The largest Irish diaspora in the non-English speaking world was the central focus of President Michael D Higgins’ first full day in Argentina yesterday.
At a reception in Buenos Aires for members of the country’s 500,000-strong Irish community, Mr Higgins said Ireland was proud of the contribution the Irish had made in creating modern Argentina “and more importantly the contribution they will make to its future”.
He went on to praise the bonds between the two countries, joking that “bonds is not a word used lightly any more in Ireland”. Those sections of his address delivered in Spanish won warm applause from his largely bilingual audience.
Earlier he delivered a speech - in the magnificent art-deco auditorium in the National Academy of Medicine - on Ireland’s relationship with Argentina in which he gave thanks for the reception an estimated 50,000 Irish emigrants - largely drawn from Westmeath, Longford and Wexford - had received when they arrived in the second half of the 19th century.
After his speech he presented the coach of Argentina’s national rugby team, Santiago Phelan, with a Certificate of Irish Heritage. Mr Phelan’s family originated in Co. Wexford, and after the presentation he recounted how his father brought them up in a home with books on Ireland’s history and culture and taught him to correct his Argentinian friends who tripped up pronouncing his surname.
Originally the Irish community maintained its identity in Argentina by marrying within the community, but after five generations it is increasingly well integrated into wider Argentinian society, according to Lyda O’Farrell, who had come to the reception to meet the president.
“My grandmother asked me why I was marrying a heathen when I told her I was engaged to an Argentinian,” remembers Mrs O’Farrell, whose family originally came from Wexford and Limerick.
With greater intermarriage, recent decades have seen several of the Irish community’s institutions, such as hospitals and retirement homes, forced to close as they no longer have the numbers to sustain them.
“The community is fading away,” says Juan Clancy, whose great-grandfather arrived in 1844 from Wexford and had built up a herd of 23,000 cattle by the time of his death. “The president’s visit gets us together, but the modern way of life is diluting the old communities here in Argentina. It is not just happening to us but the German and British communities as well,” says Mr Clancy, whose fluent English still carries a strong Irish accent.
Mr Higgins also attended a ceremony in the city’s Plaza Irlanda in honour of William Brown, the Mayo man who founded the Argentinian navy.