January 9, 2008
At first you do a double-take. The look is both familiar and unmistakable. Here in the parched Pampas, south of Buenos Aires, deep in gaucho territory, the strangest sight is the Irish gaucho.
Dressed in the traditional gaucho uniform of wide brimmed felt hat or outsized Basque beret, checked shirt, cravat and heavy-duty riding trousers, the descendants of Irish emigrants stand out.
Squinting against the harsh sun, these blue-eyed, pink faced and freckly gauchos look as if they are tourists dressing up for some garish heritage theme-park extravaganza.
But they are not. They have the swagger that marks out the gaucho. They gesticulate like Latins, speak in the rapid-fire slang of rural Argentina and devour red meat in a carnivorous orgy that would terrify a cardiologist.
In the agricultural heartland of Argentina, the gaucho is king. The gaucho and his steed rule the roost, offering a glimpse of a rural tradition that has not changed in over 100 years.
It is macho, dirty, muscular and unforgiving, but it is a tradition that has withstood the political and economic rollercoaster which has been Argentina’s lot for the past 50 years.
The Irish gauchos — part of the 500,000 Argentineans who consider themselves Irish — are very much part of this scene.
Most of these Irish Argentineans are Irish, literally, in name only. From the “for sale” signs on the main highway, one can see that the biggest auctioneer in this part of the Pampa is one Santiago O’Keefe while, the runner-up at the local rodeo last Sunday was a Jose Farrelly.
For many, the Irish root is just part of their history; like the millions of Italian Argentineans, French Argentineans and Jewish Argentineans. They are the grandsons of immigrants in this huge immigrant melting pot.
However, there are others who have remained distinctively Irish, who have kept Irish traditions alive and who contribute voluntarily to the vibrant Irish Argentine community.
These people are our people and yet we, the Irish State, have turned our back on them.
One such woman is Patsy Hynes-O’Conner. From an emotional perspective, her story is heartwrenching, and from an economic viewpoint, her story reveals a monumental waste of resources for the Irish economy.
Patsy Hynes-O’Conner is one of six sisters, all granddaughters of an Irish emigrant. She has cousins in Monaghan and Galway who have been over and back to Argentina, and the Hynes’ ancestral home is in Co Clare. All six sisters acquired Irish citizenship and Patsy has visited Ireland on a number of occasions. Here is where the story gets tricky.
The children of five of the sisters also have Irish passports. However, because Patsy applied for an Irish passport in 1989, later than her sisters and after the amendment to the law governing the children of Irish citizens, her children are not entitled to Irish citizenship.
The amendment states that only children born after, not before, a foreign-born member of the Irish diaspora gets a passport is entitled to claim one.
So, here we have the bizarre situation where some of the great grandchildren of Patrick Hynes are Irish and others are not. The only factor determining their Irishness is not their legitimate and obvious ethnic bloodlines but the date their parents applied for citizenship. Therefore, Irishness has become time-specific.
The Hynes children applied in 2002 to the Justice Minister to have their case examined as an exception. The department rejected the three Hynes-O’Conner children as they had “no exceptional association with Ireland or its people”.
Wait a second, if your great grandparents are Irish, your grandparents have Irish passports, all your aunties are Irish and so are over 20 of your cousins, how can you have no “exceptional association with Ireland”? This is clearly nonsense.
The time has come to include the Irish diaspora in the story of the Irish Republic in a meaningful way. It is up to us to make concrete their feeling of Irishness, which has been so crucial to us for centuries.
Now that we are rich, we should give something back to the descendants of those who, in bad times, kept this country afloat with monthly remittances.
The crux of the argument is not simply an emotional one: it is an economic one. The key to success in the future will be access to markets, contacts, networks and knowledge.
A good way to look at the new global economy is the phenomenon of ‘Wikipedia’ — the online encyclopaedia.
This is how the knowledge economy of the future might work. It will be a sharing, open, democratic framework where groups of individuals, driven by a common goal or interest, come together online to create a new economic system.
The country that can organise these global networks most effectively will have a huge advantage.
Consider the children of Patsy Hynes-O’Conner who live in Mendoza in Argentina and are involved in the wine business. One of the children, Pablo Hynes exports wine to Ireland.
The Mendoza region is the richest agricultural part of this huge, important country.
Now imagine Irish companies trying to sell agricultural machinery into this booming, recovering economy. Remember, Argentina is one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world and the price of food, unlike the price of computers, is rising.
Starting from scratch, with no contacts, the Irish company would apply to Enterprise Ireland for a grant. It would spend a fortune on marketing, need to hire local staff, train its own managers in Spanish, investigate the tax regime, understand the transport links, as well as warehousing and storage possibilities and then start the hard sell.
And this is before it understands the commercial culture of the country.
Such an approach is the total opposite of the Wikipedia economy. It is old-fashioned, hit and miss, and expensive.
The diaspora is our greatest global commercial resource and the Irish passport is the cheapest way of accessing it.
In a Wikipedia world where nothing is straightforward, the sunburned Gaelic gaucho might just be Ireland’s economic ambassador of the future.
Embracing the diaspora is an inventive economic solution staring us straight in the face, if only we’d open our eyes.