Emily Hourican: The extraordinary story of Eliza Lynch, the 'Queen of Paraguay'
The doctor's daughter from Cork was more than just a mistress hiding in the wings, writes Emily Hourican
Eliza Lynch has been many things in the 181 years since her birth. A doctor's daughter, a romantic dupe, a celebrated beauty, possibly a courtesan, mistress to the dictator of Paraguay and mother of his seven children, a society leader, a resourceful mother, and a grotesque whore in the eyes of Paraguay's enemies.
Most recently she has been the symbol, alongside her lover, Francisco Solano Lopez, of Paraguayan pride and resistance to the savage genocidal attack of its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance, which ended in 1870. Even today, for Paraguayans, Madame Lynch or Lynch-Lopez as she styled herself, is the totemic focus for continued anger at the atrocities carried out in that war, which Solano Lopez started, but which Brazil most resoundingly finished; by the time the war ended, 90 per cent of the male population of Paraguay was dead, and 50 per cent of the female.
It is a heavy weight for one woman, who until very recently was almost unknown here, the country of her birth. That she has been properly discovered, and the actual facts of her life – as opposed to the hysterical slander put about in the aftermath of the war by the victors – is thanks to the work of historian Ronan Fanning and former diplomat Michael Lillis, the second edition of whose book, Eliza Lynch, Queen of Paraguay, was published last week.
Their meticulously traced journey and careful imaginative reconstruction, despite slight historical records, has turned Eliza Lynch from simply a courtesan and bloodthirsty adventuress into an authentic national event, and has strengthened links bet-ween Ireland and Paraguay. And in so doing, the most savage event in South American history has also been excavated and laid before a wider audience.
That feelings around the war still run very high was evident last week at the launch of the docu-drama based on the book, also called Eliza Lynch, Queen of Paraguay, and starring Maria Doyle Kennedy, which premiered as part of the Jameson International Dublin Film Festival. Attended by President Michael D Higgins and an audience of nearly 500 people, including the President's wife Sabina, Anna Nolan, Pat Hume, Geraldine Kennedy, John Bowman, Liam O Maonlai, Keelin Shanley and Conor Ferguson, the film is a careful exploration of the facts and myths that surround Eliza Lynch.
Born in Charleville, Co Cork, in 1833, she left Ireland aged seven, and had the sort of career to be expected for a pretty girl without money or much family. Duped into a dubious marriage with a French army officer at 16, she later left him in Algeria and somehow made her way back to Paris, where she caught the eye of the heir-apparent to the Paraguayan presidency, the fabulously rich Francisco Solano Lopez. She became his mistress, bore him seven children, became the unofficial Queen of Paraguay when he became supreme ruler, led the country in fashion, arts and culture for 15 years, then stood by him as he died in the final vicious battle of the War of the Triple Alliance. She dug his grave, and that of her eldest son, with her bare hands, at Cerra Cora, then turned to the victorious armies and faced them down, insisting she was a citizen of the British Crown, and demanded safe passage with her surviving children.
In the film, Maria Doyle Kennedy plays Eliza as a spirit come from beyond the grave to defend her trounced reputation. However, this is not just the story of a brave, resourceful woman who loved a dangerous man, and stood by him with courage and dignity til the end, it is – perhaps more importantly – the story of a country most viciously repressed, still waiting for acknowledgement of that.
Director Alan Gilsenan on the night drew parallels between Ireland and Paraguay, citing the recent apologies, by Tony Blair for the Irish Famine and David Cameron for Bloody Sunday, as key psychological moments.
It was a theme elaborated on by Miguel Angel Solano Lopez, Eliza Lynch's great-grandson, Paraguayan Ambassador to London and ambassador-designate to Ireland – the first time Ireland has had an ambassador from Paraguay, something that is largely attributable to the effect of this book.
He told the audience: "The expression of sorrow, of regret, doesn't repair material damage, but it does help to heal the soul."
Clearly, Paraguay's soul has not been healed, and so Eliza Lynch continues to be a matter of vital importance. And according to Maria Doyle Kennedy, Eliza's is a restless spirit, only too keen to redress the balance. "I became haunted by her, I heard her speaking to me from beyond the grave. She lived an extraordinary life for any woman, but particularly a woman of her time. I'm proud that a different version of her story has been told."
Eliza Lynch, Queen of Paraguay, by Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning, is published by Gill and Macmillan.