913, she left to join her aunt in Argentina, quickly finding work as a governess in the family of a wealthy landowner called Chopitea.

One day, on the long journey to campo (plains) in the Pampas, Mary’s horse and cart broke down.

She was stranded with the two young girls she was minding. As she stood by the side of the road waiting for help, a man on horseback approached. With confidence, he fixed the wheel.

The gaucho introduced himself as William Geoghegan.

William’s uncle had arrived in Argentina in the middle of the 19th century, an age when fortunes could be made with relative ease in this new world.

By the time William came to Mary’s assistance, he owned 1,200 acres of prime Pampas farmland: San Patricio.

The Chopiteas approved of Mary and William’s union, and even more so of the young Irish woman. In a self-published book, the improbably named Rafael Ivanhoe Chopitea writes of a “stunning” woman named “Mary Gighan”.

Thomas Murray noted in his 1919 tome The Story of the Irish in Argentina that the name Geoghegan “is to a Spaniard almost impossible to pronounce”.

Mary “had a very tough life in Ireland”, writes Chopitea. “She was very happy with her new life and there were many bachelors who pined for her.”

After their wedding, William and Mary moved into San Patricio. Children followed shortly: Patrick in 1917; my grandfather Ned three years later; and Kathleen in 1922.

Then disaster struck. With his infant daughter just 10 days old, William Geoghegan died of pneumonia.

Mary, unusually for the time, was in hospital after the birth. When she came out, her husband had been buried. His grave has never been found.

Under pressure from her cash-strapped family in Ireland, and faced with the prospect of bringing up a young family alone, Mary decided to return home. With the help of Chopitea senior she sold half of San Patricio, dividing the remaining land between her three children.

In March 1924, Mary and her young family boarded a boat bound for Cork. After more than a month at sea, Mary returned to Longford.

Later, she remarried unhappily. In 1942, she succumbed to a long-running heart condition, aged just 53.

San Patricio claim

Before I can make any claim on San Patricio I need to pay for the most recent land registry information.

That means a trip to the bank in Laboulaye on the last business day before a four-day national holiday.

Like many of the towns ribboned along the flat Pampas plain, Laboulaye is laid out in a grid pattern that feels like the US Midwest.

In the central square, smiling schoolchildren play tag among busts of famous local and Argentinian figures.

The queue for the bank snakes almost out of the door into the sweltering early-morning heat.

The line moves mercifully fast. I hand over my 110 pesos (about €6) and the teller stamps the document.

When we return to the land registry, there are smiles and shouted holas. The start of a four-day public holiday is just hours away. There are no other customers as Sabina Bustos, the most junior clerk, prints off our documents.

The scanned pages, from 1922, are faded. The tight squiggles of script are difficult to decipher, but Bustos manages.

“This seems the same as yesterday. This land seems to be yours,” she says, smiling.

My heart beats a bit faster. On the third page, she notices a reference in the margin. A date, July 7th, and a series of folio numbers.

“There is another document you need,” she says.

Back to the bank.

Almost an hour later, we return with yet another stamped form. This one says “for notaries only”.

The next batch of documents are even harder to read. The names, however, are clearly legible: Patricio, Catalina, Eduardo. My family.

But there is yet more bemusing marginalia. Nadia Bolgan, the head of Laboulaye property office, squints at the scrawls in red and black ink.

“There is another document,” she announces with an air of authority. “We can access it, but you’ll need to go back to the bank.”

The clock has edged past 12.45pm. The bank closes at one. I am too late. By the time it is due to reopen, almost a week later, I will be gone.

Boglan retreats to her office to do more research. I wait outside. Half an hour passes. A cup of traditional mate tea is passed around.

I sip it through a metal straw. Another half-hour passes. Soon the land registry, too, will be shut. The holidays will begin.

Finally, Boglan emerges. She has new information. She knows what happened to San Patricio. The documents cannot be downloaded without payment, but she has found a way to read them.

“The land is gone.” She says it matter-of-factly, befitting a civil servant.

“But how?” I say, more surprised than disappointed.

She points to a series of names and dates scribbled on her notepad: 1946, 1948,

Eduardo, Catalina, Patricio. The last name is underlined. Twice.

Return to sender

Before I went to Argentina I had never heard of my grandfather’s brother, Patrick. Apparently the eldest son and his new stepfather in Ireland never got on.

In the 1930s, Patrick swapped rural Longford for England. It seems he passed the second World War in Manchester, but, after that, nothing.

Letters reappeared with “return to sender” scored across them. In later years, paper and online searches uncovered no trace.

Then, in an air-conditioned council office in the middle of the Pampas, Patrick reappeared.

“In 1948, Patrick Geoghegan sold his land to Senor Manzone,” Nadia Boglan says, pointing at her notepad.

This was not the first sale at San Patricio. Two years earlier, both my grandfather’s and grand-aunt’s portions were also sold.

They were represented in the deal by a Marcelo De La Jega of Buenos Aires. The same Senor Manzone was the buyer.

I breathe in, a little too rapidly. My head feels light. In 1946, Kathleen and Ned Geoghegan were eking out a living in south Longford.

They were not arranging Argentinian land deals. How could the sale have happened?

Boglan’s smile is consoling. She tells me that in her 12 years in the council she has seen “about five” similar cases. “But they do happen.”

It is 2pm now. Holiday time. As I leave, Boglan cautions me to wait for the official documents.

Next day, I drive four hours to another chessboard-shaped Pampas town to visit Martin Parola, an antiquarian bookseller and, I am told, a distant relative.

A few days earlier, his cousin Rosaleen Geoghegan de Blanco had died. The 91-year-old bequeathed her library to Parola.

Inside his garage-cum-office, a small table is stacked with a selection of her books: catechisms of Christian doctrine, The Great Irish Hunger, The Irish Race. There is a dog-eared copy of Angela’s Ashes.

Geoghegan de Blanco left something else, too.

“I have been waiting to give you this. I found this in her house,” Parola says as soon as I sit down.

It is a cutting from a Longford newspaper, from 1986. Four columns, each about an inch long.

“Sixty-six year-old Edward Geoghegan was born in Argentina,” the news report begins.

“He made his first visit to his native country recently and realised his lifelong wish of visiting the church where his father and mother were married. That night, Ned, as he was so well known in county Longford, suffered a heart attack and died.”

“I remember him dying,” says Parola as I read. “We all talked about it.”

I remember him dying, too; the coffin’s long journey home, the Longford funeral. Ned died in the evening, in an apartment in suburban Buenos Aires.

The next day he was due to travel to the Pampas, to visit San Patricio for the first time in more than 60 years.

Proudly, Parola talks me through folders filled with Irish memorabilia. He has never been to Ireland, but “dreams of it”.

A framed invitation to a Geoghegan reunion in Buenos Aires in 2008 hangs on a wall.

“Three hundred people were there. You would have felt right at home,” he says.

But would I? Would I have wanted to spend a night talking to strangers who happen to share my name? Argentina, for my grandfather, was an El Dorado, a city on the hill while he toiled away in rural Longford.

It has been the same for many of my father’s siblings.

The Portuguese talk of saudade, a nostalgia for a time that might never have happened. I grew up listening to saudade delivered in a midlands accent.

A few days later I receive the official documents confirming the sale of San Patricio. They only spark more questions.

Who could have known that my grandfather was thousands of miles away in Longford? Why was Patrick’s land sold separately, without recourse to the middleman De La Jega? Could Patrick have returned to the land of his birth and sold San Patricio?

Like so many Irish emigrants, Patrick has disappeared without trace. Argentina’s postwar immigration records were largely burned to the ground.

I left for Argentina with questions about Ned, and returned with even more about Patrick.

Now, like my grandfather before me, the Pampas is drawing me in. San Patricio has long since changed hands, but I haven’t given up on the estancia in the sun. A man can dream.

Peter Geoghegan’s journey to Argentina was supported by the Global Irish Media Fund