March 31st, Punta Arenas

Patricio Corcoran sits in his office on the outskirts of Punta Arenas, a motorway on one side of his company headquarters, the Strait of Magellan on the other, and ponders who he is.

“I am proud to be the son of an Irishman,” he says during our conversation. “I have an Irish passport and my children have Irish passports.”

Later he says that he is “absolutely Chilean” but, like so many people of Irish descent, 65-year old Patricio is conscious of, and warmly comfortable with, his ancestry, though without making a meal of it.

This Chilean city of some 130,000 people, the largest in the Magellans/Tierra del Fuego region at the very bottom tip of South America, is a place made by migrant pioneers. They were English, German, Italian, some Irish, and, of course, Spanish. The area was inhabited for some 9,500 years when, in 1520, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan “discovered” it and gave it its modern name, Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, believing (almost certainly incorrectly) that the fires he saw on the shoreline were lit as a warning, by the already resident Yaghan people, as to what awaited him should he and his men land. More likely, surely, is that the Yanghans were just keeping warm or cooking dinner.

In either case, Magellan, and other Europeans, were undeterred and the Yaghans, and other original occupants of the area, didn’t fare too well over the ensuing centuries. They are all now virtually gone, save for the positions they occupy in tourist tat.

Patricio’s people were comparative late comers. His father Arthur came as a young boy in 1920. He was born in Dublin but his father, Patricio’s grandfather, Charles Peter Corcoran Hopwood, came from Cavan.

Your father left Dublin at a tumultuous time, I say.

“Yes,” says Patricio. “He didn’t talk about it.”

At that time in the far south of South America, the driving force in the region was a private company, SETF (the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego), which was large enough to be quoted on the London stock exchange. Its main asset was around one million hectares, together with the driving force of a Latvian-born, Russian Jewish woman, Sara Braun, and her brother, Mauricio, who between them virtually created Punta Arenas. The company bought sheep from the Falkland Islands and, needing experienced sheep farmers, sought them from among the English, Scottish and Irish settlers. Charles Corcoran was drawn in.

“My father [Arthur] first lived on a farm,” says Patricio, “but he had to leave it to go to school, the British school, and he became an accountant.” [The school, founded in 1896, still exists in Punta Arenas.]

In 1948, Charles started the family firm and ran it successfully. His son Patricio’s building, the corporate HQ of several inter-linked companies, together with a large cash-and-carry style supermarket, Corcoran Express, is located just north of Punta Arenas, on land used formerly by SETF to slaughter sheep and process their hides and wool, for export to Europe.

Sara and Mauricio Braun grew wealthy, as Sara’s standout Victorian pile in the centre of the city, now a museum, testifies. A villa-style house with a vine-filled conservatory to one side, it would sit comfortably in Dublin’s Ballsbridge. The Corcoran family has prospered also. Its core business today is the wholesale supply and distribution of a range of consumer foodstuffs, including Kerrygold butter which Patricio has sold for 30 years or so, to shops large and small, and to restaurants. He represents the Irish Dairy Board.

We talk about the area’s Irish links, about the explorer Thomas Shackleton, about Cullen, a village in the gas-rich northern part of Argentine Tierra del Fuego which was named after an Irish doctor, and the fact that the Chilean navy has a submarine named O’Brien in honour of John (or Juan) Thomond O’Brien who hailed from Baltinglass in Wicklow but found his mission in life fighting for Chilean independence. And that’s without going anywhere near the most revered name of all, Bernardo O’Higgins, son of Ambrose, both men giants of Latin American history.

Another locally celebrated Irishman enters the conversation – Dr Thomas Fenton, born in Sligo in 1850, who came to Punta Arenas in 1875 and was the first doctor in the area. He is honoured in local memory for his role in tending to the wounded in a rebellion just two years after his arrival in the area and today, a small hospital carries his name, the Consultorio Thomas Fenton, as well as a street in the city centre.

Fenton also invested in sheep farming to supplement his $300 a month doctor’s salary from the government and, in a July 1885 letter to his mother at Castletown, near Easky in Sligo, he wrote of his high hopes of making a killing.

“I have at last succeeded in obtaining 86,000 hectares… so that my estate will be more or less the size of Co Sligo and taking it all and all perhaps does not contain so much bad land, if I remember correctly,” he told her. “I calculate it will safely carry about 150,000 sheep which when stocked up would represent a yearly receipt on wool alone of about £15,000.”

Imagine a mother in Sligo in the 1880s, whatever her circumstances, receiving such a letter – “my son the doctor has a farm the size of the whole county!” Thomas hoped she might join him and his wife Mary in their hacienda about 45 miles from Punta Arenas…

“If you think you are not too old yet to move to a new Country,” he wrote, “I can always make room for the whole of you, and believe My dear Mother, you might do worse than follow my fool’s advice as I feel perfectly confident that after living a few years in the Country you would wonder why you ever lived so long in Ireland: why my very Servants in this Country live better than you ever did in Castletown. We can grow here excellent potatoes and import all kinds of green vegetables, but owing to the high winds in Summer grain does not do, it ripens, but you can only reap straw, however in exchange we have good grass and plenty of sheep and cattle, consequently meat is our cheapest food…”

I don’t know if Thomas Fenton’s mother joined him. Somehow I doubt it. He stayed, however, but died, sadly aged just 36 and within a year of writing that letter. He is buried in Punta Arenas’ main cemetery, just across the road from my hostel.

Like Dr Fenton, Patricio Corcoran feels the lure of the land. He has 5,000 hectares here in Punta Arenas and 250 hectares further north, near Puerto Montt. He farms sheep and cattle, 50/50, – Angus beef, he tells me.

But you have a great and thriving business here, I say, employing 250 people.

“I want to sell it!” he replies. “Sometimes, you want to rest a bit.” I’m not sure if he is entirely serious. He looks like a man who enjoys his work and from what I saw of his employees, they like him.

Downtown Punta Arenas is a sad eyesore, Sara’s house and the fine square on which it stands notwithstanding. From my hostel, a wide boulevard named Avenida Presidente Manuel Bulnes enters the city centre where it turns into Carlos Bories street, the main shopping street. Virtually every single retail outlet – clothes and shoe shops, chemists (of which there are many), supermarkets, small huckster stores, ironmongers, tourist outlets, banks – has protective shutters over its façade, every one of which is covered by ugly protest graffiti and the damage inflicted by riots last Autumn, sparked by a rise in transport costs but metastasising into a wider, more generalised anti-establishment revolt.

Renuncia Piñera (Piñera Resign), says a common spray paint graffito, a reference to the head of government and state, President Sebastián Piñera. A more scatter gun but all-embracing cry is represented by the graffito Fuego a Todo! (Burn Everything!).

Patricio does not strike me as an overly political person but he acknowledges that, even though Chile has soared economically in recent decades, and is rated (by the World Bank and OECD) as the most stable and prosperous Latin American country, some of its citizens have been left behind. The issue is inequality.

“There are some people,” he says, “who at the end of their job, have very, very bad pensions and some cannot pay for hospital [care]… I think that we need changes. The question is, can we do it in the Constitution that we have or not?”

In a referendum due to be held in October, postposed just days ago from April 26th because of the Coronavirus emergency, people will be asked whether they want a new constitution and, if they do, would they like it drawn up by a body comprising 50/50 established politicians and people elected specifically for the task, or by a body of people all of whom are elected for this purpose alone.

Current opinion polls suggest steady support for the need for a new constitution but slightly wavering support (down from about 60 percent to 50 percent) for the notion that it should be drafted by a specially elected body, as opposed to politicians alone.

The debate around this has drawn attention to Ireland’s experience of the Citizens’ Assembly.

“Chile is looking also at New Zealand and to Australia, and now too to Ireland,” says Patricio as to how such monumental change might successfully be managed.

So the little country in the northern hemisphere which had such an impact here a century and more ago, may still have a role to play.