I first heard of Eliza Lynch in 2009 when former diplomat Michael Lillis told me the Irishwoman’s epic tale.
He had written a fascinating account of her life with historian Ronan Fanning, entitled The Lives of Eliza Lynch, Scandal and Courage.
Eliza was born in Charleville, Co Cork in 1833. After the death of her father, her mother took refuge with her brother-in-law, Commander William Boyle Crooke, in France.
At age 16, Eliza was tricked into a fake marriage by a French army officer twice her age. She fled his barracks in 1853 and rejoined her mother in Paris.
There she met Francisco Solano Lopez, the billionaire heir to the President of Paraguay.
Eliza travelled to Paraguay with him in 1855. By 1860 she had become famous as hostess to the sub-continent’s statesmen.
Francisco became President in 1862 and Eliza became the unofficial ‘Queen of Paraguay’.
She arranged carnival style parties for the masses which lasted months on end.
By 1870 her land holdings amounted to one-and-a half times the size of Ireland, and she must have been one of the richest women in the world.
She bore Francisco seven children, but they never married.
In 1864, Francisco – obsessed by Brazil’s brutal invasion of Uruguay and fearing that Paraguay would be the next – declared war on hisnorthern neighbour.
He sent his armies to the south across Argentina to attack Brazil and ‘liberate’ Uruguay, thus creating a triple alliance of enemies against Paraguay.
The Alliance invaded Paraguay, driving it back to the Stone Age. Atrocities on a disturbing scale took place and remain live in the memories of Paraguayans today.
The war ended in 1870. Francisco died heroically and Eliza buried him and their eldest son with her bare hands. This has become the iconic image of Paraguayan patriotic martyrdom.
Eliza, devastated but imperious, escaped with her surviving children to Paris and died there in modest circumstances in July 1886.
In their book, Lillis and Fanning suggest that modern Brazil might emulate the example of Tony Blair’s 1997 Great Famine apology and make a “gesture of reconciliation”.
In 2013 I attended the world premiere of Eliza Lynch – Queen of Paraguay in Asuncion, Paraguay, before the Paraguayan President and invited guests.
It was indeed a proud evening to be an Irishman and share Eliza’s story with the people of Paraguay – as she is their national heroine. The film has since won a number of international awards and has been shown around the world.
There are extraordinary connections between Ireland and Paraguay: our respective experiences with large and powerful neighbours; Eliza Lynch herself; the Irish idealist General Martin McMahon, a US diplomat and hero of the American Civil War who befriended Paraguay.
The connection continues to the present, with Eliza’s great-grandson Miguel Ángel Solano López, recently named Ambassador of Paraguay to Ireland.
Pope Francis recently said that the Paraguayan women who had survived the war of 1864-70 had heroically saved their fatherland in catastrophic circumstances and suggested that they should be
posthumously awarded he Nobel Prize.
Eliza Lynch was one of these women.
Stuart Switzer of Coco Television is the producer of Eliza Lynch – Queen of Paraguay. It airs on RTE1 at 10.15pm today