San Patricios – Mexico’s Fighting Irish

If there’s one thing that the Irish are known for, besides potatoes and heavy drinking, it’s spreading ourselves around the world. Since the days of empire, Irish emigrants have found homes in America, Canada, Australia and India, even as close to home as our English neighbours. But one particular country that doesn’t really spring to mind so often would be Mexico.

By the 1840s, much of the US army was made up of Catholic immigrants, mainly from Germany and Ireland. When the Mexican War (1846-1848) broke out, which had its roots in the annexation of Texas and the westward push of American settlers, they were sent as part of General Zachary Taylor’s invading force to invade the bordering country. The Mexican government, aware of the prejudices in America against such immigrants, began a campaign to win them to their cause. They were urged by Mexican propaganda to throw off the yoke of Protestant oppression while it was insinuated the America intended to destroy Catholicism in Mexico.

Dubious about why they were fighting a Catholic country in an army where their superiors mistreated them, the Mexican propaganda campaign was very effective in turning these men’s minds and loyalties, and hundreds deserted Taylor’s army. “The San Patricios were alienated both from American society as well as the US Army,” says Professor Kirby Miller from the University of Missouri, an expert on the history of Irish immigration. “They realised that the army was not fighting a war of liberty, but one of conquest against fellow Catholics such as themselves.” In November 1846 General Antonio López de Santa Anna organized American deserters with other foreigners in Mexico to form the San Patricio Battalion, or St. Patrick’s Company, a name it quite probably received from its Irish-American leader, John Riley who had been a member of the Fifth United States Infantry. The company saw action several times throughout the course of the war; at Monterrey, Saltillo and Buena Vista, each time receiving praise for their fighting.

Following the failed defence of Mexico City, the San Patricios found themselves back in the hands of the United States Army. John Riley was one of the lucky few and as he had technically deserted before the war between Mexico and the United States was actually declared, he escaped death. Instead he received fifty lashes while the letter “D” was branded on his cheek. Though some members of the San Patricios escaped death, many weren’t so lucky. The sentences imposed on the San Patricios outraged the Mexican public. In Toluca, for example, Mexican authorities prevented rioters from trying to retaliate against American prisoners of war.

The story of the fighting Irish in Mexico didn’t end there. By March of 1848 the Mexicans had found enough original San Patricios combined with fresh deserters to form two more companies while they continued bargaining for the release of those members in American custody, who weren’t released until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The San Patricios actively continued as a group, patrolling across Mexico and protecting the people from bandits and Indians. They later became involved in revolts within Mexico until a presidential order from General Herrera stopped them under which Riley was arrested under suspicion of his involvement in a plot to kidnap the President. The San Patricios were recalled to Mexico City so the government could monitor the group and their actions at a closer range. In the end, Herrera, in order to end the problems with the San Patricios as well as an effort to cut the post-war budget, dissolved the company in 1848. Most members remained in Mexico as they couldn’t return to the United States.

Some US historians still regard these men as traitors who deserted their army. Mexicans, however, see them as heroes, and so they honour them in a commemoration held each September. In 1993, the Irish began their own ceremony to honour the Irish soldiers, in Clifden, Co. Galway, Riley’s old hometown. While being held as a prisoner in Mexico City, Riley wrote a letter to a friend in Michigan in which he said “Be not deceived by a nation that is at war with Mexico, for a friendlier and more hospitable people than the Mexicans there exists not on the face of the earth.”

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