An Irishman's Diary

 

The Juan A. O'Leary, a snub-nosed tug, the battered victim of fights with vessels 10 times its tonnage, pushes its way lazily through the brown waters of the River Paraguay to the quay below the presidential palace and comes to rest against a rare collection of rusted barges and half-sunk launches. If anyone has a desire to work in Asuncion, the sweltering capital of a country lost in the heart of South America, the intense sun, baking the streets of the city until the by-passers can hardly breathe, is there at midday to dissuade them.

The distinguished Paraguayan intellectual of Irish descent after whom the tug was named is long dead and so is no longer there to stir the boatmen to action. But not far away another Irish name is inciting a prominent Paraguayan to frenetic action. Eliza Alicia Lynch has my friend Julio Cesar Frutos in a maelstrom of action in his summer house on the shore of Lake Ypacaray. Tireless politician that he is, he is planning another book on the 19th-century Cork woman who has gone down in Paraguayan history as one of the country's greatest heroines.

He has found some more of her letters and I have been given plenipotentiary powers to cut a deal between the state university in Asuncion and some Irish publisher, preferably in her native city, over a new volume about her. "This time it'll be in two languages. And lots of pictures, yes, lots of pictures," says Julio Cesar. "She was a very beautiful woman. Yes, we'll find the money from somewhere and the book will sell thousands. No, tens of thousands. I can see it now. It'll be a sell-out!"

The casual Irish reader may know little about Eliza Lynch. But most Paraguayan taxi drivers and schoolchildren have an opinion about her. And those Paraguayans who don't are constantly reminded of her feats. The main road from the capital to the adjoining city of Luque is the Avenida Madama Lynch. Here everyone has heard of the Madama.

French husband

Born in 1835, her fame derives from her relationship with the one of the biggest figures in the country's history, Marshal Francisco Solano Lopez, whom she met in Paris, and whose mistress she became. Her tragedy was that she had separated from her French husband who went with the French army to conquer Algeria. But she could not get a divorce from him so she could never marry Lopez - who was to become the father of her four children - even had he asked her. Nevertheless, in 1855 she followed him to the remote little republic in the heart of South America, bringing with her all the glitter and sophistication of the capital of Munster and the capital of France. Lopez, who succeeded his father as president, was the megalomaniac who involved Paraguay in a suicidal war with its three neighbours, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay simultaneously in the 1860s.

La Madama was with him on all the campaigns. She was there at the last when he and their eldest son Panchito, already a colonel in the Paraguayan army at the age of 16, were killed by the Brazilians on the battlefield of Cerro Cora in 1870 and she buried them on the spot with her own hands. The war had all but annihilated Paraguay's males; only 28,000 survived and the country was prostrated for years.

Died in Paris

La Madama quit Paraguay that year aboard the steamer City of Limerick and died in Paris in poverty at the age of 56.

It took a century before she was recognised and celebrated in her country of adoption. Her remains were brought back to Asuncion in 1961 aboard a Paraguayan gunboat. Yet such was the government's fear of a backlash from the church against any celebration of this scarlet woman that they languished in the customs for nine years before it was thought politic that they could be reburied.

Gaudy memorial

Rosa Maria Ortiz, a human rights worker who was a schoolgirl at the time, remembers the occasion. "We had to line the route and wave flags. It was exciting." In the Recoleta cemetery the Madama's ashes now rest in a rather gaudy memorial surmounted with her statue, spade in hand, between the two graves she had dug.

But there are a good few yards of space between her and the wall of the cemetery chapel. The Paraguayan church has not yet quite accepted the Madama from Cork and her wild unmarried ways.