Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Cork University Press
ISBN 9781782055112

Reviewed by Michael Kennedy

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Perhaps you can judge a book by its cover? With its dramatic colourful dust-jacket, tasteful blue-and-white Argentinian-themed head and tail bands and its quality finish, Ireland and Argentina in the twentieth century is a prodigious work. By drawing attention to the Ireland–Argentina nexus, Dermot Keogh recalibrates the corpus of work on Irish diplomatic history to include the southern hemisphere. Research on Irish foreign policy has to date, with notable exceptions, tended to concentrate on the northern hemisphere and the global Anglophone world.

The reader is left in no doubt in the opening pages that this is Dermot Keogh’s magnum opus. The great and the good, including President Higgins, line up to deliver a series of panegyrics, and the reader then commences a captivating century-long tale over 381 pages of text and just shy of 200 pages of appendices, footnotes, bibliography and index. This is magisterial stuff!

There are some truly engaging photographs throughout—particularly the 1924 ‘Irish pilgrimage train’ pictured in Buenos Aires with its ‘Viva de Valera’ banner across the front of the locomotive (p. 87) and the four 1860s Irish emigrant farmers pictured drinking tea on page 34. It is a pity that Cork University Press did not print the images on photographic-quality paper to improve the reproduction. This would have required grouping them together, however, and as it is the photographs are inserted at appropriate points in the text.

As well as having as its core theme the diplomatic relationship between Ireland and Argentina, and by extension the wider Irish relationship with Latin America, this is also a partial autobiography by Dermot Keogh of over 40 years of championing research into and writing on Irish diplomatic history. The section in the introduction on the historiographical environment in which the text is situated is in effect a reflective personal memoir on how scholarship on Irish diplomatic history has developed since the 1980s.

And it would be churlish not to point out that Dermot Keogh has been a central figure in ensuring that Ireland caught up in the 1990s and 2000s with the standard of global scholarship to develop an understanding of its own place amongst the nations which was absent for so many years. I should also, by way of full disclosure, add that Dermot was a colleague of mine as a founding editor of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series from 1997 to 2019.

It is an unforeseen by-product of the decade of commemorations in Ireland that the trend of so much recent and current Irish scholarship focuses on one decade in the twentieth century to the loss of research on others. By contrast, Ireland and Argentina spans the entire twentieth century. It also has a much wider reach than the bilateral relationship suggested by the title because it provides by way of scene and context setting a history of the development of Irish foreign policy since 1919 and thereafter sees the bilateral relationship with Argentina in its broadest regional perspective.

From the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century the Irish connection to Argentina was considerable. “Irish emigrants made a significant contribution to the development of Argentina“. They provided military, religious and political leaders and maintained strong memories of the land whence they came. The Irish in Argentina are, as Keogh makes clear, a complementary theme: this is an account of Ireland and Argentina. Nevertheless, while it is diplomatic history, the emigrant diaspora provides the context within which bilateral relations between both countries were established and developed.

Context is most important here. Buenos Aires was, in reality, never a first-level diplomatic posting in the Irish foreign service. The mission to Argentina was until 1999 Ireland’s only outpost in Latin America, but those isolated Irish diplomats in Buenos Aires did not work alone. The book assesses the role and power of Irish Catholic missionaries in Argentina and shows how hard diplomatic power and the soft power of the Catholic Church can come together with synergy. Soft power is one of Ireland’s larger assets internationally and has always been an essential multiplier for the effective conduct of Irish diplomacy. That said, Ireland was, as Keogh puts it, ‘glacially slow’ (p. 366) in expanding its diplomatic service south of the Rio Grande. While Argentina and the wider Latin American continent were of marginal importance to so many successive Irish governments, and the embassy in Buenos Aires was not seen as having great significance to Dublin, Keogh shows that from the Argentine and the Argentine-Irish perspective the embassy had the greatest significance. It was a major diaspora link, it provided essential—and at times most likely life-saving—consular protection to Irish passport-holders in Argentina while the junta was in power, and during the critical juncture of the Falklands War it was an essential part of the Irish diplomatic network.

Setting the scene by highlighting the contribution of Irish emigrants to Argentina from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Chapter 1 concludes by focusing on the difficulties and ultimately the failure of Irish diplomatic efforts in Argentina from 1919 to 1923 led by Laurence Ginnell and, before him, Eamonn Bulfin.

Chapter 2 looks at the high politics of how the Irish-Argentines interacted with independent Ireland from 1923 to the overthrow of Juan Perón in 1955. The establishment of an Irish diplomatic mission in Argentina in 1947 is generally argued as having been the result of a post-war wheat-buying mission, but here Keogh situates it in a written commitment made by de Valera to Argentine cleric Monsignor Santiago Ussher in 1935. This is a useful point, as it breaks the tendency to divide Irish diplomatic history into post-war and pre-war and shows the continuity between the decades.

Irish minister to Argentina Matthew Murphy’s often colourful reporting from Buenos Aires during his eight-year posting from 1947 to 1955 is at times bleakly humorous, but Keogh points out that he and many of the Buenos Aires diplomatic corps ‘never ventured to try to understand the mystery and mysticism behind the appeal of Peronist populism’ (p. 143). Keogh ponders whether many of the reports sent to Dublin from Buenos Aires over the decades were ever read by their recipients (p. 443, footnote 127).

The period from 1955 to Perón’s return in 1973 is covered in Chapter 3. Chapters 4–6 bring the reader into and through the dark history of the military junta that took power in a coup in March 1976, reported on from Buenos Aires by Third Secretary Justin Harman in a ‘cautious and nuanced’ manner (p. 200). Keogh starkly describes the systematic killings, torture and human rights abuses of the dirty war, using the case-studies of catechist and political activist Fátima Cabrera and of Fr Patrick Rice from Fermoy of the Little Brothers of Charles de Foucauld, who were disappeared on 11 October 1976 and illegally detained. His account of the torture of Rice and Cabrera is exact in detail and based strongly on their own testimonies and memories. It is the stuff of nightmares, except that it is true, and illustrates in unforgettable terms what Rice later called ‘the unique capacity for brutality and evil’ within human beings (p. 232).

The dangerous work of Irish diplomats in Buenos Aires to protect Irish-Argentine religious during these dreadful years is clear. In the ‘race against time’ (p. 233) to find Rice as his life hung in the balance and to ensure that he was not murdered, Keogh shows how Ireland officially engaged with the minions of the dictatorship in Buenos Aires. He analyses the importance of the relationship between the Irish embassy and the network it had with Irish religious in Argentina and with other diplomatic missions in Buenos Aires, in particular the Apostolic Nunciature via its Irish-born First Secretary Monsignor Kevin Mullen.

Chapter 5 is powerful, deeply moving, highly uncomfortable reading and, as Keogh concludes, the work of Harman and Lennon and their counterparts in Dublin in ensuring Rice’s release and deportation to Ireland in December 1976 should at the very least be used as a case-study for training Irish diplomats on ‘unorthodox consular cases’ (p. 260) when the life of an Irish citizen is in danger.

Chapter 7 covers the Falklands/Malvinas question and the Falklands War of 1982. Generally analysed from the point of view of Ireland’s 1981–2 term on the United Nations Security Council or from the perspective of British–Irish relations, here is the missing perspective from Argentina, although a perspective that is acknowledged to be set within the context of British–Irish relations.

The final chapter, a short coda-cum-conclusion to the book itself, looks briefly at the transition to democracy in the years after the Falklands War and broadens out to look not only at Ireland’s relations with Argentina in the 21st century but also at the growing importance of Latin America in Ireland’s foreign relations.

There is much of interest in the footnotes, too—they are in a sense a separate book of miscellanea, reportage and vignettes within the book itself. They contain pen-portraits, historiographical overviews and short personal asides. The opening footnotes to Chapter 4 (pp 445–6) on the 1974 hand-over between Chargé d’Affaires Bernard Davenport and Ambassador Wilfie Lennon in Buenos Aires and the surrounding events are revealing on the life of career diplomats. Davenport rushed back to Dublin to a new position in the Department of Foreign Affairs only to find that his new role did not exist, and it seems that Lennon never wanted to go to Buenos Aires in the first place!

There is so much detail in this book that it is a pity that there is not a greater level of detail in the index—a further sub-level would have helped to reveal more easily the hidden gems within, such as Che Guevara’s getting drunk in Hanratty’s Hotel in Limerick in March 1965 and returning to board a flight at Shannon ‘festooned in shamrock’ (p. 154). Perhaps, however, it is best to come across such episodes unexpectedly?

There really are four individual intertwined books in this one book—the bilateral Ireland–Argentina story, the wider history of Irish foreign policy that surrounds it, the shorter autobiographical sections and the cornucopia of the footnotes. Should a call have been made to prioritise the core task of the bilateral relationship? Would a strategically focused edit have teased these four books apart? I initially thought so, but I am not so sure on reflection. The intertwining of the three themes and the sheer variety of the footnotes make for a much richer read.

The result is a blend of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic history and snatches of autobiography. This fusion is what scholarly endeavour should be about. In the rush to produce short, ever more tightly focused monographs to meet research metric deadlines, academia has often lost sight of the place of the ‘big book’, that long-considered account which contains a life’s research, understanding and experience and which can only be written as the result of a lengthy and engaged academic career. Ireland and Argentina is one such ‘big book’. And if it is to be Dermot Keogh’s final word—and I for one hope it is not—finis coronat!

Michael Kennedy is Executive Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.


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