Ireland and Argentina in the Twentieth Century: a unique and long-lasting relationship

Book review: In telling his diplomatic story Dermot Keogh recounts the history of the Irish community in Argentina

Ireland and Argentina in the twentieth century: Diaspora, diplomacy, dictatorship, catholic mission and the Falklands crisis
Author: Dermot Keogh
ISBN-13: 9781782055112
Publisher: Cork University Press
Guideline Price: €39

Of all the countries in Latin America none has deeper ties with Ireland than Argentina. It is home to the largest Irish community outside of the English-speaking world and it is with Argentina that the independent State forged some of its earliest connections.

During the revolutionary period the first Dáil sent Éamonn Bulfin — the Buenos Aires-born republican who raised the flag over the GPO — as its first envoy to Argentina. Later in 1948 the Government followed through on a pledge made by de Valera in gratitude for Irish-Argentine support for the independence effort and opened in Buenos Aires what is one of Ireland’s oldest resident missions and the only one in Latin America until 1999.

The full course of this unique relationship is now surveyed by Prof Dermot Keogh in his new book Ireland and Argentina in the Twentieth Century: Diaspora, Diplomacy, Dictatorship, Catholic Mission and the Falklands Crisis. It will be required reading for students of Irish diplomatic history and contains a mine of fascinating information for the general reader.

In telling his diplomatic story Keogh recounts the history of the Irish community in Argentina as well as the country it settled in. He also provides a case study in how the mid-century State sought to compensate for a skeletal diplomatic operation by harnessing the “soft power” of Irish religious orders doing foreign missionary work. Two chapters stand out for their narrative drama. One is the retelling of the Falklands conflict in 1982 through an Irish diplomatic lens. The State somewhat surprisingly found itself among those caught between the two belligerents, a situation exacerbated when taoiseach Charles Haughey, driven by his animosity towards UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, went (diplomatically speaking) rogue.

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The other is the story of Patrick Rice, an Irish missionary disappeared by Argentina’s military dictatorship. Along with catechist Fátima Cabrera, who was snatched with him from a shantytown in 1976, he would surely have joined the thousands of victims murdered by the regime’s death squads if not for the heroic efforts of the two Irish diplomats in Buenos Aires. The episode reinforces the value of having your own people on the ground to represent Irish interests — and sometimes lives — abroad.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America