By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — While many Irish fled famine and persecution in the 1800s and immigrated to new lives in North America and Australia, James Gaynor headed for South America and the undeveloped wilds of the Argentinian camp or countryside.
He lived in holes covered with hide and with the other Irish immigrants fought running battles with the native Indians for their land.
But, within 100 years Gaynor and families like the Duggans, Kennys and Geoghegans from Westmeath and Longford and the Brennans and McDermotts from Wexford had established themselves as the “Gaucho” Irish — some of the biggest landowners in the whole of South America.
In a few generations they were transformed from penniless and often starving immigrants into the country’s high society — wealthy, influential and snobbish liked the landed gentry they left behind.
In the 18th century it was said that you could ride a horse 450 kilometers from the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires to the province of Santa Fe and never leave land owned by Irish people.
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When the English arrived later in big numbers with the development of the railways, the clannish Irish looked down on them.
Their estancias, or ranches, covered the equivalent of whole Irish counties. They never spoke of acres. They measured their land in leagues.
Sylvia Kenny-Kavanagh, great great granddaughter of Gaynor says her ancestor owned around 39 leagues of land in Argentina and about the same in neighbouring Uruguay.
As they sailed away from Ireland, the emigrants measured their progress across the Atlantic in leagues with each league equal to three and a half land miles. It was a system of measurement they continued to use for the vast estates they carved out for themselves
The 39 leagues converts to about a quarter of million acres. So Gaynor ended up with half a million acres in the two countries — bigger than the whole of Wicklow and slightly smaller than County Meath.
“It was an enormous quantity of land,” Kenny-Kavanagh told a documentary on Argentina’s Irish, which was screened by RTE on Monday.
It detailed the extraordinary story of the pioneers and the “forgotten” Irish colony — their 400,000 descendants that now form the largest Spanish-speaking Irish community in the world.
Kenny-Kavanagh said Gaynor fought battles with the Indians for seven years as he established his estancias.
“Irish families became very much accepted in society and at the time of my parents were among the high society. Some became very snobbish and fat,” Kenny-Kavanagh said.
“We kind of associated the English with those who came with the railroads. We were very proud of our ancestors so we kept quite together. We were very faithful to our roots.”
Most of Irish-Argentinians have never been back but still cling to memories that have been passed down through the generations.
Theresa Deane Reddy told the program all of them are longing to go back and trace their roots. “There was a grandmother of mine and when she was dying she said, ‘Please put my head looking to Ireland,’ ” she said.