Review: The Lives of Eliza Lynch, Scandal and Courage,

Review of Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning’s
The Lives of Eliza Lynch, Scandal and Courage

By Tony Phillips

English edition published by Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2009
286 pages, ISBN 978 07171 4611 6, €19.99

This historical non-fiction biography includes historical maps, illustrations and the extremely difficult to find (and never before published in translation) Exposición y Protesta, a short book first published separately, now out of print and difficult to find even in Paraguay. Exposition and Protest is written by the protagonist herself, Eliza Lynch. In Lillis and Fanning, Exposition and Protest is included as an appendix (41 pages in English translation).

I was invited to São Paulo by the Author, former Irish ambassador to the United Nations Michael Lillis, to attend the book launch of the Brazilian Portuguese version of their book. It was refreshing to see that even in the twenty-first century, this shadowy heroine is still capable of eliciting a fiery debate. Both at the book launch and over cocktails afterwards in a fashionable São Paulo restaurant, it was my pleasure to participate with Irish and Brazilian intellectuals in passionate conversations over this scandalous heroine from Cork.

Unlike many other books on the subject, the focus of Lillis and Fanning’s book is on Eliza herself. By comparison, most other works on Eliza Lynch focus more on the sensational war years of the prolonged massacres of Paraguay’s war against the Triple Alliance (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay), and over-emphasise the sordid tales of high-class prostitution in Paris (much of which Lillis and Fanning believe were invented by her detractors). The authors in contrast de-emphasise the fetish interests in war and sex, and focus instead, perhaps understandably, on a more European focus on Lynch’s family roots in Ireland, and her childhood and teenage marriage to the French military medic Quatrefages and her life after the war, again mostly back in Europe. Although there is more of a focus on Lynch’s life outside South America than is common in biographies of the woman, this is not to say that the authors have a purely European mindset nor that their research is Eurocentric, as an extensive team of researchers collaborated on this work in various countries in South America. The authors have travelled extensively in South America and between them they speak both Portuguese and Spanish fluently, along with English.  

The authors provide refreshing detail on Eliza Lynch’s life back in Europe after the death of her dictator husband Marshall Francisco Solano López, a part of Lynch’s biography not focussed on by other biographers.

Immediately after the death of her husband and first-born son, (two bodies she buried with her bare hands in the Paraguayan soil of Cerro Cora), Lynch was taken prisoner by their Brazilian killers. While still in prison on the river Paraguay, under the eye of the victorious allies on board the Brazilian ship Princessa, Lynch began another war. The cunning alliance-building continued in Rio de Janeiro and lead to litigation in the courts of Edinburgh, Scotland, and back in her beloved Paraguay. In this decade after the war we are led to discover many details of Lynch’s considerable courage and dogged persistence in extensive legal battles to reclaim land rights and monies given to her by López for safekeeping. These claims on territorial ownership were quite considerable. Her claims on land in Paraguay amounted to some nine million hectares, more land mass indeed than the island of her birth. Also discussed are the monies lying dormant in accounts in British banks which for lack of documentation (destroyed in the war), Eliza was denied access.

Lynch was a woman who escaped cruel death from a Brazilian lance, protecting her remaining children and vast fortunes under the banner of the Union Jack. The Irish publishers had rejected the use of the word calumny to describe the societal reaction the life of this long-dead Irish woman still inspires. Later in 2009, an article written in the Asunción La Nación newspaper of Paraguay on the topic of the release of the Spanish edition of the book in the Law Faculty building of the University of Asunción (the former house of Eliza Lynch), shows how she still elicits debate in various languages: .

The contents of the book are as follows: List of maps (4), List of illustrations (26), Prologue (9 pages discussing their research and the accidental death of their Brazilian co-researcher Comandante Rolim Adolfo Amaro, who died in a helicopter flight while travelling to Paraguay to work with the investigative team in Cerro Cora, dated January 2009). [1] The body of the book consists of thirteen chapters: Ch. 1. The hunt for Eliza Lynch (twelve pages) Ch. 2: Monsieur Quatrefages and Mrs Quatrefages (ten pages) Ch. 3: Was she a Courtesan? (thirteen pages) Ch. 4 Enter Panchito (twenty-two pages) Ch. 5: Paraguay –Mohammed’s Paradise (thirteen pages) Ch. 6: The Queen of Paraguay (twenty-six pages) Ch. 7: Triumph (fifteen pages) Ch. 8: Disaster (sixteen pages) Ch. 9: Inferno (twenty-eight pages) Ch. 10: Cerro Cora (eight pages) Ch. 11: In the Edinburgh Courts (nineteen pages) Ch. 12: The Last Betrayal: Return to Asuncion (fifteen pages) Ch. 13: ‘A Heart Grown Cold’ (twelve pages). Also included are Eliza Lynch’s book, Exposición y Protesta as an appendix, Acknowledgements, Abbreviations, Reference notes, Select Biography and an Index. Lillis and Fanning paint a frank, albeit positive picture in their loving biography of Lynch, a woman whose personal furniture adorned the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. This woman, whose calumny spread across the planet, beginning in the 1860s with her glory days in Paraguay for her association with the dictator Marshall Francisco Solano López, a man who is at once hated and beloved of his Guaraní-speaking Paraguayan people. For her loyalty to the death to her common law-husband, Lynch shares the calumny of the last great leader of this beautiful belly-button of a country. Paraguay shares many things with the island on where Lynch is born. It has suffered the dreadful tyranny of its neighbours and the dictatorial actions of post-colonial leaders. The bilingual nature of its population has helped it to retain a deep sense of identity differentiating it from its neighbours, albeit in the context of extreme violence and tolerance of rampant corruption. The author’s deep knowledge of a complex web of Latin American and European interplay in the life of Lynch has helped to bring alive the history of this remarkable woman. At the book launch in São Paulo, Lillis was accused of being in love with Elisa Alicia Lynch. It is an accusation he did not deny. The same book was also published 2009 in Brazilian Portuguese: Calúnia – Elisa Lynch e a Guerra do Paraguai and in Spanish: Calumnia. La historia de Eliza Lynch y la Guerra de la Triple Alianza. The Spanish version was edited by the Taurus subdivision of the editorial ‘Grupo Santillana’ and in Brazil by ‘Terceiro Nome’ (all 2009). Tony Phillips

Director of the documentary film Eliza Lynch, The Marshall’s Favourite.

Author’s Reply The Author accepts this Review and does not wish to comment further.

Notes [1] The book is dedicated to Comandante Amaro, founder of Brazilian airline TAM, who died in 2001.

First published on SILAS: