How star-crossed lovers died by execution 170 years ago

Camila, the Argentinian-born granddaughter of a Co Clare man, eloped with a Jesuit priest

 

The story of Camila O’Gorman and the man she loved reads in many respects like a real-life Romeo and Juliet. Its ending, 170 years ago this week, was just as tragic. But a key difference is that both these star-crossed lovers died by execution rather than suicide. And they died in circumstances – especially for her – that still seem shocking today.

Camila was the Argentinian-born granddaughter of a Co Clare man, Thomas O’Gorman, who had fled anti-Catholic persecution in 18th-century Ireland, first via France, where he served as an army officer, and later South America, where he made his fortune.

In between, during a stay in Mauritius, he had met and married one Marie-Anne Périchon de Vandeuil, the daughter of a French colonial official, whose sometimes scandalous life as a socialite in Argentina would foreshadow Camila’s downfall two generations later.

As Tim Fanning writes in his book, Paisanos – The Forgotten Irish Who Changed the Face of Latin America, Marie-Anne complemented her husband’s rise through the ranks of the foreign merchant class in Buenos Aires by turning their house into the city’s “most fashionable salon”: frequented by a wealthy elite but also by would-be independence leaders, foreign diplomats and spies.

The marriage disintegrated over time, however, and among a series of affairs with which she then kept gossips busy was one involving a French-born Irishman, James Florence Bourke, an old comrade of O’Gorman’s, now spying for Britain and using his position in her circle to liaise with the local anti-Spanish resistance.

By the time Camila O’Gorman was born, in the late 1820s, Argentina had become an independent but fractured country, riven by civil wars. As she reached adulthood, it was under the control of a dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, whose rule faced many threats to which he responded with notorious brutality.

Sheltered

She was sheltered in other respects too, being usually chaperoned in male company. But what would prove a fatal crack in this security system opened up when, in her late teens, she became friendly with a young priest, a Jesuit named Uladislao Gutiérrez.

At least one cinematic portrayal of the affair has given Camila’s grandmother a formative role in the story, encouraging the young woman to follow her heart, whatever the risks. This may or may not have been based on truth. In any case, Camila fell in love with Father Gutiérrez and, after initial reluctance, he reciprocated.

There could be no future – not a good one, anyway – for such a relationship in Buenos Aires. Bad as the mere religious scandal would be in such a city, it was further complicated by the Jesuits’ outspoken opposition to the Rosas regime.

Elope

They had six months of presumed happiness there. But back in Buenos Aires, as the truth dawned, there was consternation among family, church, and government alike. Camila’s father, Adolfo, blamed the priest for seducing her “under the guise of religion”. She in her turn was condemned from the pulpit. Opponents of Rosas, meanwhile, used the case to assail him for his supposed corruption of Argentinian society.

As a national manhunt ensued, influential voices demanded rough justice. A lawyer by the name of Sarsfield was among those calling for exemplary punishment in a case that, he worried, had given the hitherto blameless Irish community a bad name.

It was an Irish priest, Father Michael Gannon, who recognised the couple in Goya and denounced them to police. They were arrested and placed in prison, separately, where it emerged that Camila was heavily pregnant. This complicated the decision, made without any trial by Rosas himself, to put both to death.

It was against the law, and common feeling, that an eight-months pregnant woman should be executed. Even the dictator’s own family urged mercy.

But Rosas was determined not to show weakness and when the executioners demurred, threatened them with shooting if they didn’t follow orders. Thus, early on August 18th, 1848, in what Fanning rightly calls a “grotesque charade of sanctity”, a priest baptised Camilla’s unborn baby. Soon afterwards, she and Father Gutiérrez were shot by firing squad, and buried in a single coffin.

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