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Posted 05 October 2009

The Lives of Eliza Lynch – Scandal and Courage

In 1991, when asked by the then President of Paraguay, General Rodriguez “what do they say in Ireland about our national heroine?” Michael Lillis summed up all his diplomatic finesse and replied “it is a subject of intense interest, Excellency,” neatly covering up the fact that he had never heard of Cork-born Eliza Lynch. When he came home, Lillis found that not many others were familiar with the exploits and infamy of this 19th century beauty. And when the late Tomas de Bhaldraithe, former Professor of Modern Irish at UCD sent him The World’s Wickedest Women by Margaret Nicholas, (1984) which placed Lynch in the company of Lucretia Borgia, Ulrike Meinhoff and Catherine the Great, his curiosity was whetted. Eliza Lynch was a whore, wrote Margaret Nicholas, and an insatiable thief, a torturer and assassin who had caused the War of the Triple Alliance that eliminated the entire male population of Paraguay.

Paraguay’s national heroine indeed!

Mind you, launching the book on her life by Lillis and Professor Emeritus of Modern History, Ronan Fanning, former Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, remarked that his own knowledge of Eliza Lynch goes back to the 1930s when, as a small boy, he was struck by the impact of the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia. It stuck in his mind because it was the first time he had seen a frontier change as Paraguay acquired a large chunk of its northern neighbour in an attempt to somehow make up for the losses suffered over 60 years before.

Prompted by the intriguing reference of President Rodriguez, Lillis and Fanning embarked on a journey of discovery to unearth the story of this infamous woman who was vilified in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and adored in her adopted home of Paraguay.

Versions of her story has been told many times before – in the newspaper articles and cartoons of South America in the 1870s, in diplomatic reports to Washington, London and Paris, in books as diverse as Margaret Nicholas’ Wicked Women to Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002) – but never with the depth of research of this volume.

Born in Charleville in 1833, Eliza Lynch found herself “married” at 16 under English but not French law, to a French officer. After an unhappy three years of relative isolation – which included a stint in Algeria, Eliza made her way to Paris where she met up with Francisco Solano Lopez, heir to the Paraguayan Dictator, Carlos Antonio López.

Sent to Europe by his father in 1853 to establish and develop relations with the British, French, Spanish and Italian States, including the Vatican, as well as to buy weaponry, rolling stock and rails alongside the services of engineering and medicine professionals, young López was well financed for his trip to the old world. He returned to Paraguay after 18 months and within months was joined by the beautiful – and pregnant – Eliza.

Her life in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay was an uncomfortable mix of wealth and opulence crossed with social exclusion by the ruling elite who saw her as an interloping Jezebel. Although she bore López seven children (including one who died as an infant), he never married her. Nor did they live under one roof – although he lavished every comfort on her.
Through great misjudgement, the Dictator López declared war on Brazil in November 1864. Rather than finding allies in Uruguay (a similarly small country boxed in by big neighbours) and Argentina, (where several years earlier he had brokered a deal to end a 30-year civil war), he soon found himself faced with the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The war, which lasted over five years, was to destroy Paraguay and decimate its population as over 90% of males over the age of 7 and 50% of women and young children died.

According to Lillis and Fanning, Eliza Lynch through this time was the only confidant of an increasingly paranoid and cruel López who tortured and killed hundreds of his own closest followers in the last years of the Triple Alliance War.

After his death, she fled to Europe and after five years, having managed to recover her papers and arm herself with documents, returned to South America to “claim my rights.” The book publishes a translation of Eliza Lynch’s explanation and defence Exposición Y Protesta – Declaration & Protest, in which she lays out her own story and seeks to lay claim to assets and property accumulated during López’s reign. But, constant character assassination in South America, Britain and the United States eventually took its toll and she died a ‘burnt out case’ in Paris in 1886.

Calumny – the name of the book in both Portuguese and Spanish – but in its English language version, where the word has fallen out of use, The Lives of Eliza Lynch, Scandal and Courage, is a tale of passion and politics, money and mystery, betrayal and brutality.


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The Lives of Eliza Lynch – Scandal and Courage