THE ISSUE OF emigration is to forefront of many Irish minds these days. The fear of separation, culture shock and the uncertainty of what lies ahead in an unfamiliar land are familiar themes to centuries of Irish emigrants.
An exhibition which is part of the PhotoIreland Festival 2012 in Dublin all this month reflects on the Argentine-Irish diaspora. Encuentro – A Gatherine incorporates both photographs by Maurice Gunning of descendants of Irish emigrants still living in the Buenos Aires Province and also incorporates text and descriptions of what life was like for the first of those families settling in Argentina in the 1800s.
Some of the descriptions – a concern with the number of cattle they can buy in Argentina, the state of the farm back home in Ireland and fond greetings to loved ones – ring still remarkable familiar today. In a more dramatic letter, pictured below, sent home to Ireland by brothers called William and James Lambert, they mention the effect of a war with Paraguay on the price of sheep, violent stabbing incidents – including one of a three-month-old baby and his Irish mother, and the heat of the Argentinean sun. They also mention a difficulty getting to grips with the local language and ask what sex the new calf at home is…
The copperplate on the letter supplied by the National Library of Ireland is a little difficult to read so here’s a transcript supplied by Maurice Gunning, preserved by the National Library of Ireland:
Circa 1870, Buenos Aires
Dear friends, I’m going to tell you that this country is getting very hard on account of the war with the Paraguays. They say our side is beating the price of the sheep is fell the sheep that was worth 50 dollars is only worth 30 dollars and the wool is fallen wonderfully. The sheep is getting over stocked in the country and there is a great deal of murder committing stabbing and threats to cutting. There was an English sailor killed an Irish the other day in Lobos. He killed him for being alive. He said nothing to him only drove the knife into his guts. There is another native in the name of Lobos and he only killed twelve and he is killing away yet there is an Irish woman kill… she got it… she lives about a league and a half from us. Some said it was Lobos, he is about this place and more say it is her husband. The child has got about one stab, it is about 3 months old. It is a hot place and no mistake about it I like the campo very well. I have not got much Spanish. I hope John and Aunty is well… and James sends these respects to you. Tell us what… the calf is.
No more at present from your affectionate sons William & James Lambert. Directions as before, perfectly.
Via South Hampton
Senor Don Santiago Lambert
Photographer Gunning explored not only the contemporary experience of the Argentine-Irish but also asked several of the older generation to recall their memories of life in Argentina in the past and of memories of their grandfathers who arrived there in the 1800s. Gunning says: “Many of these first settlers came from the counties of Meath, Louth and Wexford. These men still speak English in the accents of their grandfathers.”
A man called John (Juan) Clancy was “possibly the most significant” member of the diaspora Gunning spoke to – he told Gunning “stories of such clarity and importance that without their meeting this photographic narrative would be a very different story”.
The legacy of the diaspora is still visible today in establishments such as the Southern Cross newspaper (La Cruz del Sur), established in 1875 with Monsignor Patricio José Dillon from Tuam, Galway as its first editor, and now the oldest Irish diaspora newspaper in the world. Gunning also studied the Argentine Hurling Club, formed in 1900 in Buenos Aires and still a place of social and sporting engagement. There is also social club called the Fahy Club, named after a Fr Anthony Fahy who came to Buenos Aires in 1844 to attend his Irish flock there.
The exhibition can be viewed at the National Photographic Archive in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin until Sunday, 22 July.