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The San Patricios: the Irish Heroes of Mexico

Ancient cross, ancient harp & shamrocks, standard of Erin, roundtower, abbey, lakes of Killarney.

Ireland’s Historical Emblems, c.1894

It has been frequently said that everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day There may be just a little bit of truth to that.  Those of you who have read my posts have probably noticed the recurring themes of Mexico, Spain, and Hispanic America, among others—all with an unorthodox twist.  This blog post is not the exception. 

A little-known chapter in U.S.-Mexican history is that of El Batallón de los San Patricios or “St. Patrick’s Battalion.”  In a nutshell, St. Patrick’s Battalion was a group of immigrants, mostly of Irish descent, who fought alongside the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  To provide further context:  this took place during the height of Manifest Destiny.  For those of you interested in visual images, the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) has many images by Currier & Ives depicting scenes of the Mexican-American War, in particular the Battle of Churubusco.  

The following article, written by Dr. Jesús Velasco Márquez from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (Mexican Autonomous Technological Institute) titled “A Mexican Viewpoint on the War with the United States,” provides a different vantage point and additional details about the Mexican-American War and the San Patricios.   This is, of course, another side to the story; and you are free to arrive at your own conclusions.

On September 18, 1997, after the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Mexican war, a draft-decree was submitted for consideration; its aim was to honor the St. Patrick’s Battalion by inscribing in gold letters the following words upon the Wall of Honor located in the Chamber of Deputies of the Mexican Congress:  “Defensores de la Patria 1846-1848” [Defenders of the Fatherland 1846-1848] and “Batallón San Patricio” [St. Patrick’s Battalion].  The decree was promulgated and appeared in the official gazette of Mexico on May 26, 1999. 

As a result of commemorative efforts, today these fallen heroes are remembered by the Mexican government and its people with parades featuring bagpipes and the re-issuance of legislative instruments in their honor.  Pop culture tributes include a recent commemorative album by The Chieftains, an Irish folk band:  it includes traditional Mexican folkloric music performed with a fusion of Irish and Mexican instrumentation.  There is even a piece narrated by Liam Neeson

Now, if you have read some of my blog posts, the subject of Mexico’s prescribed state religion and its subsequent movement toward secularism has been touched upon at least a couple of times.  That said, many attribute the motive of desertion by these Irish soldiers to religion.  In fact, another memorial of this chapter in history, the film, One Man’s Hero, focuses on this very issue:  it contends that the Catholic Europeans (mostly Irish) who served in the predominantly Protestant U.S. Army felt marginalized and saw a resurgence of their own struggles in Erin on this foreign land.  It is mostly the story of Jon Patrick Riley, who was one of the founding members of the St. Patrick’s Battalion.  Futhermore, a book published in 1860—just twelve years after the war—, The Mexican War, by an English Soldier:  Comprising Incidents and Adventures in the United States and Mexico with the American Army, states that

“As the majority of these deserters were Irish, the cause commonly assigned by the officers for their desertion, was, that as they were Roman Catholics they imagined they were fighting against their religion in fighting the Mexicans.” (281)

For those of you interested in doing your own research, here are some sources: 

An interesting note in the account by the aforementioned English Soldier states that

“They distil a strong intoxicating spirituous liquor from pulque, which they call Mexcal [sic]; it has a sort of smoky taste, very much resembling Irish poteen.” (278)

So, the Irish soldiers took a particular liking to pulque because it reminded them of the poitín (poteen) of their land.  Pulque for those who may not know is an alcoholic beverage made from the sap that is collected from the central hollow made by removing the mast of the agave plant.  Before fermentation, this sappy beverage is called aguamiel, literally, honey water.  After it ferments, it is called pulque.  To cut some of the viscosity, guava can be added, which also makes it more palatable for those who may be squeamish about drinking something that tends to be a bit slimy.

Not that I encourage drinking, but for those who imbibe as they celebrate, perhaps you could ask your bar tender to serve you a green mescal—which is commonly, albeit erroneously, known as the “tequila with the worm”—in honor of Mexico’s fallen Irish heroes. ¡Feliz Día de San Patricio!

5 Comments

  1. Elvia Ardalani
    March 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I loved this article about the San Patricios. This is a very remembered episode in Mexican history, although not well known to the masses. I particularly enjoyed the information about the representation of this historical event in pop culture. Wonderful post!

  2. Thalía Rodríguez
    March 20, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    It is an excelent blog…

  3. Mark Clark
    March 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I’m very proud of the fact that the San Patricios originated here in Brownsville, Texas. One of the primary reason for their desertion was the terrible treatment they received from American officers and NCOs.

  4. Ray Carey
    March 18, 2014 at 8:37 am

    I taught about these brave Irish soldiers in my US History class for years. Thanks. Ray

  5. John Livingstone
    March 25, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    I recently visited San Angel, a suburb of Mexico City and discovered a commemorative plaque to Los Patricios who were executed for their desertion from the US Army and subsequent fighting on the Mexican side. A school has been named after Los Patricios in Mexico and a postage stamp in their honor was issued some years ago.

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