Trekking down to Tucumán
Here the Ireland rugby squad will be sure to sample the best empanados, small pastries filled with meats, in Argentina
Corkman Simon Zebo will have been more familiar than most with the hurley and sliotar he borrowed at the Hurling Club in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/INpho
Coming back from Resistencia to Corrientes on Sunday, it was like a step back in time or like Butch and Sundance’s trek to Bolivia. The wide, yellow-tinged unmarked roads – divided by a cemented path in the middle – were dusty and uneven, and all manner of horses and carts, bikes and cars, were being driven along.
Suddenly the taxi slowed down for fear of affecting the motor bike in front. The un-helmeted woman riding pillion was holding two babies, squeezed between her and the male driver, seemingly without any strapping, much less helmets for them either.
Then the family of four turned off left down one of the long straight roads which are part of Resistencia’s grid pattern into the prevailing poverty of Chaco in the north east of Argentina.
As with Saturday’s match-day trek over the General Belgrano Bridge (his name is ubiquitous in Argentina) in and out of Resistencia, one could see why the squad were based almost half an hour away in Corrientes.
Akin to Sante Fe, the venue for the first Test of the two-match 2007 tour, Corrientes grew on you, and you were struck by how much more friendly and native looking some of the people were compared to Buenos Aires.
ExploitedIt brought to mind how Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries illustrated the degree to which the native South Americans have been exploited, like others, by European settlers.
Admittedly the squad were somewhat alarmed to learn on arrival in Corrientes last Thursday the daughter of the owner of their hotel and casino was being held for ransom since the day before.
Some parts were safer than others but the riverfront to the side of the team hotel was an untroubled path for joggers and walkers. There were also an array of restaurants, mobile cafés/bars and the compulsory Irish bar. And yeah, great steaks and Malbec are virtually compulsory.
Whereas Corrientes and San Miguel de Tucumán (usually referred to as simply Tucumán) have populations of 325,000-plus and 830,000, Buenos Aires is populated by nearly three million people, and has 12 greater metropolitan areas.
Although moves have been afoot to reduce the level of poverty, an estimated four million live in poverty, mainly in the 50-plus shantytowns.
The Irish diaspora in Argentina is extensive, and exceeded globally only by that of the USA, England, Australia and Canada.
That was brought home to the squad when they visited the Hurling Club in Buenos Aires, which was founded in 1920, for an open session on Tuesday of last week.
The club’s president, Ronnie Quinn, is fourth generation Irish. Like many Argentines of Irish extraction, his parents came over from the midlands (in his case Westmeath and Longford) in the 1860s, and as his name implies, many of the Irish have tended to stay within their own community.
“It is claimed there are at least 500,000 Argentines with Irish roots; most of them don’t know they are Irish at all,” says Quinn. “One of our members, Debora Ryan, was checked at the supermarket by a Debora Ryan that didn’t know her parents were Irish.
“One of my buddies, Alejandro Keogan, lives in Hurlingham and married another Irish, Cristina Marsden, and they are not members of the club. Their sons are Paddy and Megan, and there are thousands of these examples.”
Generally those that played hurling in the early days were urban middle-class workers who had settled in the western districts of the city, principally Villa Devoto, Belgrano, Flores and Caballito, and worked for firms and the railroads, or were clerks for the insurance companies and banks.
In the rural areas it tended to be more popular among labourers rather than landed Irish-Argentines. Hurling enjoyed its biggest period from its formation in 1920 to 1940, when the second World War most probably contributed to its demise.
“The Hurling Club today has 1,500 active members. Our biggest sport is women’s hockey, with 600 players, followed by rugby, which has 400, and men’s hockey, which has 200.
GAA help“We also have tennis courts and a swimming pool. We have just started our Gaelic Sports Commission and we have 50 players and are planning to grow with GAA help.”
After three days of internal travel, yesterday was the squad’s first down day of the tour, although even then the players will have been on their lap tops doing self-appraisals of their training and game time.
Although it is winter, as is often the case, temperatures were close to the mid-20s under sapphire blue skies.
Tucumán is the biggest city in tbe north of Argentina, not far from Peru and Bolivia and like Corrientes, is less white, with a more Latin American feel and culture, and although football is also dominant here, it is a rugby heartland with the most passionate rugby fans in Argentina.
The squad’s modern, low-rise base is not at all typical of the city. Tucumán is known for its empanados, small pastries filled with meats, which are distinctive to each state or region, and which both Sergio Stuart, a Buenos Aires-based sports journalist, and Juan Luca Marini, the Irish squad’s liaison office, reveal are the best in all of Argentina.
The castle of Tucumán in the city’s main square is also known for being the site where the Argentine Independence was signed on July 9th, 1816. As Marini puts it: “This is where Argentinian history began.”