‘La Lynch’ and the great Chaco war

Eliza Lynch: Queen of Paraguay by Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning (Gill and Macmillan, €14.99 / £12.50)

Peter Hegarty

Eliza Lynch (pictured) was the Irish-born companion of Francisco Solano Lopez, the Paraguayan dictator who launched and lost a war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.  When the conflict began in 1864 Paraguay was a formidable military power and the most technologically advanced country in the region; when it ended in 1870 the dictator and half the population were dead and the economy so damaged that it has never fully recovered.

‘La Lynch’, as the elite of Asuncion sneeringly referred to her, is one of the most famous – or notorious – women in Latin American history. Detractors and propagandists have depicted her as a harlot made good, a woman who battened on Paraguay’s wealth, encouraged a dictator’s vainglory, and did little to dissuade him from war.

In a meticulous, convincing and highly enjoyable book Lillis and Fanning rescue her reputation. They can find no solid evidence that she worked as a prostitute or courtesan in Paris before meeting Lopez and accompanying him to Paraguay.

They show that no-one – not even his beloved Eliza – could have stayed the hand of Lopez, a paranoid xenophobe who had been preparing his war for years; by the time of its outbreak he had turned his country into a South American Sparta.

The Eliza who inhabits these pages was a gregarious woman, devoted to Lopez and their children, and fond of whist and dancing – the authors believe that she introduced the polka to Paraguay. Like Lopez she enjoyed a great rapport with ordinary Paraguayans (both remain national heroes). She bore her enemies and detractors no ill-will.

She retained her dignity even after the final defeat, facing down Brazilian soldiers in a desolate valley, demanding their respect; without complaint she
dug a grave for her dead husband and son with her bare hands.


The authors offer many glimpses into the Paraguayan mind. As Lynch and Lopez scrambled from hideout to hideout, their soldiers continued to offer resistance in the face of overwhelming opposition. Fear of being forced into slavery – Brazil was still a slave state – and memories of the depredations of Brazilian raiders in the past explained the almost fanatical fighting spirit of the Paraguayan defenders.

Eliza could not, or did not, talk Lopez out of taking a terrible gamble. But, bloodthirsty though he was, he cannot be held solely responsible for six years of carnage.

The liberal emperor of Brazil, who bore a particular animus towards Lopez, let a savage war run on long after he had ceased to pose a threat. The accounts of the Brazilian army’s cruelty towards Paraguayan civilians and child-soldiers make for difficult reading.

In a foreword to this second edition Michael Lillis, a former Irish diplomat, argues that a Brazilian expression of contrition, even at this late stage,
would help close a dark chapter in Latin American history.