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A lifelong journey begins in Uruguay

Harry Dunleavy on Calle O’Reilly in Havana.

Harry Dunleavy has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from the City University of New York and a master's from Long Island University and he has worked as a high school and college mathematics teacher in New York and New Jersey. However, the native of Tavanaugh, Cloghans Hill, Co. Mayo, has another string to his bow: he has published a number of articles about the Irish diaspora to the Americas, with a particular focus on Latin America, the topic of his just published “Irish Immigration to Latin America” (which is available via Amazon here). In this essay, Dunleavy recalls his early adventures in the continent.

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By Harry Dunleavy

Having been to 82 countries and all continents, Latin America is my favorite. My early journey through South America was mainly for scenery and general knowledge of the continent. It was not to research the part played by the Irish in the history of that extensive and beautiful land. After passing through the cities of Recife, Sao Paulo, and the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, my real journey to view the South American landscape began in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in the 1960s. This fascinating city is situated on the banks of the world’s second widest river, the River Plate or Rìo de La Plata, River of Silver. With a statue of José Gervasio Artigas regarded as the liberator of Uruguay from Spain located on the main square or Plaza de Independencia, Montevideo (which means “I see a mountain”) was an old and beautiful Spanish-style city. Little did I know on my arrival in Uruguay that a section of that country not that far from Montevideo was once populated by Irish farmers who later owned additional land on the south side of the River Plate in the Argentine Province of Buenos Aires. The latter was acquired at the invitation of Juan Manuel de Rosas who during his career served as governor of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate Provinces, Buenos Aires Province, and the Argentine President.

After a week traveling in Uruguay, I rode by bus along by the River Plate from Montevideo to Colonia, where I picked up a hydrofoil to cross the Rìo De La Plata (River Plate) to the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. I visited the Irish Embassy in Buenos Aires, the only Irish Embassy in South America at that point in time, to acquire some information. The embassy personnel couldn’t have been any nastier or unhelpful. An Irish Argentinian Embassy employee, expressed her surprise that I came to Buenos Aires without knowing anybody and told me to “find friends” to get the information I required. I contacted the Buenos Aires Amateur (Ham) Radio Club,[1] and then became aware of a large Irish immigration to that country in the second half of the nineteenth century. Members of that society subsequently took me to the Hurling Club and the Father Fahy Club where I was simultaneously introduced to Irish Argentinians.

I spent a few months travelling around that beautiful country but always winding up back in Buenos Aires. I then decided to leave for Chile and travelled west by bus to San Martìn de los Andes, a majestic Argentinian town in the province of Neuquén in the shadow of the Andes Mountains. Since I wanted to travel by lake to Chile, I took a long bus ride south close to the area where the boat normally departed for Chile. After getting off the bus I was only to find that there would be no boat crossing for another 4 or 5 days. The bus I had travelled on had already left and I had no choice but to return by foot back towards San Martìn de los Andes. After about six hours on foot, I arrived at a police outpost with the shadows of nightfall already setting in. My documents were checked again and I received a badly needed glass of water from one of the police officers. Then the young officer in charge of the station came to check me out or more likely to pass the time with a social conversation. I needed a place to stay for the night and was a little nervous in a wilderness area. I asked him if the area was safe and he replied that nothing happens around here. He advised me of a boarding house in the nearby forest where the woodworkers stayed and said he would accompany me there. He also said he would come back the next morning and take me to San Martìn De Los Andes where I could catch a bus daily through the Andes to the border with Chile. All went according to plan, but San Martìn de los Andes was so beautiful with a lake and a town surrounded by towering mountains that I decided to stay there for two days.

I then left Argentina by bus to the border with Chile, went through the customs, and entered that country. I travelled by different bus routes in Chile as far south as possible before a branch (“rama”) of the Andes Mountains intervenes and juts out to the Pacific Ocean. The only choices left were to enter Argentina again and cross back into Chile a short distance further south or take a short boat ride around the branch of the Andes, which stretched out into the Pacific Ocean and reenter Chile south of the mountain branch. I decided to do neither and instead opted to travel north by train to the Chilean capital, Santiago, where I noticed the first glimpse of Irish influence in Chile with the name of O’Higgins prominent. In later years, while working on an American passenger vessel, the Santa Mariana, I was able to pass through the scenic Straits of Magellan, which cuts off mainland Chile and Argentina from Tierra Del Fuego, and view some of the majestic scenery of Southern Argentina and Chile. After a few weeks in Chile, and viewing as much as possible, I returned to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I spent some additional time. There, I frequently visited the Irish Hurling Club and on one occasion, the Father Fahy Club. I then travelled to Paraguay. Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, was a quaint and unusual city whose streets were lined with orange trees loaded with fruit. My knowledge of Eliza Lynch’s exploits in Paraguay, the huge estates she once owned and the major part this Irish woman from Cork played in the history of that country, were then totally unknown to me. After a week in Paraguay, I attempted to travel to Bolivia but it was just not possible for political reasons to travel to that country from Paraguay. So I had to fly directly to Lima, Peru, probably the most history laden of all the South American countries with famous tribes like the Incas and world famous ruins like Macchu Picchu.

Bernardo O'Higgins.

After travels in Peru, I made my way to Ecuador, where an American-born cousin was a priest in a poverty stricken area of the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, called Parque Forestal. While Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city and major port, the capital, Quito, surrounded by scenic hills, was much prettier. The remaining part of my journey took me to Colombia and then to Panama, where the end of my adventure in South America was complete, at least for the time being. I returned to New York where a sister and brother-in-law were there to meet me. I had left South America without a great knowledge of any of the countries other than Argentina where I spent more time than all the others put together. In later years I would become more familiar with most of the other countries when I worked as an officer on United States vessels. History, unlike mathematics, is laden with myriads of contradictions and there is no lack of dichotomies available when writing or researching about the Irish in Latin America.