My granddad Martin Reilly was 2 years old when his parents Philip and Elizabeth took him and his five siblings on an overcrowded steamship in search of a better life in Argentina in 1889. The same age as Aylan Kurdi the little Syrian boy who’s image face down in the sand shocked the world in 2015.
As a child when I romanticised my great-grandparent’s emigration to Argentina I never thought that they were irresponsible for making that journey. In fact as an adult when I tracked down the ship’s passenger list I was struck by their bravery.
My great grandfather Philip Reilly (34), his wife Eliza (32) and their 6 children boarded a steamship called the ‘City of Dresden’ in Queenstown on 25th January bound for Buenos Aires. In 1889 Cobh was Queenstown, my Irish ancestors from Co Offaly were British citizens and my 2-year old granddad was a servant.
With over 1,772 passengers on board, the steamship was dangerously overcrowded and undersupplied. Most of the passengers had been induced to travel with promises of jobs by unscrupulous Irish agents O’Meara and Dillon. The tragedy that ensued became known as ‘The Dresden Affair’. At the time Argentina was underpopulated and in need of a workforce. The Argentine Government paid agents from around Europe for each man and women that they brought to Argentina. But O’Meara and Dillon also charged the passengers they recruited for a ‘note’ to certify their suitability for working in Argentina. The Argentine government had no such requirement but did have age restrictions prohibiting people over and under certain ages.
Martin survived the 19-day journey to South America and because he was only 2 was, in essence, an illegal immigrant.
On the 15th of February 1889 the Reillys disembarked The SS Dresden, dehydrated and undernourished in sweltering heat, to a chaos of milling immigrants. Families, who hadn’t a word of Spanish, became separated as they converged with a 1000 passengers disembarking another ship. Separated children were left to fend for themselves and even though Martin was with his family he must have been very frightened, he was just a toddler and one of 20,000 immigrants arriving in Buenos Aires every month at that time.
O’Meara and Dillon’s promises of jobs and homes and better lives were empty.
Father Matthew Gaughran O.M.I. who was in Argentina on a fund-raising mission wrote:
“Men, women and children, whose blanched faces told of sickness, hunger and exhaustion after the fatigues of the journey had to sleep as best they might on the flags of the courtyard. Children ran around naked. To say they were treated like cattle would not be true, for the owner of cattle would at least provide them with food and drink, but these poor people were left to live or die unaided by the officials who are paid to look after them”.
Like many of us are doing in the face of the Syrian Refugee crisis, the local Irish and Anglo-Argentine community and the British Consulate wrote letters to newspapers appealing on behalf of the immigrants. As a consequence some found temporary accommodation in stables and in a shed. Some young single women and girls were sent to an Irish Convent. But the situation was truly desperate and ‘young girls of prepossessing appearance were inveigled into disreputable houses’, those who didn’t die of starvation and were strong enough, eventually re-emigrated elsewhere or returned to Ireland.
I am alive because 2-year old Martin survived. But like that sad Syrian boy many other children didn’t. They died on the ship and they died in the port.
Some families were taken north of Bahía Blanca and deposited in the middle of nowhere. Without their luggage (apparently it had been lost) and with no shelter, they were expected to eke out an existence on infertile and inhospitable land. They lived under trees or in ditches or if they were fortunate in tents. One hundred of them, mainly children, died in the first 2 years. In March 1891 the Irish colony was broken up and 520 men, women and children walked 400 miles back to Buenos Aires. As you can imagine many never made it back to where, 2 years earlier they had disembarked the City of Dresden as economic migrants.
The Reillys were survivors. From what I can piece together from stories I was told as a child and from information that I sourced from descendants of Dresden passengers who live in Argentina it seems likely that Martin grew up on a huge isolated ranch possibly the colony project in La Vitícola about 15k south of Bahía Blanca where his dad and his older brothers worked on horseback as Gauchos.
The 1901 Irish census has the Reillys back in Ireland, by which time 14-year old Martin has three younger siblings, Mary, William and Joseph who had all been born in South America.
The Reillys survived, returned to their homeland and so I am Irish.
I have thought about them a lot in the last few weeks when faced with the harrowing images of the families fleeing far more desperate circumstances in far worse vessels. I have always imagined how terrifying it must have been for them on that overcrowded ship and it makes me cry daily to bear witness, more than a century later, from the comfort of my Irish home, to families with young children like Martin dying, their little bodies washing up on beautiful beaches.
Everyday as I read about the refugees and see increasingly horrific images of their plight, I am grateful for the accident of birth that makes me Irish.
I am horrified by what I read from some of my fellow Irish citizens who want to put borders before people. I hope that the image of the little boy, Aylan, changes their minds and that his tragic story becomes the catalyst for action.
I know that there are many Irish, like me, who have felt utterly impotent. Making donations and signing petitions seems like a pathetic response given the scale of the tragedy.
This morning I wished that I lived in Dresden where they marched in support of refugees chanting
“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”.
This morning I wished that I lived in Germany where they have volunteered to take 750,000 and where their soldiers are building shelters for these brave families.
I know that there are now many Irish people offering to open their homes to refugees. Ireland and Europe need to mount a response appropriate to the scale of the problem.
Today 5th of September, has been declared a Day of Action and I stood at our Famine memorial in solidarity with people seeking refuge in Europe.
I feel sad but hopeful that we as a nation we will remember that emigration is part of our heritage and acknowledge that it is time to pay it forward.
Céad Míle Fáilte.