Book Review - Raices Celtas - Relato Historico
Many more years ago than I now care to remember an Argentinian fellow student in Chicago told me that the Cavanagh name was very well known in his country because of a family of polo players. I was vividly reminded of that long-forgotten conversation when I had a first glance through the photos in Raul’s book.
In his introduction, Raul states that his aim in writing the book was to construct a picture of the historical development of his native area, the “pampa gringa”, as seen through the history of the Cavanagh family. He has quite an entrancing success story to tell.
There already had been some pre-Famine Irish immigration to Argentina, notably from Westmeath and also from Wexford. As a result, when 17 year old Edward Cavanagh, born in 1834 to John Cavanagh and Ann Byrne, left his native Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, to seek his fortune and landed in Buenos Aires from the ship William Peele in 1851, he already had a family friend, Edward Wallace (born in Ireland in 1810), to contact there. An Irish infrastructure to care for, and help out, emigrants had come into existence, thanks largely to a Fr. Anthony Fahey from Co. Galway, who arrived in Argentina in 1844. He was later followed by a number of other Irish priests. A hospital, convent and schools were established to cater for the needs of Irish immigrants.
Some Irish had obtained large estates prior to 1850 and had accumulated large fortunes through sheep rearing. They allowed landless newcomers to work parts of their estates in return for a percentage of the sheep and wool produced on the farms. Edward Wallace had two sisters married to substantial land owners, James Gaynor and Henry O’Neill, respectively. Edward Cavanagh met and married Wallace’s niece, Margaret Gaynor and they had prospered sufficiently to buy out their own estate by 1871, while proceeding to raise 10 children. Edward Wallace, who remained a bachelor, died in 1884, leaving his estate to the Gaynors and O’Neills. Judging by the family names, intermarriage among the Irish community was obviously the norm at this period. Edward and Margaret Cavanagh extended their land holding via the intermediary of a local-born land speculator named Eduardo Casey.
As the region developed economically during the 1880s its population grew. The expansion of the railroad into the region in the 1890s boosted its economic potential and one railway station was named after the Cavanaghs. As their sheep flocks grew, the Cavanaghs continued to enlarge their properties. Among the series of family marriages to spouses with Irish names was that of Juan José Cavanagh to Luisa Juana McKeon. This wedding was celebrated by Frs. O’Grady and Flannery in Buenos Aires and one of the most distinguished families of the name came into being.
The mother, Margaret, passed away in 1908 and Edward’s death occurred at end-1915, aged 81.
The author goes on to trace in detail the fortunes of various members of this large extended family following the deaths of the founding parents, before turning to their exploits on the polo field.
While the Cavanaghs were generally very successful farmers (and most also proceeded to raise large families), not all the children were uniformly lucky. For example, a drastic fall in cattle prices after 1916, accompanied by drought, wiped out Tomás’s cattle herd and brought him financial ruin. His health subsequently failed and he died not long afterwards, leaving a wife and 9 children. His widowed sister Ana Cavanagh de Tormey was also unable to run her estate profitably and sold it off.
Having reminded us that Argentina’s ranking in the world of polo is second to none, the author completes his narrative history by expounding on the important role played by the Argentinian Cavanaghs in this sport.
Juan José (who shared his father’s longevity, dying aged 81 in 1940) was regarded as an exceptionally gifted member of the family in many respects. He figured in the inaugural team of the Venado Tuerto Club in 1888. Three players in this club in 1925 were Cavanagh descendants (Tomás Moore Cavanagh, Diego Cavanagh and Alfredo Harrington). The 1935 Venado Tuerto team which defeated the Shamrock club had 4 Cavanaghs (Diego, Juan, Roberto and Edmundo). Other names in the polo circles at the period included those of Duggan and Murphy. In 1936 Roberto played in the Argentinian team which won a gold medal at the Olympics in Berlin.
Throughout the years Cavanaghs were regularly present in the top polo teams and Bernardo and Roberto were on the Venado Tuerto team which won the Argentinian Handicap Cup in 1954. Juan Luis Cavanagh was invited to Britain by Prince Philip to play on his Windsor team in 1962, 1963 and 1965.
Juan Luis was vice president of the Argentinian Polo Association 1981-83 and Guillermo Cavanagh was more recently president of the Venado Tuerto club. The book is replete with photos of Cavanagh players in action, as well as hobnobbing with notables such as President Juan Peron and famous wife, Eva, as well as sundry British Royals.
The author does not refer to the fact that Cora Cavanagh y McKeon (whose photo as a young girl appears in the book and after whom a road in Buenos Aires -“Pasaje Corina Kavanagh” - is named) was responsible for one of the best known landmarks of Buenos Aires, Edificio Kavanagh. But perhaps that is a story for another day.
Raíces Celtas. Ortigüela, Raúl. (Venado Tuerto, 1994)
Cathal Cavanagh - Clann Member