The Irish road to Argentina

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), Volume 12

Mosaic of Buenos Aires in Pilar Church, Recoleta.

Mosaic of Buenos Aires in Pilar Church, Recoleta.

During the nineteenth century, about 40,000 emigrants left Ireland to colonise the lush yet deserted Argentine pampas and laid the foundation for a flourishing Irish-Argentine community. Edmundo Murray tracks the journey from their home counties and their mode of transport.

Most of the Irish emigrants bound for Argentina came from two areas, the coastline of County Wexford and a sector on the Westmeath–Longford border. In the 1860s almost all the young people of the townlands around Ballymore, Ballynacarrigy and Drumraney, in County Westmeath, emigrated to the River Plate (at that time comprising the Argentine and Uruguay republics). Sixty-one per cent of the emigrants were from Westmeath, Longford and Offaly, and sixteen per cent from Wexford.
Most of these emigrants were single farmers in their twenties, non-inheriting children of Catholic middle-sized tenants. Sooner or later they would have to leave the family farm, and they preferred to emigrate than to enrol in the British army or in the church. However, later, in 1889–1929, there was a higher proportion of urban labourers and middle-class professionals and merchants from Dublin, Cork and Limerick, and by the 1920s up to half of the emigrants belonged to the Church of Ireland.
Argentina was attractive to Irish emigrants because of its reputation as a place where land was relatively easy to acquire. By the mid-nineteenth century migration networks had been gradually established by Irish landowners, merchants and Catholic priests, who as ingleses were highly regarded by the local bourgeoisie. They actively hired family members, friends and neighbours in Ireland to help them on their sheep-farms in the pampas.


Emigrating from the midlands

The Royal Canal, Abbeyshrule, Co. Longford. Until eclipsed by the railways the Royal Canal was the main mode of transport to Dublin for Longford and Westmeath emigrants.

The Royal Canal, Abbeyshrule, Co. Longford. Until eclipsed by the railways the Royal Canal was the main mode of transport to Dublin for Longford and Westmeath emigrants.

During the height of the migration, from 1843 to 1879, most Westmeath and Longford emigrants would travel to Dublin, cross to Liverpool, sail to Buenos Aires, and then head for the major Irish settlements scattered over the pampas.


Before this period they would travel along the trading route between Europe and North America, and then journey on from the United States to Argentina. After the 1880s other transit ports, such as Cork, Southampton or Antwerp, were frequently used by emigrants.
Dublin was the nearest port for emigrants from the midlands. From 1806 in order to reach Dublin they would use canal barges towed by horses, and later, from 1848, the railway. Poorer emigrants would use less expensive means of transport, or would simply walk. Most paid for their tickets, and some were reimbursed by their employers in Buenos Aires. In 1806 the Royal Canal reached Mullingar from Dublin. The Longford branch was opened in January 1830.
The journey from Mullingar to Dublin took around thirteen hours in the early years of the canal service. By the 1840s faster boats (known as the ‘fly boats’) had cut journey times to eight hours. Canal barges lumbered along sedately at five or six kilometres per hour. For about 30 years after its completion the canal enjoyed modest success. The journey was relatively comfortable, even if one had to sleep on deck. But as emigration increased during the Famine years, the boats were often overcrowded. In 1845 six passengers died when a boat capsized in Longford harbour. Some emigrants would have travelled by the Grand Canal, with a branch to Kilbeggan, which was older and busier than the Royal Canal.



A 1912 Lamport & Holt brochure aimed at potential emigrants. (Fraser Darrah Collection)

A 1912 Lamport & Holt brochure aimed at potential emigrants. (Fraser Darrah Collection)

Edward Robbins, who emigrated to Argentina in 1849, wrote that ‘at that period [1837], there were a mail coach, a day coach and a canal coach passing and repassing through the town daily’. According to an 1807 timetable published by the Royal Canal House, there were two boats daily. The fare from Mullingar to Dublin (65.2km) was 12s-6d first class and 7s-7d second class.
In 1848 the Midland Great Western Railway Company (MGWR) reached Mullingar, and in 1851 the line extended to Athlone. The railway age signalled the demise of the canal. By 1855 the MGWR had reached Longford, and the railway replaced the canal as the main means of transport to Dublin, with a journey time of about two hours. Those who travelled by third or fourth class would have had an uncomfortable journey: the 1850s fourth-class carriages had neither heating nor sanitation and were little more than cattle trucks, sometimes without seating.
For those emigrants who lived at a distance from the railway, the journey to the station was made by coach. The village of Ballymore, which was the epicentre for the midlands emigration to South America, is about 20km west of Mullingar on the present road to Athlone. The nearest railway stations were Athlone and Mullingar, and stagecoaches passed through Ballymore on the way to Mullingar and Dublin. By the late 1840s Bianconi coaches, each capable of carrying up to twenty passengers, provided the means by which emigrants could reach Longford, Mullingar and Athlone from the countryside, and from the small rural villages and townlands of Westmeath and Longford.


Smaller stagecoaches travelling directly from Athlone and Mullingar to Dublin were also used by emigrants until the 1850s. Horse-drawn stagecoaches travelled at about 12km per hour, with frequent stops to rest both horses and passengers. Bianconi coaches connected with the Royal Canal boats to Dublin and intermediate stages. Fares from Ballymahon to Mullingar were 6s-11d (‘state’ or first class) and 5s-9d (‘back’ or second class).
In the 1850s William Mulvihill of Ballymahon, Co. Longford, was the agent for the River Plate Steamship Company in the midlands. Prospective emigrants would buy their tickets from Mulvihill’s grocery store. From Mullingar, the emigrants could book a direct rail plus boat ticket to Liverpool for £2-2s. The fact that emigrants were advised to bring a revolver as well as a saddle may not have deterred farmers who were used to protecting their stock from starving labourers.


Dublin to Liverpool

Once in Dublin, emigrants would stay a night at a local hotel. The Broadstone Hotel was the establishment of the Royal Canal Company in Dublin, which by October 1807 was managed by John Rooney. The fare for a single bed in a room containing two or more beds was 2s-2d.
At least three boats daily crossed the Irish Sea from Dublin to Liverpool and the journey took from twelve to fourteen hours. There was a fully developed shipping trade between Ireland and Liverpool. The first quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed technological developments in the application of steam power to shipping, strengthening the connection between Ireland and England. From the 1820s onward, Liverpool was connected with all the main Irish ports by a fleet of relatively fast, cheap steam vessels, mainly paddle-driven but some screw-driven. The leading company was probably the Dublin and Liverpool Steam Packet Company.
The crossing was a traumatic experience for passengers. There was little cabin accommodation. Moreover, most ships were carrying animals below deck and they were usually better looked after. Few ships had steerage accommodations so most passengers had no shelter. They were exposed to the weather and often arrived exhausted, scarcely able to walk. Most of the time, steamers—whose average tonnage was 500 to 700—were overcrowded. Some emigrants bound for Liverpool sailed to Holyhead, and then travelled by stagecoach to Liverpool (about 145km).


Emigrating from County Wexford

Wexford had been an international port since the late seventeenth century, with heavy trade to Liverpool, Dublin, Bristol, and other ports of the British Isles and the Continent. Additionally, Wexford town was well connected to the county villages and townlands through Bianconi coaches and carts.
From Wexford quay there were steam boats to Liverpool. In 1861 the Wexford Steam Ship Company sailed ‘their magnificent paddle steam ships Troubador (Capt. Edmond Roach); Vivandiere (Capt. Charles McKenna); Prince of Wales (Capt. Wells); or other suitable vessel, weekly between Wexford and Liverpool’ [The People, 28 December 1861]. Departures from Wexford were every Thursday at 6am and Saturday at 7am, with an estimated journey time of twelve hours. There were accommodations for cabin and deck passengers. Another choice was to sail to Dublin and from there to Liverpool. In the 1880s, Lamport & Holt’s agent in Wexford was William Timpson, who would sell tickets to Liverpool with connections to the River Plate sailing every fourteen days.


The Liverpool experience and the Atlantic crossing

A Lamport & Holt postcard showing a ‘V-boat' leaving Buenos Aires. (Fraser Darrah Collection)

A Lamport & Holt postcard showing a ‘V-boat’ leaving Buenos Aires. (Fraser Darrah Collection)

A dreadful experience awaited those disoriented Irish arriving in Liverpool in order to get a passage to South America. Emigrants landed in Clarence Dock. Since most would already have purchased their sea passages in Ballymahon, Mullingar or Wexford town, their money was secured and they just had to take care of their lodging until the boarding time. During the days of sailing-ships, vessels were ‘expected any day now’ and, if the wind was against them, they could be up to three weeks late.
Once the emigrants managed to get on board the ships, the Atlantic crossing followed. The Irish who departed from Liverpool sailed back the way they had come, towards Ireland, with the winds dictating their routes: north around Malin Head or south by the Waterfront, Cove and Cape Clear.
The sea crossing was not an easy voyage. It was long, taking between one and three months, and the sea was a strange environment for most emigrants, especially those from rural areas of Longford and Westmeath. Luke Doyle from Mullingar arrived in Buenos Aires after a journey of five and a half months. Even longer was the journey of Sarah Elliff (née Flynn), who arrived in Buenos Aires in December 1848 after a six-month voyage.


The replica ship Dunbrody at New Ross - similar to ships taken by mid-nineteenth-century emigrants from County Wexford.

The replica ship Dunbrody at New Ross – similar to ships taken by mid-nineteenth-century emigrants from County Wexford.

Her ship weighed anchor in Liverpool on 20 June 1848, with 600 passengers on board. Thirty died during the journey, and many others left the ship at Rio de Janeiro.
Owing to insurance requirements, the ships sailing from Liverpool to the River Plate were mostly first- and second-class, i.e. surveyed and judged as of best or good quality in terms of age, condition and seaworthiness, unlike many on the North American routes in the 1840s that were third-class (the infamous ‘coffin ships’), a status which prohibited any but short voyages.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, when timber sailing-ships such as the Cockatrice, Spider and Griffon were the norm, the number of people emigrating to Argentina was still small. Between 1822 and 1850, only 1,659 Irish immigrants were registered at Buenos Aires, with an exceptional peak in 1849 (708 immigrants). For example, on 21 April 1844, with 114 Irish passengers on board, the William Peele weighed anchor at Liverpool under Captain R. Sprott. The ship called on 13 May 1844 at Saint Jago, Cape Vert islands, about 620km off the west coast of Senegal. After crossing the South Atlantic, she probably called at Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, and finally arrived in the River Plate on 25 June 1844.
Poor travelling conditions had fatal consequences for some of the Irish emigrants to Argentina. In 1849 Edward Robbins from Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, and his family emigrated to Argentina via Liverpool:


‘Early in the month of March, I left for Liverpool and I arranged for a passage to Buenos Aires for myself and family with Michael McDonnald. On the 4th of April, all my family arrived at Liverpool and were kept there until the 8th of May, on which they sailed. There was much sickness on board from the neglect of the Government Inspectors at Liverpool: one man and a child died at sea. My family and myself suffered very much, had a good passage and arrived at Buenos Aires on the 13th of July. [We were] in quarantine until the 22nd on which day we landed. It was a Sunday. My family and myself counted 13, of which 10 had to go to the Irish Hospital.’



On 10 August 1849 the Robbins family left the Buenos Aires Irish Hospital, but the outcome of the trip was appalling for the family: Edward’s wife Ann Ryan died on 21 August, their son Bernard died on 29 August, and their adopted daughter Mary Ann Coffy died on 4 September.
Fares to the River Plate varied according to company and class, ranging from £10 to £35, with an average of £16, or half an Irish farm-hand’s annual salary in Argentina. Most scholars agree, therefore, that emigrants to Argentina had a relatively higher income than emigrants to North America. However, labourers without the necessary funds to purchase their tickets to South America would have been financially assisted by sheep-farmers in Argentina who were looking for skilled shepherds from Ireland.


Steam reduces journey time

The Canavan brothers on board ship on the return journey to Europe c. 1890 (Bernard Canavan)

The Canavan brothers on board ship on the return journey to Europe c. 1890 (Bernard Canavan)

The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by iron and steel sailing-ships and later by steam. The length of the journey was reduced from three months to one month. Steamships were far superior vessels, to such a degree that the last sailing-ships were built by 1855. Sailing-packets carried emigrants to South America for another twenty years but they steadily lost ground to steamers. The transition from sail to steam was radical.
However, in spite of the better speed and efficiency of the steamers, in the late 1880s conditions on board for poor emigrants had still not improved:


‘Many of the emigrant ships had […] excellent first and second class accommodation, but no cabins or partitions of any kind for the emigrants. Between decks a forest of iron poles, on which the hammocks, sometimes 1,000 in number, are slung in three layers, for men, women, and children together, with no possible privacy or decency, spreading a moral contagion to which he could only allude before his present audience, and inducing an atmosphere which baffles description.’ [Vivian to Salisbury, 20 April 1889 (Enclosure)]


From 1851 onward, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was the major carrier of cargo and passengers from the British Isles to the River Plate, a service inaugurated by the Teviot. The Esk,


‘a comparatively tiny wooden screw steamer, took on the River Plate mails […]. The gently shelving estuarine shores of the River Plate presented difficulties in the landing of passengers and goods at Buenos Aires. Bushell […] reports how the Esk anchored about 7 miles off the city, with the passengers and mails being transferred to a tiny steamer to steam to within 2 miles of the shore. The next transfer was to an open whaler, which was sailed or rowed to about 200 yards off the shore. The long-suffering passengers were then taken by a horse-drawn, large-wheeled cart to a wooden jetty and, at last, reached terra firma’ [Howat 1984].


John James Murphy adds that ‘in those days [1844], sailing vessels anchored far out in the river; from there they came as far as possible in rowing boats and then on in carts. When the tide was high, the boats came in as far as the Merced Church, and were tied up to iron rings in the wall of the church. For many years after, those rings were still there.’


During the 1860s, which saw the highest peak in the Irish emigration to Argentina (with the exception of the City of Dresden in 1889), the most active company was Lamport & Holt, or the Liverpool, Brazil and River Plate Steam Navigation Company. Lamport & Holt was established in 1845. In 1863 they began sailing to and from Brazil and the River Plate, despatching two vessels to South America from Liverpool; in 1864, eight; in 1865, 24; and in 1866, 41. By 1892 the direct voyage was taking 22 days. Madeira was generally sighted on the fifth day, and Montevideo seventeen days later. Nine times out of ten the sea was as calm as a mill-pond, except crossing the Bay of Biscay.
Before the 1880s, the most important ship in terms of quantity of Irish emigrants carried was La Zíngara, the smallest vessel of Thomas B. Royden & Co. She was built in 1860 in Liverpool and was registered in the Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping in 1861. The rigging was a barque, sheathed in yellow metal in 1860, fastened with copper bolts (287 tons). The captain was George Sanders. Tickets on La Zíngara were cheaper than those of other vessels such as the Raymond from Dublin (Captain Lenders).


The City of Dresden scandal

In 1889 the City of Dresden carried the largest number of passengers (1774) ever to arrive in Argentina from any one destination on any one vessel, the result of a deceitful immigration scheme managed by Argentine government agents in Ireland—Buckley O’Meara and John S. Dillon, brother of the prominent Canon Patrick Dillon, founder of The Southern Cross, National Deputy for Buenos Aires, and notorious leader of the Irish-Argentine community. The affair became infamous and was denounced in parliament, press and pulpit. These emigrants came from poor urban areas of Dublin and Limerick, and most of the adults were city labourers and servants. Some were assisted by Irish-Argentine families well established in the country or found situations in Buenos Aires, but most of them were deceived by unscrupulous agents and were abandoned in remote areas. Paradoxically, a few emigrants died in Argentina of hunger and related illnesses, which were typical of the miserable situation in the late 1880s in Ireland. The bad press was enough to almost completely stop Irish emigration to Argentina.
During the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, the number of Irish emigrants who selected Argentina as their final destination was relatively unimportant. In the 1920s, however, there was a new peak of arrivals from Ireland. The majority were educated urban professionals, with a high proportion from a Church of Ireland background. This increase might have been a consequence of political, social and economic turmoil in Ireland. However, it ceased by the end of the 1920s, when the Great Depresson seriously affected the economic growth of Argentina.
By this time the sheep-farming opportunities of the previous century had decreased owing to changes in the international markets, in which agriculture was becoming increasingly more important. Irish landowners began hiring immigrants from other origins, particularly from Italy, as tenants on their land. At the same time, their families joined the urban bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires in an acculturation process that did not end until the Falkland/Malvinas War of 1982.


Edmundo Murray is a researcher at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.


The author wishes to thank Ruth Illingworth, Mullingar, for her generous advice about nineteenth-century transport in the Irish midlands, and Revd Jeremy Howat, Bernard Canavan and Pat McKenna for their comments.

Further reading
R. Delany, Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789–1992 (Dublin, 1992).
B. Greenhill and A. Giffard, Travelling by sea in the nineteenth century: interior design in Victorian passenger ships (New York, 1974).
R. Illingworth (ed.), When the train came to Mullingar (Mullingar, 1998).
F. Mulligan, One hundred and fifty years of Irish railways (Belfast, 1983).


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