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The Argentine aficionado

Wednesday, 11th August, 2010 5:00pm

Story by Tom Kelly
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The Argentine aficionado

An oft quoted remark by his uncle that there were probably more Ganlys in Argentina than Ireland piqued Thomas Ganly's interest in the South American country from the start.

It's a fascination that has grown from a farming childhood in Drumraney over the intervening decades through involvement in the Longford Westmeath Argentina Society, and regular visits to the far-flung country where he now has many friends among the Irish community.

"I checked that claim out in later years and he wasn't too far off," Thomas, known to many simply as Tom, laughs.

"It (Argentina) fascinated me from the start because it was so faraway. I always heard what a wonderful country it was, what a great climate it and of the great land and wealth," Tom, an accountant based at Roscommon Road, Athlone, recalls. "It intrigued me that people from Westmeath went there. I later realised they followed the good land, they were really farmers at heart," he says glancing up at his office wall, where a large map of South America on the wall underlines his interest in the country.

Argentina is said to possess the fourth largest Irish diaspora behind England, America and Australia. It's the only non-English speaking community where Irish people emigrated and settled in their thousands in the latter end of the 19th century. Indeed, it's thought up to half a million people in Argentina claim Irish ancestry today.

"When I was a child I remember people talking about farms locally that had been bought with money from the Argentine. They always referred to it as the Argentine, which is technically correct, if you get a letter from the ambassador, it will always be from the Ambassador of the Argentine Republic rather than Argentina."

Amazingly, two thirds of the Irish diaspora in Argentina originated from Longford/Westmeath. People all along the Shannon from Clonmacnois, Ballinahown, Banagher, Clara, Kilbeggan, Moate, the hinterlands of Athlone, in particular Drumraney, Tubberclair, and significant numbers from Ballymahon right up to Mullingar making up large chunks of the exodus to leave Ireland, particularly from 1850 to 1900.

The majority landed into the city Buenos Aires, the main shipping link at that time, before moving into the Bueno Aires province, roughly the size of France.

The attraction was obvious; there was an abundance of fertile land for farming and the province possessed a climate akin to France and Spain, along with much higher wages than their home country at that time.

"It is known for beef now but then most were sheep farmers. A lot of them got quite wealthy taking on the management of sheep herds on the basis they could have half the lambs," he outlines. "Within a few years they have a decent herd and then they could start renting land... There was an almost endless supply of land there when at that stage 30 acres was a big farm in Ireland."

Although faraway from home and family and friends, many of those who emigrated to Argentina prospered despite the initial loneliness of a large scale settlement of a vast country, described by some as a wilderness during the 19th century.

They were bolstered by a localised migration of other relatives, family and neighbours to build new lives in the country, that soon had a substantial Irish community.

Today, Argentina is home to 39 million people in a country the size of Western Europe and a quick perusal of the Southern Cross newspaper shows names like McCormack, Murphy O'Hagan, Furey, Kenny and Dillon are still part and parcel of the country over a century later.

Tom's interest in Argentina went beyond local stories in 1989 when he went along to a meeting in Mullingar, called by local history enthusiasts Michael Duffy, Pat Nally and Billy Foley, who were keen to keep the Argentina link alive in both counties. Thus the Longford Westmeath Argentina Society was born and it is now celebrating 21 years in existence. Interestingly, that anniversary coincides with 200 years of independence in Argentina, which broke away from Spain in 1810.

"When I was young people would have heard about Argentina, it was part of the folklore but by the late 1980s this aspect of local history seemed to be more or less forgotten," Tom, a native of Baskin, Drumraney, says. "We just feel we are nurturing a little bit of history and contributing a small bit of awareness," he adds.

Having served as chairman of the group for a number of years, he is the current Treasurer.

The informal group holds lectures, social events, outings, and an annual Asado, meaning roast in Argentinian, essentially a big bbq style dinner with good meat and win, as well as offering a point of contact for Argentine visitors to Ireland, and advice and contacts for local people making the trip to Argentina.

In July, the group hosted the Argentine Ambassador to Ireland, Maria Esther Bondanza to their annual Asado, "It was a real compliment to us this year that the ambassador came," Tom observes, adding that she thanked the society for their important work building a cultural relationship between the two countries. "We are all in this purely for the love of Argentina, if there are people out there who want to join our club they are most welcome."

A fairly regular visitor to Argentina over the years, Tom enjoys meeting the people the society has been in contact with over there and making friends among the Irish community. He has even discovered an extended family through the descendants of a second cousin of his father who emigrated there.

"I know one woman, a Ganly, who would have been born in 1925 and she told me that in her upbringing she was only allowed speak Spanish on the street and the yard but in the house it was only English," he said.

Generally, Irish people married others in their own community for four or five generations and they were determined to hold on to their English language as the story illustrates, although that is changing nowadays.

"Many of the older ones speak English with a brogue with quaint terms like arra, although a lot of them were never out of the country. This was English learnt at the kitchen table," he outlines, something that has changed in recent decades with a more international influence of television, radio and increasing globalisation. "

I find it all so interesting, for instance I know a man, Michael Ganly, out there who is about 85 and when I first met him he quoted word for word Goldsmith's Deserted Village to me after learning it in school with the Christian Brothers."

Three times further than New York and costing a little more to get to, Tom says most Irish emigrants who left for Argentina had some money behind them and were not destitute, although some landlords did pay for some people's ticket. Some later returned home but the vast majority stayed and sent money home to relatives at a time when Ireland was going through extremely tough times.

"It really was the promised land for a lot of people," the affable history enthusiast enthuses.

"The letters home were only real connection. I've seen some of them, they are really amazing, very emotive with a vivid type of writing in so far as they were painting a picture of somewhere so faraway from home."

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