An Irishman’s Diary: The Mulhalls
By Brian McGinn  

 

 “In this business,” said Michael George, “there is a chance for us to make fame for ourselves.” “To hell with fame,” replied his brother Edward Thomas, “let us make money out of it!” Thus, if family legend can be believed, began one of South America’s most profitable and prominent publishing enterprises.

     The setting was Buenos Aires, the year was 1861, and the brothers were the Mulhalls, both recent immigrants from Dublin. Michael George had studied for the priesthood at the Irish College in Rome before deciding that he did not have a vocation. Edward Thomas, trained as a solicitor, had left behind a promising legal career in New York to take up sheep farming in Argentina.

     Out of the complementary visions of this unlikely duo sprang The Standard, South America’s first daily newspaper in English. And by year’s end the Mulhalls had jointly authored South America’s first English-language book, the Handbook of the River Plate.  

Stand-by-O’Gorman

Michael’s editorial philosophy, outlined in The Standard’s premier issue of May 1st 1861, struck an inclusive and idealistic note. “We have all come from the British Isles,” wrote the former seminarian, “and English, Irish, Scotch and American acknowledge the one mother tongue. Let us then meet upon the same broad ground and casting aside the absurd claims to primogeniture, give to each an equal share. Monopoly is unjust and bigotry hateful. To crush one and prevent the other is our object.”

     A front-page advertisement in the same issue revealed both the diversity of Michael Mulhall’s talents and—unintentionally--some lingering uncertainties about his new venture. Mr. M.G. Mulhall, “late Professor of Languages at the Royal College of Carlow” offered “lessons in English, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Logic and Metaphysics at his private residence or in his chambers—The Standard office--at No.137 Calle San Martin.”

     Michael need not have worried about keeping his day job. His timing was perfect, as Argentina’s political and business elites looked to the English-speaking economies for the capital, technology, and labour needed to develop their resource rich nation. The Standard quickly established itself as a newspaper of record at home, and the official voice of Argentina abroad. By 1875, the Mulhalls were shipping 20,000 copies of their weekly edition to Europe and North America.

     Embracing the latest printing technology, the Mulhalls were the first publishers in South America to install Linotype machines. They overcame Buenos Aires’ lack of trans-Atlantic cable links with improvisation. Patrick O’Gorman met all incoming ships in Montevideo, where he collected the newspapers from home and telegraphed interesting extracts to The Standard office in Buenos Aires. The Montevideo correspondent, descended from Co. Laois immigrants, became known as Stand-by-O’Gorman.


Divided Loyalties

As devout Catholics—all four of their sisters entered religious life in Ireland—the Mulhall brothers shared their wealth and talents with co-religionists in Argentina. Their names could be found, next to generous donations, on subscription lists for the leading Catholic charities of the Irish-Argentine community. When Patrick J. Dillon, a missionary priest from Tuam, launched a weekly Irish Catholic newspaper in 1875, the Mulhalls looked on The Southern Cross as complementary rather than competitive. They offered Fr. Dillon the use of their printing presses and the journalistic talents of a third brother, Francis Healy Mulhall, who arrived from Ireland in 1865.

     For some compatriots, it was not enough. The problem was not their religious zeal, but the unforgivable fact that the Mulhalls appeared to combine Catholicism with loyalism. In his 1919 study of the Irish in Argentina, the nationalist historian Thomas Murray found it entirely predictable that in time the Mulhalls would turn their paper into an “out and out English organ.” As an O’Connellite, Murray noted with sarcasm, Michael Mulhall was “deeply loyal to ‘our gracious Queen.’ We would call him a shoneen now.”

     While The Standard carried dispatches from Dublin and Rome, its tone and orientation was indeed undeniably British. And, if any further proof of ethnic disloyalty was needed, Michael included the leading Irish heroes of South America’s wars of independence in an 1878 bestseller titled The English in South America.

     Ironically, English capital was at that time building the railroads and other Argentine infrastructure on which many an Irish fortune in hides and wool was carried to export markets. And Argentines commonly referred to all English-speaking foreigners, including Irish, Scots and Welsh, as Ingleses. But none of this mattered. In the minds of their critics, the Mulhalls had forsaken their Gaelic heritage in a snobbish search for social prestige. Thomas Murray, while himself misquoting the title of Michael’s 1878 work, took vindictive delight in pointing out the “many glaring errors and misstatements” in Mulhall’s books. All were uniformly attributed to political bias, rather than the occasional slips or sloppiness of a prodigiously prolific author.

 
Stop Press

Michael Mulhall retired from The Standard in 1894 to devote himself to statistical work, a field in which he had already achieved some fame. Today, he is better remembered for such path-breaking books as The Dictionary of Statistics and The History of Prices than for his pioneering role in South American publishing.

     The Standard soldiered on, the self-described Doyen of the Argentine Press, edited by the sons, nephews and grandsons of Edward Thomas Mulhall. In 1959, just two years short of its centenary, it succumbed to financial difficulties and the competition of Argentina’s second English-language daily, the Buenos Aires Herald.

     Its death throes, writes Oliver Marshall of London’s Institute of Latin American Studies in his comprehensive and fascinating history, The English-Language Press in Latin America, were compounded by industrial unrest and family squabbles. Its greener counterpart, The Southern Cross, continues to publish as a monthly, and as the oldest continuously published Irish community newspaper outside of Ireland.

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Irish in Other Wars and Armies