Westmeath connection with Argentina
Tens of thousands of Argentinians can trace their
ancestry back to the Irish Midlands.
A number of Westmeath families from several locations throughout
the county emigrated to Argentina throughout the nineteenth
century, achieving high positions in political, business
and ecclesiastical circles. The above title may surprise
many readers. Even more surprising is the link between places
like Buenos Aires, Pergamino, Salto and San Antonio de Areco
with Westmeath towns and villages such as Ballymore, Ballynacarrigy,
Castlepollard and Moyvore.
So how did this connection come about? To find the answer,
we must take ourselves back to the beginning of the nineteenth
century when Spain was the imperial power in Argentina.
In this period a wave of wars of independence swept Spanish
America, led by Simon Bolivar, Bernardo OHiggins,
Jose Artigas and Jose de San Martin. San Martin was the
hero of the Argentine War of Independence which was achieved
in 1816. Admiral William Brown from Foxford, Co Mayo played
a prominent role in the war of independence, being the founder
of the Argentine Navy.
Another Irishman, John Thomand OBrien from Wicklow,
also played a prominent role in the war, being adjutant
to San Martin. It is said that San Martin asked OBrien
to go back to Ireland for 200 emigrants at a time when Argentina
was a country of vast unclaimed lands and there was an opportunity
for advancement in the wool and meat trades. OBrien
spent the 1827/28 period trying to recruit emigrants in
Ireland, without success. However, he met John Mooney from
Streamstown, near Ballymore and persuaded him to move to
Argentina. His sister Mary Bookey and her husband, Patrick
Bookey went with him and they began work on a sheep farm
in the Pampas area.
Mooney soon earned enough money to purchase his own land
and he became a large cattle and sheep farmer. He founded
a saladero, a factory where the lean cattle of the Pampas
were slaughtered and their meat salted, with the salted
meat being exported to Brazil to feed the slaves on the
coffee plantations. He also set up a gracina in Buenos Aires,
a factory that produced fat and tallow from the offals of
cattle, sheep and horses.
Mooneys farming and business interests grew to such
an extent that he was soon sending money home for relatives
and neighbours to join him. Thus was started the flood of
Westmeath emigration to Argentina that occurred during the
remainder of the nineteenth century. Many of those who went
were the younger, non-inheriting sons of large tenant farmers,
with the education and management skills to allow them to
become wealthy farmers in a foreign country. The heart of
this emigration was localised in a quadrangle stretching
from Athlone to Ballymore to Mullingar and on to Kilbeggan.
Virtually the whole population surrounding the town of Ballymore
emigrated to Buenos Aires by 1860.
The settlers did not initially integrate with the rest of
the Argentine community. They formed their own schools,
hospitals, schools and clubs, and married among themselves.
It is reckoned that there were around 300 Irish emigrants
in Argentina by 1830 (the first arrivals came as part of
the abortive British invasions of 1806 and 1807) and 60%
of those were of Westmeath origin. The emigration started
by John Mooney saw Westmeath providing two thirds of all
the emigrants throughout the nineteenth century.
In 1844, William McCann, during a 2000-mile trek through
Argentina said, at least three quarters of the emigrants
are from county Westmeath.
During the 1830s there was a continued rise in emigration
to Argentina, coming from three sources: Ireland, the Irish
coming down from the United States and those coming in from
Brazil. Some Irish had gone to Brazil but having received
a hostile welcome, crossed into Argentina.
The famine of the mid-1840s saw another stage develop
and it boosted emigration from Westmeath to Argentina. People
in this stage prospered enormously and achieved greater
success than later emigrants. They were influenced by Daniel
OConnell and were less nationalistic than those of
the post-famine era. By the time of the famine many of the
early emigrants had become part of the Argentine establishment.
Rev Antonio Fahy, a chaplain in Buenos Aires who was originally
from Galway, urged the emigrants to avoid the cities and
head for the vast countryside.
The 1850s show a lot of Irish-owned estancias (ranches)
which in turn employed new emigrants. Women began to arrive
in greater numbers around this time and they often worked
as cooks or maids. Women soon comprised half of the emigrants
and they provided wives for the male settlers, with marriages
between Irish and Argentine couples being very rare. Indeed,
up to the third
generation Irish people rarely married outside the Irish
Another wave of emigrants arrived in the 1860s, bringing
names like Ryan, Casey, McCormack and Mullaly. It is hard
to trace other families because of the hispanicisation of
their surnames, e.g. Kelly became Cueli and Campbell became
Campanas. Most arrived to join their relatives while others
came after the Fenian Rising. As the 1870s approached
there was a clear political division between emigrants,
with the early wealthy emigrants pro-Home Rule in Ireland
while the new arrivals like the post-famine arrivals
being more nationalistic.
An interesting picture of the Irish community in Argentina
appeared in the Southern Cross newspaper, the oldest Irish
newspaper outside Ireland dated January 16th, 1875. In
no part of the world is the Irishman more esteemed and respected
than in the province of Buenos Aires, and in no part of
the world have Irish settlers made such large fortunes.
They possess 1,500,000 acres of the best quality land. They
own about 5,000,000 sheep. This vast fortune has been acquired
in just a few years.
John Mooney was a very charitable and patriotic man and
he contributed large sums of money to the famine Relief
Fund of 1847 and to the Fenian Prisoners Fund of 1867. He
also made contributions towards the erection of churches,
schools and hospitals in Argentina.
The 1880s witnessed a further influx from Westmeath,
many of whom were joining an earlier generation of relatives.
During the 1875-1880 period there was a great development
of organisations and educational institutions by the Irish
community. Newman College, St Brendans College and
St Brigids College were established, and still exist.
Branches of the Gaelic League and
Sinn Fein were formed. The Irish Catholic Association was
formed and hurling clubs were organised in Buenos Aires
By the 1890s there were only limited opportunities
for new emigrants. The sheep industry was in decline and
cattle and tillage were taking over. With the decline in
the sheep trade Irish emigration slowed down. The emigrants
had been Irish people with agricultural skills who adapted
easily to farming life in the great Pampas of Argentina.
Only a trickle of emigration continued from Westmeath until
Today there are about 350,000 Argentines of Irish decent.
Many of the younger generation have moved to the cities
and can be found in all walks of life while the majority
still work their estancias. Ireland has even developed diplomatic
relations with Argentina. Some people have kept in touch
with their Irish relatives, but for many contact has been
lost years ago.
An Irish journalist who visited a cemetery in San Antonio
de Areco, north of Buenos Aires, was astounded at the number
of tombstones showing Westmeath names like Murray, Kelly
and, of course, Mooney. The community has now totally integrated
into Argentine life and have intermarried and moved to the
cities. Nevertheless, it is also possible to find Irish
descendents in rural areas speaking with a notable Westmeath
accent, though they have never been to Ireland.
Argentina warmly welcomed Westmeath natives from the 1820s
onwards, and is always assured of a special place in our