The little, poorly made, nameplate on my desk says World News Center. Since that is so, I feel it is my duty to look beyond the musty confines of my locale and imbue you with knowledge of the greater world around you. I can already hear some of you saying, “Hey Doofus! It’s St. Patrick’s day. We already get that. Wear green, drink beer! What else do you need to know?” Well, ye of little knowledge, you’d be surprised. St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, for example, bears no resemblance to the Bacchanal celebrated in America. It’s a somber, religious, holiday where people pray for enemies to no longer taint their shores and for blessings to be laid upon their homes and families. To be polite, it’s not exactly a wild party.
More importantly to our blog here today, it’s a Catholic holiday. I point this out not to exclude any other religions but to explain something that happened around 150 years ago that is very important to a lot of people.
The Irish in America at that time were trying to fit in. Many joined the military. There they were subjected to abuse, both verbal and physical, by the Protestant leaders who ran things. Even so, they fought and died for their new country. They fought insurrectionists, they fought Indians, they fought anyone they were told to fight until 1848. That was when they were told to fight Mexicans. More specifically, Catholic Mexicans.
Combined with the abuse and torment heaped upon them by Protestant officers, that was too much for them to bear. The Irish, en masse, defected to the Mexican army. While almost none of the soldiers spoke Spanish, that didn’t matter. Since they were Catholic, and had their priests with them, the priests spoke Latin. Just like the Mexican priests did. Just like all priests did back then. All negotiations for land, intermarriages and service in the Mexican army were handled by the priests.
The Irish knew they would be facing a far superior force in the American army and that their future looked to be short. They did it anyway. What happened next is why there’s a Día de San Patricio in Mexico and other Latin countries to this day. Viva San Carlos has the rest of the story.
Dubious about why they were fighting a Catholic country and fed up with mistreatment by their Anglo-Protestant officers, hundreds of Irish, German and other immigrants deserted Taylor’s army and joined forces with Mexico.
Led by Capt. John Riley of Co. Galway, they called themselves the St. Patrick’s Battalion (in Spanish, the San Patricios) and fought against their former comrades in all the major campaigns of the war.
The history of the San Patricios is a woeful tale of angry, bewildered, naive, or calculating young men, from varied backgrounds, who deserted for a myriad of reasons and paid a fearful price.
The San Patricios, in the words of one Mexican general, “deserved the highest praise, because they fought with daring bravery.” But eventually, Mexico surrendered, ceding almost half its territory to the United States.
Each San Patricio who deserted from the US side was interned after the war in Mexico and subsequently given an individual court-martial trial. Many of the Irish were set free, but some paid the ultimate price. Roughly half of the San Patricio defectors who were executed by the US for desertion were Irish.
There are ceremonies there twice a year, on September 12 which is the anniversary of the executions, and on Saint Patrick’s Day.
It also clarifies the reasons for the war, and the active participation of immigrant people (most notably Irish but also Scots and Germans) who joined the Mexican side and paid for that decision with their lives.
The Saint Patrick’s Battalion in the US-Mexican War, has placed the Irish as a revered race in Mexico; even to this day, an Irish person in Mexico will be told a countless number of times about the famous ‘Irish Martyrs’ who defected from the US Army and gave their lives trying to save Mexico from US aggression from 1846-1848.
A main reason for their hero status in Mexico is derived from their exemplary performance in the battlefield. The San Patricios ultimately suffered severe casualties at the famous battle at Churubusco, which is considered the Waterloo for the Mexican Army in this war. Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who also commanded the armed forces, stated afterwards that if he had commanded a few hundred more men like the San Patricios, Mexico would have won that ill-famed battle.
The importance of these Irish renegades has not waned in Mexico over the years. In 1959, the Mexican government dedicated a commemorative plaque to the San Patricios across from San Jacinto Plaza in the Mexico City suburb of San Angel; it lists the names of all members of the battalion who lost their lives fighting for Mexico, either in battle or by execution.
A major celebration was held there in 1983, when the Mexican government authorized a special commemorative medallion honouring the San Patricios. First there was a special mass at a nearby parish, then school children placed floral wreaths at the plaque; the Mexico City Symphony played the national anthems of both Mexico and Ireland; Mexican officials eulogized the Irish Martyrs, and a few words were spoken by Irish Ambassador Tadgh O’Sullivan.
Beginning in 1993, the Irish began their own annual ceremony in Clifden, Co. Galway, John Riley’s hometown.
While the brave soldiers of Saint Patrick’s Battalion are not particularly well-known outside Mexico, it is clear that their god-like status in Mexico is enough to compensate for the attention they failed to receive in other countries. There is still a fond memory of “Los Colorados” the red-headed Irishmen who gave their lives in the struggle for Mexican sovereignty.
There are Irish names in prominent places – if you can recognize them. There’s “O’Brien City,” for instance, better known as Ciudad Obregon in the northern state of Sonora. Alvaro Obregon (1880-1928) was a famous and admired Mexican soldier and statesman.
Today few towns in Mexico are without a street by the name. O’Brien became the Spanish “Obregon,” just like O’Dunn and McMurphy are changed to American-English “Dunn” and “Murphy.” Sainte mait cuzat! (Irish for “Good health to you.”)
The story of the San Patricios has already been given the film treatment by Mark Day of California and it was shown on RTE earlier this year.
However it has also attracted the attention of Bill McDonald, producer of Silver, and he has shot a new version in Durango in Mexico, with Tom Berenger in the lead role as Sergeant Riley from Clifden!
More extraordinary again is that Prince Albert de Monaco, son of Princess Grace, appears as a member of the San Patricios’ famed artillery crew, “James Kelly”. Actor Mark Thomas, close friend of Prince Albert’s, had a role and involved the prince in the production since he was interested in the San Patricio story and in trying his hand at acting.
“One Man’s Hero” a film of the San Patricio Battalion (a Paramount Release) can now be rented at Blockbuster. It white washes the injustices of the US army against the Mexican civilian population and the burning of churches but at least acknowledges the event in history.
Finally Hollywood tackles the US-Mexican War with dignity.
Many of the Irish who did survive stayed in Mexico, raising families, building churches and becoming a part of the everyday fabric of Mexican life. Other Irish refugees settled in Puerto Rico. Again the priests handled all negotiations and, to this day, there is a San Patricio mall in Guaynabo.
It is also why there are many red headed Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in the world today.
As you can tell from the video below, the Irish have had a profound influence on the world’s gene pool. So, before you go out and dye the city green, take a moment to reflect on the meaning of the day and the many people who died so that you might celebrate it.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!