In the early 1990s, circumstances brought an Irish diplomat called Michael Lillis into a meeting with the then president of Paraguay, General Andrés Rodríguez. Expecting the discussion to be centred on general guff about our two small nations etc., Lillis was caught completely unawares when His Excellency asked "What do they say in Ireland about our national heroine?"
Not having any idea who was being referred to, Lillis replied cryptically, "It is a subject of intense interest, Excellency."
Irish people have been going abroad since time immemorial and quite a number of them have become persons of note in their adopted homelands. Admiral William Brown founded the Argentinean navy, Chaim Herzog became President of Israel and Annie Besant was a major figure in the Indian independence movement. Lafcadio Hearn (also known as Koizumi Yakumo) was the first western writer to introduce the culture of Japan (then a mysterious and largely isolated country) to the world while the San Patricio Battalion, a group of Irish soldiers who defected from the US to the Mexican army in the war between the two countries in the 1840s is still honoured in Mexico today. In earlier times, there were numerous Irish missionaries who brought Christianity to many regions of Europe during the Dark Ages and founded monasteries.
Many of us will have learned of these and others in our history but who has learned much about Eliza Lynch?
Even now, not so much is known about her. She was born in Cork and left Ireland during the famine years of the 1840s to go and live in France where in 1850, at the tender age of 18 she married a French army officer. By 1854, the marriage had broken down but she was sufficiently well established in Parisian society to be part of the elite circle surrounding Princess Mathilde Bonaparte.
It was while in these rarefied environs that she caught the eye of Francisco Solano López, son of Carlos Antonio López, president of Paraguay. It’s not hard to see why. By the standards of the mid-nineteenth century or the early twenty-first, she was very beautiful indeed.
The pale Irish beauty
Solano Lópes was in Paris as Paraguayan ambassador and to train with the Napoleonic army – part of a number of measures intended to modernise and Europeanise his fledgling nation.
Within the year, she was to return with him to Paraguay where she was to bear him six children. Seven years later, Carlos, the father was to die and Francisco became President. Eliza Lynch, despite not being married, became de facto First Lady of Paraguay.
Her years in Parisian society had ensured she was well acquainted with the sophisticated mores and aesthetics of that city and she set about transforming Paraguay's capital, Asunción from being a dusty backwater into a metropolis all Paraguayos could be proud of. Palaces and opera houses were built, lavish styles of dress were introduced into Asunción society, and traditional local dishes were spurned to be replaced by the finest cuisine from the kitchens of Europe. But, she was resented by the local elite who regarded her as a prostitute. Having so many children out of wedlock would have raised eyebrows at any level of society in any country but as the First Lady in a conservative Latin American country, the behaviour of her and her husband shocked many.
And there perhaps the story might have ended. Sooner or later, López would probably have been overthrown (Paraguayan presidents have only recently started to number their terms of office in years) and both he and his pale beauty would have passed into history. But, it was not to be.
This is where her supporters and detractors part company. Some, including herself, claim that she had no interest in politics and had no influence over her partner restricting her role to helping victims of the war. Others blame her greed and lust for power and her goading of her husband as the principle factors in the disaster that was soon to beset Paraguay.
And what a disaster it was. When people speak of the mass killings of a population, they tend to think of the Nazi murder of millions of Jews, the Ottoman slaughter of Armenians or for that matter Rwanda and Cambodia. But in terms of percentages, the loss of population that Paraguay was to suffer was to surpass them all.
The story of the War of the Triple Alliance (referred to as La Guerra Guazú in Paraguay) contains not much more than the ghosts of other stories. The Brazilians and Argentineans were always keen to expand their influence in the River Plate region and Brazil had intervened militarily on a few occasions in Uruguay.
López saw all such actions as a threat to Paraguayan sovereignty. When Brazil invaded Uruguay in October 1864, the Uruguayan government appealed for help and eventually López declared war on Brazil. Three months later, he declared war on Argentina too when the Argentineans refused to allow his troops transit access through their territory. With the Uruguayan government overthrown by the Brazilians and replaced by a more obliging administration, the Paraguayans soon found themselves at war with three neighbours.
The three allies claimed to want to bring civilisation and freedom from tyranny to Paraguay and while the Paraguayans did score notable initial successes, the sheer imbalance of numbers soon took its toll. Gradually, they were driven back and by 1869, Asunción had fallen. It all came to an end some months later at the Battle of Cero Cora when – in scenes emblazoned on Paraguayan history – López was killed by Brazilian troops as was his 15 year old son who died shouting "A Paraguayan Colonel never surrenders!". Lynch – having stayed by López's side – buried them both with her bare hands before being captured by the Brazilians who spared her life regarding her as a British citizen.
In fact it had come to an end some time before and the last phase of the war consisted of desperate guerrilla style tactics on the part of the Paraguayans and atrocities on the part of the occupiers. One way or another, Paraguay was devastated. The most recent figures estimate that somewhere between 60% and 70% of the population was killed while as much 90% of Paraguayan males were wiped out. It took decades for the population to recover to pre-war levels.
Those who took over the administration after the occupiers had left were exiles who had been hostile to López. Hence, they also took a dim view of Eliza Lynch and blamed her for much of the disaster that had struck their country. She died in Paris in 1886 and was buried in Pére Lachaise cemetery.
Homage to Elisa Alicia Lynch
Things were to change again. In 1961, the government of the dictator Alfredo Stroessner – seized by national pride – had her declared a national heroine and named a major street in Asunción after her. They brought her body back to be entombed in a lavish mausoleum at the Recoleta Cemetery where it remains today – the pale Irish beauty who remained faithful to Paraguay and to her partner, burying his body and that of her teenage son in the mud of Cerro Cora under the cold eyes of the foreign soldiers while shouting her defiance, "Is this the civilisation you promised?"
Eliza Lynch's mausoleum in Asunción
Plaque in her honour
1. Fiction and Non-fiction (Books) - The Lives of Eliza Lynch - Courage and Scandal
2. Book depicting 'Queen of Paraguay' Eliza Lynch prompts calls for Brazilian penitence | World news | guardian.co.uk
3. Review: The Shadows of Elisa Lynch and The Empress of South America | Books | The Guardian
4. Murray, Edmundo, "Beauty and the Beast: A Beautiful Irish Courtesan and a Beastly Latin American Dictator"
5. ¿Santa o cortesana?
6. UCD News - The Lives of Eliza Lynch – Scandal and Courage
7. Exploring a little known country
NB. 5 and 8 are in Spanish but Google Translate does a reasonable job on them.