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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A monument to Che Guevara's Irish ancestry stirs controversy



An editorial by Maureen Dowd in today's New York Times revealed what for many is a little known fact: Che Guevara's Irish ancestry. 
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Gaelic Guerrilla
By MAUREEN DOWD
GALWAY, Ireland

Billy Cameron, a colorful local pol here, never expected to set off an international incident. “It’s ruined my life over here for awhile,” he says cheerfully of his Yank foes.

Things got ugly after Cameron, a Labour Party member of the Galway City Council, proposed putting up a memorial to honor that famous son of Hibernia, Che Guevara, or “our Che,” as Cameron fondly refers to the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary.

Che made only a brief stop in Ireland in the ’60s, visiting a pub in the West Clare seaside town of Kilkee one night after his flight from Moscow to Cuba stopped for refueling at Shannon airport and then got stuck in fog.

But Cameron has been pushing the idea that “Dr. Che Guevara Lynch,” as his Irish supporters dubbed him, counts as a Galwegian because he’s descended from the Lynches and Blakes, two of the 14 original tribes of Galway, well-to-do merchant families who once ruled the city. “Patrick Lynch immigrated to Argentina in the mid-1700s and settled in Buenos Aires,” Cameron notes. “Che is part of the Irish diaspora, I would say.”

An Irish Central Web site headline in May proclaimed “John F. Kennedy beats Reagan, Che Guevara, as world’s top leader with Irish ancestry.”

Ernesto Che Guevara’s grandmother was Ana Isabel Lynch, and his father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, told an interviewer in 1969: “The first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels.”

Cameron agrees: “I’m sure Che studied guerrilla tactics of the I.R.A., the same way the Mau Mau in Kenya did.” He thinks the memorial would draw tourists from Latin and South America.

The council voted last year to honor Che. Cameron says he got pledges of funding from the Cuban and Argentine embassies in Dublin. The architect Simon McGuiness and the Dublin artist Jim FitzPatrick designed a plan for a three-dimensional, interactive work of art that would be “a total homage” to “man, image and ideal,” according to McGuiness, featuring three glass panes in different colors of Che’s iconic image.

FitzPatrick, remarkably, was the teenage barman in Kilkee who served Che an Irish whiskey that night. The guerrilla leader told FitzPatrick that his ancestors were Lynches from Galway and that he admired the Irish revolutionaries who had helped Ireland “shake off the shackles of empire.”

Fascinated, FitzPatrick went on to become the artist who made the Alberto Korda photo of Che in his black beret famous by creating his own stylized psychedelic-tinged posters in the late ’60s.

When plans for the memorial were printed last winter in the newspaper, “all hell broke loose,” Cameron recalls.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was furious. She wrote to Prime Minister Enda Kenny, calling Che a “mass murderer and human rights abuser.” Che died at age 39 fomenting revolution in Bolivia, executed in 1967 by C.I.A.-supported Bolivian forces.

The Ivy League joined the brawl. Carlos Eire, a Yale professor of Cuban and Irish descent, wrote a letter, printed in The Galway Advertiser, condemning the “monstrous project” and suggesting it would be “only fair” to put up a monument to Oliver Cromwell next to Che.

FitzPatrick jumped into the donnybrook, writing The Irish Times saying he wished Ireland had a Che-like figure “who could so inspire us” to bring the looting bankers and politicians to justice.

“Che was a bloodthirsty, sadistic killer who did not value human life,” Ros-Lehtinen wrote in an e-mail to me on Tuesday. “I do realize that Che continues to be a chic figure to the intellectual elite harboring misplaced romanticism, but I represent many of his victims and survivors who see him in a far different light.”

The controversy caused the outgoing mayor of Galway and others to back away, claiming they didn’t realize an actual monument was being planned. “What did they think they were voting for, an egg and spoon race?” laughed Dermot Keys, a reporter for The Connacht Tribune.

The lefty Cameron argues that “Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her buddies down South, lunatic fringe Republicans with a Miami-Cuban agenda, should not be allowed to dictate what happens in Galway politics.”

He calls Che a magnetic brand who launched a million T-shirts and mugs — not to mention a passel of biographies, the glamour of “Evita” and movies produced by Robert Redford and directed by Steven Soderbergh.

And therein lies the rub with the bizarre idea. Just because Che became a chic brand for the capitalism he tried to destroy, it doesn’t mean he’s worth honoring on Galway Bay. And just because Ros-Lehtinen can be grating, it doesn’t mean she’s wrong this time.

Cameron hopes the city council takes the memorial matter up soon. Meanwhile, he sees the totalitarian rainbow. “The ultimate fruit of all this is that Che will be known as having the Irish blood and the Galway connection,” he says. “And that is an achievement in itself.”