Thomas Armstrong (1797–1875): benefactor in Banagher and businessman in Argentina. Sources for the Irish in Argentina. By Eduardo García Saenz

This week we have a blog provided by Eduardo García Saenz (member of Champagnat Rugby Club, Economist, Journalist and Sports’ Historian, especially in rugby, soccer and horse Polo. In this article he is presenting about THOMAS St. George ARMSTRONG (1797-1875); born in Garrycastle, near Banagher and who made a fortune in Argentina. His son bought Garrycastle House, Banagher in 1890 and is in Burke’s Landed Gentry 1912 edition with lands in Garrycastle and a residence in Paris. This is our last blog of this year and so far we have achieved 103,000 views for our blogs since 1 Jan. 2020. Thanks contributors and readers for all your help and wishing you all the best in 2021. Like our blog to ensure you get it every week per an email advice. All our blogs can be found at Offalyhistoryblog and our web platform http://www.offalyhistory.com. We post them every week to Facebook and Twitter (Offaly History).

Eduardo García Saenz

Eduardo is the the great-great-grand child (Chozno Grandson) of Thomas Armstrong who died in Buenos Aires in 1875. Eduardo has visited Dublin and Malahide, but has not yet had the opportunity to visit Banagher, Birr  and Tullamore. He is aware of our ‘delicious Irish whiskey and also the malt’. In rugby he knows that there are two good rugby clubs in Co, Offaly: Tullamore RFC and Birr RFC. 

Eduardo writes that the Armstrong family gave the land in Banagher to build St. Rynagh’s Church in 1826 and donated the bells for the church. Thomas Armstrong was also a donor to the Catholic church in Banagher in 1873 (King’s County Chronicle, 20 Mar. 1873). In 1847 he donated £50 to support famine relief in Banagher and Lusmagh, and later to the Crimean War Fund.

We would welcome blogs from overseas on the contribution of people from the midlands of Ireland in their adopted country (to info@offalyhistory.com). We draw attention to the Dictionary of Argentina Biography and the like for Australia. These are now online. The Irish DIB goes on line free in 2021.

Thomas Armstrong, successful businessman in Argentina

Armstrong, Thomas Saint George (1797-1875), banker and railway promoter, was born on 29 November 1797 at Garrycastle, four miles from Clara, Co. Offaly (King’s County). Son of Col. Thomas Saint George Armstrong, County Sheriff, and Elizabeth Priaulx. Col. Armstrong served as an officer in the King’s 8th Regiment of Foot in North America from 1768 to 1785. Thomas Armstrong (jun.) married 12 April 1824 in Buenos Aires with Justa Villanueva.

In 1817, his father sent him and his brother John to Buenos Aires to run the merchant house Armstrong & Co. Once established, in 1826, Thomas travelled back to Ireland together with Thomond O’Brien, trying to recruit immigrants from ‘Ballymahon-Ballymore-Mullingar area which straddles the Westmeath-Longford border. The Armstrong family were the local landlords and were (and still are) highly respected in that locality’ [McKenna 2000].

He was appointed Director of the National Bank, the Bank of Buenos Aires Province, and of the Public Credit. In 1859, Armstrong founded the Argentine Insurance Company. He was financial agent of the National Government, and founder of the Stranger’s Club. In 1863, the government of Buenos Aires province accepted a proposal to build the Southern Railway, signed by Thomas Armstrong, Federico Elortondo, and others. Armstrong was involved in the construction of railways to Luján, Central Argentino, and Ensenada, and served as their director. He also established rural colonies, particularly in Santa Fe province, where he managed his own estancia.

Obit of Thomas Armstrong in 1875

When Fr Anthony Fahy arrived in Argentina, he moved into Thomas Armstrong’s house, ‘he lived rent free, in his own apartment in Armstrong’s home for the rest of his life, the two remaining inseparable, lifelong, friends. Armstrong had assimilated into the Creole community in typically Irish merchant fashion. He married Justa Villanueva the daughter of the Alcalde (chief officer under Spanish rule) of Buenos Aires of 1807. Being such a powerful business figure and because of his wife’s connections Thomas Armstrong was also a very influential if unseen force in the political life of the country.’ He was the business counsellor and close friend of ‘almost every Argentine governmental administration from the Directorship of Rodriguez to the Presidency of Avellaneda’ acting as ‘honest broker’ between the British and Argentine Governments in their commercial affairs for over 40 years. Given that Argentina was dependent on British capital which was antipathetic to the Catholic church it was a master stroke of Fr Fahy and the good fortune of the Irish community that he was able to recruit to his cause an Irish Protestant merchant, who so well understood the Irish Catholic culture and who was in such sympathy with it’ [McKenna 2000]. ‘The fact that Thomas Armstrong was banker to Fr Fahy enabled him to become one of the leading business figures in Buenos Aires. He was a co-founder of the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange, a director of the Provincial Bank which he made, in effect, the central bank of Argentina. He was also the director and substantial investor in the major railway company and served on the boards of most of the major stock companies in the city. His connections with the Creole community were also beyond reproach’ [McKenna 2000].

Obit of Thomas Armstrong part 2

Thomas Armstrong died on 9 June 1875 in Buenos Aires. A village and railway station in Santa Fe were named after him by the Government and the railway company.

Edmundo Murray


References

– Coghlan, Eduardo A., Los Irlandeses en la Argentina: Su Actuación Descendencia (Buenos Aires, 1987), p. 12.

– McKenna, Patrick, Irish Emigration to Argentina: A Different Model (Cork: Irish Centre for Migration Studies, 2000).

– Newton, Jorge, Diccionario Biográfico del Campo Argentino (Buenos Aires, 1972).

– The Standard and River Plate News Vol. 15 – N° 3947, Buenos Aires (10 June 1875). THE STANDARD (1861-1959), a newspaper of Buenos Aires. It was founded by the brothers Michael Mulhall and Edward Thomas Mulhalland claimed to be the first English-language daily newspaper in the southern hemisphere. It became the oldest and most respected English newspaper in South America.,  “‘The Standard of Buenos Aires, long a principal source of Argentine business news, regularly shipped 20,000 copies of its monthly supplement to British investors”. A significant source on the history of Argentina, some numbers have been scanned and placed online (but without digitisation) by the Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina. A copy of this obituary has been supplied by Eduardo.

The city of ARMSTRONG, was founded on the 14, December, 1882. Seven years after Thomas Armstrong died.

Offaly History adds:

Kilbeggan man’s contribution to Argentinian-Irish history

Thomas Murray’s The Story of the Irish in Argentina was first published in New York in 1919. During the nineteenth century, nearly 45,000 Irish-born individuals emigrated to Argentina. They were members of medium tenant families from Westmeath, Longford, Offaly, and Wexford (though Dublin, Cork, and Clare were well represented as well).

This edition, with a valuable introductory essay by Michael John Geraghty, who has lived for over 40 years in Buenos Aires, makes an important, critical account of Ireland’s lesser-written-about diasporas available again.
Thomas Cornelius Murray (1871-1959), historian, was born in Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, probably the son of Patrick Murray and Anne Molloy. In 1897 he emigrated with his family to the United States and in the first years of the twentieth century he went to Argentina. Murray left Buenos Aires in 1913 with the objective to publish in New York his history of the Irish in Argentina as well as some of his poems. The book, The Story of the Irish in Argentina was published by P.J. Kennedy & Sons in 1919 and in 1924 Murray returned to Argentina to promote his work. The book was received unsympathetically by the Irish-Argentine media and community. “Although there are some assertions when the author advances his own personal opinions, with which we are not in agreement, we find this book intensely interesting” (The Southern Cross). His work remains the only published history, in English, about the Irish emigration to Argentina.

This new edition of The Story of the Irish in Argentina becomes, then, a landmark on the road to recovering the history and contribution of an Irish emigrant community, and a point of departure – together with other more recently published investigations – for the study of a ‘forgotten’ diaspora.

Edmundo Murray writing in History Ireland, no. 3, 2004 noted the influence of Westmeath, Longford and Offaly

During the nineteenth century, about 40,000 emigrants left Ireland to colonise the lush yet deserted Argentine pampas and laid the foundation for a flourishing Irish-Argentine community.

Most of the Irish emigrants bound for Argentina came from two areas, the coastline of County Wexford and a sector on the Westmeath–Longford border. In the 1860s almost all the young people of the townlands around Ballymore, Ballynacarrigy and Drumraney, in County Westmeath, emigrated to the River Plate (at that time comprising the Argentine and Uruguay republics). Sixty-one per cent of the emigrants were from Westmeath, Longford and Offaly, and sixteen per cent from Wexford. Most of these emigrants were single farmers in their twenties, non-inheriting children of Catholic middle-sized tenants. Sooner or later they would have to leave the family farm, and they preferred to emigrate than to enrol in the British army or in the church. However, later, in 1889–1929, there was a higher proportion of urban labourers and middle-class professionals and merchants from Dublin, Cork and Limerick, and by the 1920s up to half of the emigrants belonged to the Church of Ireland. Argentina was attractive to Irish emigrants because of its reputation as a place where land was relatively easy to acquire. By the mid-nineteenth century migration networks had been gradually established by Irish landowners, merchants and Catholic priests, who as ingleses were highly regarded by the local bourgeoisie. They actively hired family members, friends and neighbours in Ireland to help them on their sheep-farms in the pampas.

Offaly History adds:

Thomas Armstrong of Argentina was a grandson of Andrew Armstrong of Garrycastle (b. 1732) and second son of Thomas St George Armstrong who was born in 1809. Thomas Armstrong of Argentina married Donna Justa Villanueva, a Castilian of noble birth and had four children of whom his eldest, also Thomas purchased Garrycastle from his cousin Cartaret Armstrong in 1890 (Burke, 1912.p. 14).

Thomas Armstrong d. 1875