The true origins of Eliza Lynch

An Irishman’s Diary: On the trail of Paraguay’s national heroine

‘What do they say in your country about our national heroine?” Gen Andrés Rodríguez, president of Paraguay, said he had never met a visitor from Ireland and so had asked to see me on a February day in 1991 in his office in Asunción. I did my best: “It is a matter of intense interest, Excellency.” I had not the slightest idea of whom he spoke.

Thus began 18 years of research with Ronan Fanning across 10 countries on the life of Eliza Lynch. I was able to concentrate on South American sources and quickly amassed a bulky archive, mostly from Argentina and Brazil, two of the three countries that had exterminated Paraguay in the war of 1864-70. It was preponderantly vituperative and frequently obscene.

Ronan Fanning concentrated with dogged persistence and frequently brilliant but later proven hunches on local Irish sources, British naval records, Foreign Office reports and the records of the Edinburgh Courts (an enormous archive) and, by juxtaposing these with our findings in South America, was able to assert with confidence for the first time in well more than a century who Eliza Lynch really had been.

She was born in Charleville in 1833. Her father, a Catholic doctor, John Lynch, died in north Cork in 1846. Her mother, Jane Lloyd, took refuge with her brother-in-law Commander William Boyle Crooke in Boulogne-sur -Mer. Eliza at age 16 was tricked into a fake “marriage” by a French army officer Xavier Quatrefages, twice her age. She fled his barracks in Algiers in 1853 and rejoined her mother in Paris. She met Francisco Solano Lopez, the billionaire heir to the president of Paraguay, a technologically advanced land-locked country bordering Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. He remained in love with her for the rest of his life.


Eliza travelled to Paraguay, where Francisco was awaiting her in 1855.She was detested by the elite but adored by the common people. By 1860 she had become famous as hostess to the sub-continent’s statesmen. Francisco became president in 1862 and Eliza became the unofficial “Queen of Paraguay” for two ecstatic years. She arranged carnivalesque parties for the masses that lasted months on end. Eliza’s land holdings by 1870 by our calculations amounted to 1½ times the size of Ireland. She bore Francisco seven children. They never married. He left her his entire estate but she was declared an outlaw in Paraguay after his death.

In 1864 Francisco became obsessed by Brazil’s brutal invasion of Uruguay, fearing that Paraguay would be the next victim. He declared war in November and occupied disputed border territories. He should have stopped there. Instead he sent his armies to the south across Argentina to attack Brazil and “liberate” Uruguay, thus creating a Triple Alliance against Paraguay of countries that had hitherto abominated each other. The Alliance invaded Paraguay, driving it back to the Stone Age. Francisco became increasingly paranoid. Eliza had no say in these horrors. She and Francisco were on the run.

The only real heroes were the ordinary Paraguayans who fought to defend their country. In January 1869 the Emperor of Brazil sent his French son-in-law the Compte d’Eu, a monster, to finish off López. Atrocities on a truly disturbing scale took place. The war ended at Cerro Corá on March 1st, 1870, in the wilderness. The remaining Paraguayan 200 stragglers were slaughtered. Francisco died heroically. Eliza buried him and their eldest son Panchito with her bare hands. This has become the iconic image of Paraguayan patriotic martyrdom.

Eliza, devastated but imperious, confronted Gen Camara, the Brazilian commander. She escaped with her surviving children to her beloved Paris and died there on July 25th, 1886.

Today's Brazil epitomises tolerance and respect for human rights. In 1870 it was still the largest slave state in the world. In a new foreword to the latest edition of our book ( Eliza Lynch – Queen of Paraguay , Gill & Macmillan), I respectfully suggest that modern Brazil might emulate the example of Tony Blair's apology to the Irish people of 1997 for Britain's responsibility for the horrors of the Great Famine and make a "gesture of reconciliation".

Three weeks ago Pope Francis, visiting Sweden, said that the Paraguayan women who had survived the war of 1864 -70 had heroically saved their fatherland in catastrophic circumstances. Eliza in her unique way was one of them. His Holiness suggested that the Swedish Committee should posthumously award them the Nobel Prize.