41ºC of sub-tropical heat; the city’s contours appear warped and blurred through a liquid atmosphere.
The train to Hurlingham leaves on the hour from Constitución station. It crawls into the morning heat-haze from under its cast-iron canopy and chugs along at a steady pace. The carriage is almost empty; just some kids in shorts and tee shirts seated at the other end with a large lady in a floral dress, most likely their grandmother.
There are seven or eight stops before my destination. All quite nondescript suburbs. The platforms are empty. At Hurlingham, I step off the train and cross the shimmering tracks. The station is not too far a walk from the club. Strange that a hurling club should end up in Hurlingham. Coincidence. The air out here is moving, at least, and the rustling beech trees along the main road create the illusion of coolness.
There is a guard in a little hut at the entrance to the grounds. I go straight over to his window and shout “Jorge” through the perspex. He looks up momentarily from his mini tv screen and pushes a button which lifts the barrier to let me pass, as though I were a delivery truck.
Jorge greets me at the door of the clubhouse, a sixties structure with a shamrocked coat of arms emblazoned over the doorway and the word “Fáilte” written in faux-Celtic lettering. He shows me into his office and goes immediately over to the telephone and lifts the receiver, indicating with his eyes the vacant chair. I catch a few words about membership fees and then let my eyes stray around the messy room; the sheaves of papers, and the walls hung with photographs of rugby, tennis and squash teams. The place could do with a filing cabinet or two.
The phone call ends and Jorge stands up and offers me his hand across the desk. He is of average build and height, dressed like a golfer and is in very good shape for a man of perhaps 70 years. He has a contented smile and clear blue eyes that are warm despite their colour.
We begin to chat.
– Air-conditioning is really very necessary here in Buenos Aires, he says. We used to have what were called ventiladores, but they were impractical; your hair would always be standing on end, awful, fuzzy.
He makes an astonished face and laughs. His English is slow but fluent with a slight twang.
– You would take a bath and try to flatten down your hair, but ten minutes later you were just the same as before. People would stop you in the corridors and make these remarks about your hair. We all looked like scarecrows.
He tells me that the Irish who came to Argentina first were from poorer families generally. They didn’t form colonies like the Welsh, the Germans, or even the English. Usually, they became agricultural workers on the large estancias around Buenos Aires – Arecco, Capillas, Mercedes – he lists off the names.
In time, they too became landowners. The Spanish latifundistas were too tight to pay their workers money; so, instead, they paid them in land. This way the Irish became landowners.
He relaxes back into his squeaking swivel chair, like a storyteller who knows his audience is captivated.
A prominent example of an Irish family who became large landowners is the Kavanagh family. The Kavanaghs accumulated an estancia of over 200,000 hectares (a huge tract of land, even by Argentinian standards). The partriarch of the family built the Edificio Kavanagh in Retiro, a district of Buenos Aires, which at one time housed his entire extended family, cousins and in-laws, the lot. “A brilliant idea,” according to Jorge.
Later, of course, these huge estates were subdivided between the sons and grandsons in the feudal manner and each became a small independent landowner.
He swiftly traces a downward curve in the air with his hand and pulls a face, showing his palms.
– These people, they still think they are living in the days of the hidalgía. They don’t realize that era is gone. There are no more latifundios owned by the old families.
He spreads his palms again in despair and then goes off on another tack.
– In Capillas you had the Fahy School where Irish families sent their sons as boarders. They wouldn’t see their parents from one end of the year to the other as the journeys cross-country by carreta were long and hard going. The railways transformed the Argentinian economy. Raw goods were transported from the provinces to Capital Federal, and from there exported all over the world. Hides, minerals, timber, you name it. It was a never-ending flow. The capital behind the railways was British (the railways were only sold to Perón’s government in the 1950s). The British were not estúpidos; they built the railways on land they had already acquired cheaply. Five leagues on either side of the tracks were owned by these British companies.
There is a knock at the door. A teenage boy in tennis gear walks into the office and asks Jorge for the keys to the dressing rooms. Jorge glances at his watch and gets up. It’s just past one o’clock.
– Would you like a bite to eat here in the bar? he asks.
He leaves me alone in the clubhouse bar for a few minutes. It’s nice and cool there. On one side there’s a hatch to the kitchen and on the other a door leading directly to the dressing rooms and showers. Through the large windows you can see the empty rugby pitches and the avenue shaded by tall silver beeches. There is a large wooden bar with Guinness and Cristal on tap. The names of former club Presidents and treasurers are listed in gold paint along the dark panelled walls. O’Keefes, Byrnes and Ryans give way in more recent times to Vegas, Lorentis and Rodriguez. I am just trying to discover the point in time at which the surnames make this strange metamorphosis when Jorge arrives back to say he’s ordered us lunch.
– A tuna salad. Is that okay with you? I must be careful with my blood pressure.
He offers me a drink, and so we get a jug of lemonade too.
A Bolivian woman serves us. She is on friendly terms with Jorge. Indeed he seems to be very much at home here. When I phoned yesterday to make the appointment, a young man answered and said that Jorge was out for lunch but that he was in most days. Even at this dead time of the year, he comes in and does paperwork, deals with late subscription fees, and makes sure the place is in good working order. It seems like a kind of hobby.
After lunch, he talks politics.
For Jorge, when speaking of politicians, “only expletives suffice”.
– The middle classes are sold out. Populism and Peronism is the only dish on the menu. The party bandwagons go to the Villas de Emergencia (a euphemism for the vast shanty towns around Buenos Aires) and give the slum dwellers bread and wine in return for their vote.
He throws his eyes to heaven and leans forward, elbows on the table.
– You know something? The last election there were sixty political parties to choose from. How on earth can someone choose in these circumstances? Sometimes a person would spend twenty minutes in the polling booth trying to decide between the candidates!
There’s no stopping him now. It seems to just pour out in a torrent.
– Also, during the last presidential election, for the first time in my democratic life, we had three Peronists running for the Presidency (and no-one else!). How do you suppose I am going to vote if each candidate is the exact same. A carbon copy. You see, the opposition is bought. Nobody can do anything. They go to the Villas Miserias*, give them wine and bread and promise them everything.
He takes a deep breath and pushes away his plate in disgust.
– We are tired of ideologues. We want no more ideologies. What we want are ideas. I don’t care what you are; a Communist, a Hitlerist, Leninist; when you come to the table, we want to discuss ideas, not ideologies. Look at Bachelet in Chile. She’s a socialist, but she doesn’t reject the ideas that came before even though they derive from the right-wing. Or Lula, in Brazil. He’s a campesino, a syndicalist. But he leaves the ideology at the door when he enters government. This is the way to run a country! Argentina is not looking towards the future; ten, twenty years ahead. It has no ideas. I don’t know what will happen. I am an old dog now, but I like to keep informed so I read books on politics. There are some new ideas about politics in this country but I don’t know. I can’t see where we are going.
He looks at me as though he doesn’t really know why he’s telling me all this. When I ask him about “La Dictadura”, he says that it is probably a great exaggeration to say that thirty thousand people ‘disappeared’.
– It was more like six or seven thousands. Thirty thousand is too large. But you see, this is a political exaggeration. Kirchner (Cristina Kirchner, current President of Argentina) was one of the ‘survivors’, or izquerdistas. She was a montonera (a left-wing guerrilla activist) for God’s sake! It is said that when the fighting started she ran the other way.
His face darkens when he speaks of the murder of the five Pallotine fathers and seminarians in the Iglesia de San Patricio in Belgrano, a prosperous neighbourhood in northern Buenos Aires.
– They just came one day and asked for the priests. The people had hidden them and said they weren’t there. So they broke down the doors and shot them. No one knows why. Not even today. Maybe it’s because they were young and lived an austere life or seemed not to support the régime.
He pauses and then goes on in a soft whisper.
– Another boy. I knew him well. He was a very good boy. He just studied all the time. He was sixteen. They came and he was never seen again. His parents are still looking for him. For his bones, you know …?
I think that somebody knows. Someone must have documents that give information about these events. I think they will reveal them some day. I think the truth exists out there …”
The hollow pok, pok of a tennis match in progress disturbs the silence. It’s past four now. The worst of the heat is over. Jorge offers me the use of the showers to freshen up. He fetches me a towel and some soap. When I’m done, I thank him and tell him it’s time to go, that I have a plane to catch home in the morning. He walks me out to the main door, reminding me again of the directions to the station. There is a train back to the city at twenty to the hour. Better hurry. We shake hands under the sign of the shamrock and he disappears inside.
– Rua Breathnach
I gcuimhne ar Gerry O’Neill in memoriam
* I am informed by a commentator writing under the pseudonym Perrito Moreno that Villa Miseria,which might be rendered in English as Poverty Ville, is a term widely used by the inhabitants of the shanty towns themselves as an ironical comment on what those places represent and have to offer.