How many people know that the man who raised the Irish flag over the GPO at Easter 1916 was from Argentina? I didn't know this until I was told it earlier this year during a visit to Buenos Aires by Guillermo MacLoughlin, a leading member of the Irish community in Argentina and editor of its newspaper, the Southern Cross, the oldest Irish newspaper in the world outside Ireland.
That rebel's name was Eamon Bulfin, and he was the son of William Bulfin, who arrived in Argentina in 1884, and was to become an early editor of the Southern Cross and a best-selling travel writer.
Eamon was born in Buenos Aires in 1892 and returned to Ireland with his family at the age of 16. He attended Pearse’s school, St Enda’s, and UCD, where he joined the Irish Volunteers and captained the 1915 Fitzgibbon Cup-winning hurling team. He worked closely with Pearse on the planning and preparation of the Rising, including storing arms and ammunition at St Enda’s.
On the morning of Easter Monday, April 24th, in the GPO, James Connolly asked Sean O’Kelly to fetch two flags from Liberty Hall. When the flags arrived, Connolly asked Bulfin to put them up on the flagpoles on either end of the roof. Bulfin hoisted the Tricolour at the corner of Henry Street and a green flag with the inscription “Irish Republic” at the corner of Prince’s Street.
After the Rising, Bulfin was sentenced to death, but – like Eamon de Valera – his foreign passport saved him. Following the intercession of the Argentine ambassador, he was deported to Buenos Aires in March 1917. Afraid to anger Britain, whose economic and thus political influence in Argentina was still enormous, the Argentine authorities imprisoned him for evading military service, even though he had been a schoolboy when he had left Argentina with his family eight years previously.
When he was released from prison in 1919, he was appointed by de Valera as the first consul of the Irish republic in Buenos Aires, a post he held until he returned to live in Derrinlough, near Birr in Co Offaly, his father’s native place, in 1922.
The other midlander who played a significant role in Argentina during the war of independence was Laurence Ginnell, a former Irish Parliamentary Party and independent nationalist MP for Westmeath, who joined Sinn Féin in 1917. He was sent by de Valera to Buenos Aires in August 1921 to work with Bulfin to mobilise the Irish-Argentine community in favour of an Irish republic and to raise a £500,000 loan from its richer members.
This appeared to make good sense. It was estimated in 1917 that the Irish-Argentine community was 110,000 strong. It contained some of the wealthiest Irish people in the world, immigrants and the sons of immigrants from the midlands and Wexford who for the previous 60 to 70 years had made fortunes first out of sheep and meat, and later out of refrigeration, banking and railways. One of the Irish republic’s most prominent supporters at the time was John Nelson, a businessman and close friend of Roger Casement’s who, according to Ginnell’s wife Alice, was reputed to be the richest man in Argentina.
Ginnell’s task turned out to be not an easy one. The Irish-Argentine community was riven with divisions. Patrick Little, another Irish envoy, identified at least three quarrelling groups – the rich and extremely conservative landowners who were often pro-British because of Britain’s domination of the local economy (and who, reported Alice Ginnell, were offended by “statements of a very democratic nature”); and more nationalist and democratic elements, who divided into a group around Eamon Bulfin and another around a militant republican journalist from Donegal called Patrick McManus.
The British, not surprisingly, used all their influence to curb Irish republicanism. Harrods (yes, there was a Harrods in Buenos Aires) threatened to withdraw its considerable advertising from one of the city's two main papers, La Prensa, if it advertised the Irish loan.
Patrick Little suggested to Eamon Bulfin that he should challenge the editor of the other newspaper, La Nacion, to a duel (with sabres) over his accusation that they were "agitators" for denouncing the December 1921 Treaty, but Bulfin "did not think this was in his official instructions!"
There are now around half a million Argentines who claim some Irish ancestry. The embassy in Buenos Aires is planning a multifaceted programme to mark the centenary of the Rising, which will coincide with the bicentenary of Argentine independence. This will include an Irish Arts Festival featuring music, literature and film; a major academic conference on the 1916 and post-1916 connections between the two countries (featuring the launch of the Spanish edition of the first definitive history of those connections by Prof Dermot Keogh, formerly of UCC); and a schools essay competition (also in schools in neighbouring Chile and Uruguay) on the significance of 1916.