A few weeks ago, I was in McAllen, Texas for a conference on bird conservation in the Americas. On my first morning in McAllen, my students and I headed out for some birding, and we made an obligatory stop for supplies at the local Valero convenience store. As we stocked up on water, coffee, beef jerky, and genuine BIMBO brand mini mantecadas, I struck up a conversation with Carlos, the man behind the counter.
I don’t speak Spanish, but when I encounter people of obvious Hispanic descent in places like Veracruz or McAllen, I’m confident enough to say hello or please or thank you in their mother tongue. Carlos was impressed with my “Buenas dias, Senor” – apparently, the gringos (or Anglos) mostly ignore the ethnic Mexicans in his community – and we engaged in some small talk that rapidly displayed the outer limits of my ability to carry on a conversation in Spanish: “Las mantecadas, que rrrrico!”
As I gave him my credit card to swipe, he read my name and asked “You are Irrrish?” It took me a moment to interpret his question, but then I responded “Oh yes, yes. Si!” Then he asked me if I knew about “St Patrick’s Brigade” and he gave me an impromptu history lesson on my own people.
It seems that during the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, there was a U.S. Army battalion primarily comprised of Irish immigrants. They came to be known as “St. Patrick’s Battalion.” Perhaps angered by the harsh treatment the Irish Catholic soldiers received from their Protestant officers, their leader John O’Riley seems to have surreptitiously deserted the Army before the war had even begun. Once the fighting started, more men from St. Patrick’s Battalion, the San Patricios, decided that they were fighting for the wrong side. Reasons for their desertion are many, but there seems to be some consensus that they generally became sympathetic to the outnumbered, outgunned, poor, oppressed, Catholic Mexicans. The Mexicans were savvy recruiters too, potentially luring immigrant soldiers to their cause with a promise of land in Mexico. I suspect too they were uncomfortable being on the side of power and order, as the Irish are always at their best when fighting from the position of the scrappy underdog.
Whatever their reason, the San Patricios deserted the US Army, joined up with Santa Anna, and became one of the most ruthless and effective forces for the Mexican side. Perhaps in part because they knew a horrible fate awaited should they ever be captured by the Americans, the San Patricios fought most bravely, and in some cases threatened (and shot!) any Mexican soldiers who tried to retreat in battle.
In the end, the San Patricios were killed or captured by the Americans, and most were gruesomely sent to the gallows following their collective courts martial, rather than being subjected to the more humane execution by firing squad.
For their desertion and taking of American lives, St. Patrick’s Battalion are reviled as traitors in the U.S.; maybe this is why I had never heard the story. For their bravery to unite on the side of justice and the battle victories they helped win, the San Patricios are remembered as martyred heroes in Mexico.
And as a footnote to this story, I learned today that the leader of the Patricios, John O’Riley, was a native of the tiny west Ireland town of Clifden, a town I know right well. ‘Twas in Clifden many moons ago, that me darlin’ wife and I teamed up with our friends Aisling and Philip and spent a memorable evening in a colorful pub. We sat there talking to the barman about why there was no spontaneous traditional music in the pubs in Ireland. Was that just for the tourists? He replied that, sadly, his pub used to be filled with music, but no one came around to play any more.
Not 15 minutes later, a man walked in with a guitar, and asked if he could play some songs. Many hours later, after the barman had locked us inside, pulled down his bodhran to drum along, and we all enjoyed the best Irish craic you could imagine, we left his pub groggy and a bit tipsy, and filled with a warm memory of a people and a wit and a spirit that is loved and revered the world over.
It is in Clifden, home of John O’Riley, that the flag of Mexico flies every Sep. 12th. Traitor? Hero? Who can say? But no one can argue that those fine Irishmen of the San Patricios acted with valor to rise up against what they perceived to be a force of tyranny and oppression, and I’ll be toastin’ their memory on St. Patrick’s Day.
And Carlos? Muchas gracias, mi amigo.