Irish Diasporic Narratives in Argentina

A Reconsideration of Home, Identity and Belonging

by Sinéad Wall (Author)
Monographs XII, 270 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 81


Departure from Ireland has long occupied a contradictory position in Irish national discourse, alternately viewed as exile or betrayal. This book analyses how departure, as well as notions of home, identity and return, is articulated in the narratives of three members of the Irish diaspora community in Argentina: John Brabazon’s journal The Customs and Habits of the Country of Buenos Ayres from the year 1845 by John Brabazon and His Own Adventures; William Bulfin’s series of sketches for The Southern Cross newspaper, later published as Tales of the Pampas (1900) and Rambles in Eirinn (1907); and Kathleen Nevin’s fictional memoir, You’ll Never Go Back (1946). The book examines the extent to which each writer upholds or contests hegemonic constructions of Irishness, as well as exploring how they negotiate the dual identity of emigrant and potential returnee. Each of the three writers, to varying degrees, challenges the orthodox positionings of the Irish diaspora subject as backward-looking and the Irish emigrant as bound to the national territory. Furthermore, they construct multiple subject positions and contradictory notions of Irishness: national, essentialist and homogeneous versus transnational, diverse and plural. Ultimately, their writings contribute to a rich and nuanced reimagining of the Irish emigrant identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Setting the Scene: Irish Diasporic Voices in Argentina
  • Section I: Irish Roots/Routes in Latin America
  • Chapter 1: Missionaries, Soldiers and Settlers
  • Chapter 2: The Road to Argentina
  • Section II: Unsettling Notions of Home, Return and Identity
  • Chapter 3: John Brabazon: Mediating and Contesting Identity
  • Chapter 4: William Bulfin: Extending the Boundaries of Irishness
  • Chapter 5: Kathleen Nevin: (En)Gendering Diaspora and the ‘Tainted’ Returnee
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


We are deeply grateful to Peter Lang Oxford for their support and professionalism in fulfilling Sinéad’s dream. We are also indebted to Sinéad’s friends Maria-José and Gwen for offering to edit this book and see it to fruition, and also to Sara, for her wonderful cover, forever reminding us of the wonderful author.

Feidhlim and the Wall family ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


Sinéad Wall was a fine scholar, an inspirational teacher and a much-loved colleague and friend. Tragically, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in early 2016, and died some months later at the end of May 2016. She was, at this moment, in her intellectual and creative prime, teeming with ideas and projects for the future. And yet Sinéad had already achieved a great deal in her life. Her profile within the field of Migration and Latin American Studies was well established. In 2015, shortly before her diagnosis, she was pleased to have secured a contract with Peter Lang for the publication of this book. We are grateful to Peter Lang for honouring the contract made with Sinéad, accepting that we perform in her absence the editorial role that Sinéad would have undertaken herself in preparing the book for publication. It would have been a great source of pride to Sinéad to see her work in print, as indeed it deserves to be, and it is our great pleasure to celebrate this recognition of her work and contribution to the field.

Born in Ireland in 1973, she grew up and was educated in the Hook Head area of County Wexford. She completed her BA in History at the National University of Ireland (University College Dublin) in 1993, after which she spent a year working in Spain. She travelled widely after this, working in London and Australia, and in 1998 she returned to Spain. There, she completed the advanced cycle of Spanish language courses at the Instituto Cervantes in Barcelona, after which she went back to London to return to academic study.

We met Sinéad at University College London as contemporaries studying for an MA in 2000, and then for a PhD in 2003 in the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies. Sinéad began her PhD research under the supervision of Professor Jason Wilson, and then, when he retired, completed her thesis under the supervision of Dr Claire Lindsay, the fruits of which are the riches of this book. ← ix | x →

Sinéad’s intellectual and research interests were also her core personal and political values. Her exploration of the relationship between Ireland and the Hispanic world was her lived experience, and her keen attunement to issues of gender and intercultural dialogue was integral to her outlook on life. Sinéad’s investment in giving ‘muted voices’ a platform in history, literature and culture was also deeply rooted in her politics and her worldview. Sinéad was a passionate educationalist and held a position as Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster from 2006. In addition to her teaching, Sinéad was a very active contributor to the research community and to the field of Migration Studies, in particular the study of Irish migration to Latin America, and was a member of the Irish Migration Studies in Latin America Editorial Board.

Sinéad co-edited two special journal issues: ‘Airing the private: women’s diaries in the Luso-Hispanic world’ (Journal of Romance Studies 9 (1) [2009]) with Maria José Blanco, in which she herself published her article ‘Relocating the self in Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Travelling Alone’; and ‘Travel Writing: Encounters within and through Irish and Latin American spaces’ (Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 8 (4) [2015]) with Laura P. Z. Izarra, in which she published ‘Materialising Irish/Argentine diaspora spaces and transnational identities in William Bulfin’s travel sketches for The Southern Cross newspaper (1891–1903)’.

Sinéad organised her first conference as a postgraduate student in 2007, ‘Airing the Private/Aireando lo privado’ (University College London, June 2007), which later developed into the Journal of Romance Studies publication mentioned above. She also collaborated and participated in other conferences such as: ‘Secrets and Lies …’, Third Conference of the Society for Irish Latin American Studies, SILAS, Dublin City University, March 2011, where she presented the paper: ‘Revealing the inner self in Kate O’Briens’s Mary Lavelle (1936)’; ‘The “Material Turn” in Migration Studies: Memory, Emotion and Identity in and across Diasporic Worlds’, University of Westminster, June 2014, where she presented ‘Materialising Diaspora Space: Mobile Irish/Argentine identities in William Bulfin’s sketches/crónicas for The Southern Cross newspaper (1891–1903)’; and The Association for Contemporary Iberian Studies 36th Annual Conference, ← x | xi → University of Westminster, September 2014, with ‘Travelling Towards the Inner Stranger in Kate O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle (1936)’.

Sinéad brought a relaxed style to her academic life. She was down-to-earth and easy to talk to and this she combined with an intellectual insight which was original and understated. Sinéad was open to exploring ideas and was a generous contributor to any discussion. In conversation you found that her seriousness as a scholar came hand in hand with her playful humour and characteristic lightness of touch. These qualities were enjoyed as much by her students as by her colleagues, and her absence is deeply felt by us all. The subject of this book needs no introduction from us, as Sinéad does that beautifully herself. It simply remains for us to allow this fine piece of work to speak for itself.

Maria-José Blanco and Gwen MacKeith, London 2016 ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →

Setting the Scene: Irish Diasporic Voices in Argentina

‘Identity is as much about difference as shared belonging’.1

‘There is the warmth and welcome from all. But there is something the heart seeks but does not get, because nothing can bring back old acquaintances either of scene or Personal reminiscences. So that the returned emigrant is as hazy as those who receive him. He is wedged in betwixt the old and the young. And it takes some time before he gets his bearings’.2

The focus of this book is Irish travel and migration to Argentina and literary constructions of emigrant identity, home and return in the works of three members of the Irish diasporic community there. The narratives of John Brabazon (1828–1914), William Bulfin (1864–1910) and Kathleen Nevin (approx 1898–1976), span a period of Irish and Argentine history from 1845 to 1907. This was a period of high cultural contestation as well as political and social change in both Ireland and Argentina. In Ireland, this was characterised by events such as the Great Famine (1845–1852), the Land Reform Act of 1883 and Wyndham Act of 1903, the Irish Literary Revival and the fight for Home Rule which culminated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish Free State in 1921.3 On the other hand, Argentina won ← 1 | 2 → its independence from Spain in 1810 and throughout the nineteenth century struggled with new ways to define the identity of the fledgling republic. This struggle was hampered by divisions between the city of Buenos Aires and the outlying provinces. Politics in the 1820s was dominated by the educated, liberal and bureaucratic Bernardino Rivadavia until 1829, when a conservative, dictatorial regime under Juan Manuel de Rosas was installed and remained in place until 1852. In attempts to extend territorial boundaries and civilise the vast region of the pampas, General Julio Roca’s 1879 Campaña del desierto [The Conquest of the Desert] oversaw the extermination of almost all the native Indian population, after which Roca served as President from 1880 to 1886.4 This paved the way for one of the most significant periods of mass European immigration to Argentina from the 1880s to the 1920s.5

Historical accounts of the global Irish dispersal provide us with one facet of the migration experience, the collective. To access the experiences of individual migrants, their hopes, personal circumstances, reception in or perception of the host community, as well as to illuminate the history of settlement, we must turn to the narratives of that experience. Luke Gibbons argues that ‘understanding a community or culture does not consist solely in establishing “neutral” facts and “objective” details: it means taking seriously their ways of structuring experience, their popular narratives, the distinctive manner in which they frame the social and political realities which affect their lives’ (1996: 17). In fact, each of the writers under study records their social and political realities as well as their experiences from within a variety of contexts, in which matters of class, gender, their reasons for leaving, their textual conventions, audience or lack thereof, all inform their writing to some degree. The corpus encompasses the non-fictional diary of John Brabazon, The Customs and Habits of the Country of Buenos Ayres from the year 1845 by John Brabazon and His Own Adventures, which ← 2 | 3 → relates his encounters with other nationalities and native Argentines in Buenos Aires and the pampas from 1845 to 1864. The second subject, William Bulfin, arrived in Buenos Aires in 1884 and after seven years working on the pampas began writing travel ‘sketches’ for the Irish-Argentine newspaper The Southern Cross.6 Some of these sketches became the basis for the two works under study: a volume of short stories called Tales of the Pampas (1900) and a travel book entitled Rambles in Eirinn (1907). The final narrative is the fictional memoir of Kathleen Nevin, a second generation Irish-Argentine. Her novel, You’ll Never Go Back (1946), is based on her mother’s journey to Buenos Aires in 1879 and her subsequent experiences in the city. The combination of the genres of personal memoir, fiction and travel narrative is ‘instructive of how memory and imagination are mutually dependent [and] apparent in the differing forms of narration each writer chooses to mediate events and experiences and how, within individual texts, shifts take place in both directions along the fact/fiction spectrum’.7

These ‘shifts’ are evident in the three diasporic voices I examine. Their narratives move freely along the ‘fact/fiction spectrum’, reflecting the fluid parameters of fiction as well as the literature of travel. This literature can be defined as an overall thematic category, with ‘loose and shifting borders [incorporating] a variety of texts both predominantly fictional and non-fictional whose main theme is travel’ (Borm 2004: 13).8 The parameters of the corpus under study extend from the actual journey over land or water to the dialectics of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ and the reconstruction of the narrator’s experiences of displacement. All three writers foreground their encounters with the multiple others of Argentina: language, culture, other migrants as well as native Argentines, rural and urban. Brabazon and Bulfin spend a lot ← 3 | 4 → of time with the native gauchos and they offer quasi-ethnographic studies of their habits and customs. Nevin, on the other hand, employs fiction as a means of engaging with and mediating past events (as well as her mother’s memories) in addition to negotiating her own identity as a diaspora and Irish-Argentine subject. Indeed, similar to the hybridity intrinsic to travel literature itself in terms of generic and thematic crossings, the three authors cross genres and forms of writing in their literary constructions of home, return and encounters with other migrants in their travels and search for work in Argentina. It is precisely because of the ‘loose and shifting borders’ of their experiences, which morph from travelling and temporary work into permanent or semi-permanent settlement, that these narratives serve as exemplary forms for interrogating and interpreting the consequences of migration and the diasporic condition on the individual. A crucial difference I would highlight between travel and migration lies in the intention to stay or not in the country travelled to. The narratives I explore reflect what could be deemed a sliding scale of intentions to return. This plan is pivotal to each author, their experience and narrativisation of the diaspora space as well as how they render themselves and others subjects of diaspora. Brabazon’s narrative reveals no discernible intention to return, Bulfin makes his plan to return clear and he ultimately fulfils that desire, while Nevin’s protagonists intend to stay a short time. Concomitant to this intention is the problematic nature of home and perception of the returnee. I read all three writers, irrespective of genre, for ways in which they construct or subvert notions of home, return or identity. As the experience of living elsewhere has long been conceived of as exile in Irish cultural discourse, this introduction will also examine this key term.

These three writers leave behind a fascinating record of their experiences of travel and interaction with native Argentines, other nationalities as well as other members of the Irish community of Buenos Aires province. They form an essential part of what little literary record survives of this particular diasporic culture.9 To understand the importance and uniqueness ← 4 | 5 → of Argentina as the site of the only major Irish settlement outside of an English-speaking country, part one of this introduction will contextualise travel to Argentina in relation to the Irish diaspora world-wide. In addition, I shall outline the contradictory perception of the emigrant in Irish national discourse in order to situate the diasporic subjectivities articulated in the works in question. In part two I will discuss migration to Argentina and the existing body of criticism of the authors I analyse.


XII, 270
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Irish diaspora in Argentina Irish emigrant identity travel writing
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XII, 270 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Sinéad Wall (Author)

Sinéad Wall (1973–2016) was a senior lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Westminster, London. She completed her doctoral thesis at University College London and her principal research interests were in the cultural expressions of Irish migration to Latin America, and travel writing.


Title: Irish Diasporic Narratives in Argentina
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
282 pages