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The San Patricios: the Irish Heroes of Mexico

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An emblem featuring an 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!

Comments (33)

  1. 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. It is an excelent blog…

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

  5. 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.

  6. Firstly thanks for even more great info about San Patricos. I first learned of them in the Irish book ” Search for McCarthy. After finding The Chieftains San Patrico album, I started looking a bit more at Ry Cooder who often sang with the Chieftains. Ry talks about growing up and being educated thru University level in California, yet never was taught or told anything about San Patricos. Thsnks to people like yourself this is no longer true.
    For that, I thank you.

  7. A dark and terrible part of U.S. history. The Texas Rangers U.S. army have a temporal duty to correctly explain this part of history. Only when this is done can the U.S. draft a constructive immigration practice.

  8. As a retirement project I was going to see if the flag could be designed, reproduced and distributed. Anyone know if this has been done? Thank you

  9. Pulgue
    My grandfather took me to a local pulqueria many years ago in Monterrey,N.L. Mexico. I was 12 or 13 years old. I remember,that the pulque the men were drinking was milk like and it was viscous. The drink,was like …if,like one was swallowing raw eggs. In general,I guess once you get past that stage,it is easy to down a few mugs of pulque and then go about your daily business,with a feel good, and a good feeling of also having a full stomach.

  10. Note
    Pulque is a national drink of many working class Mexicans

  11. I have just published a full account of the San Patricios in a new book called “1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery”, launching 16 September 2016, and available via Book Depository or Amazon. (Gill)

    • Thanks for your interest in our blog, and for your comment.

  12. I was in Mexico in October visiting the pyramids. There was a carving on one of the pyramids I did not understand so I looked around and saw a teacher with a large class teaching the kids so I went over and asked him. He asked me where I was from and when I told him I was Irish he started talking to his class explaining about the Irish contribution to Mexican freedom. All the kids applauded me and thanked me. It was a nice moment and they obviously have a great teacher who knows his history. He explained about the St Patrick’s brigade. St Patricos.

  13. I come across this article and was delighted to see that the world is not full of ignorant and disrespectful people and there is hope!tal

  14. The blog is a very welcome addition to the telling of the story of the San Patricio’s. A story which many do not know but which should be retold as another part of the rich contribution the Irish have made to the many freedom struggles around the world.

  15. I’m interested in one of the names on the plaque.
    The name is Hogh Mcclelland. My father was adopted
    By A family in Florence AZ. His adopted mother’s name
    Was Sara McClellan Cruz. Yes the spelling is different.
    Could this family be related as they are well known fo
    Having help settling the Florence area. If any has any
    Info or threory please let me know.

    Art Cruz

  16. In a discussion with an Aussie friend of mine he claimed that the reason the San Patricos deserted and joined the Mexicans was because they were told of sexual attacks by US soldiers against Mexican nuns.
    I cannot find anything to collaborate this story.
    Any help from anyone ?
    Many thanks,
    Bob Neylon

    • Hello, Bob,

      Thank you for your interest in our blog. While I had not heard of this theory, the Catholic background of the Irish and other Easter Europeans who joined the San Patricios seems to be a recurring theme in the narrative of many historians. A cursory search lead me to this dissertation by Dennis J. Wynn titled The San Patricios and the United States-Mexican War of 1846-1848–it’s from the eCommons of Loyola University, Chicago. On the page marked 55 (electronic page 61), a passage states: “The effects of nativist prejudice upon foreign-born Catholic soldiers was reinforced by Protestant contempt for the Catholic Church in Mexico and by the many atrocities committed by Protestants upon the local populace.” (Emphasis mine.) Later in this same passage it states “Priests were assualted [sic], stripped of their robes, and then the Volunteers would parade around in them in front of their parishioners. These outrages became so numerous that the Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, General Scott, became so fearful of its effects, not only on the Catholic Mexicans, but also on his own Catholic troops [. . .] .” (Wynn, 55) In spite of the order, the “unruly Volunteers, discharged soldiers, and deserters continued to plunder, rob, rape and murder all the way from the Rio Grande to the front.” (57) One of the footnotes on this page cites Bauer, K. Jack, The Mexican War, 1846-1848: “On March 28, a detachment of Texas Rangers massacred twenty-four Mexicans at the Rancho Guadalupe to discourage guerrilla activity in the area. In October, in retaliation for the sniper death of their captain, a group of Texas Rangers and others, sacked and pillaged the town of Huamantla, killing and raping its inhabitants.” (Emphasis mine.) This dissertation seems like a good start for further investigation into the subject. Please feel free to share your findings in the comments section. Thanks, again, for your interest.

  17. En Monterrey , Mexico, estamos muy agradecidos con los Heroes del Batallon de San Patricio, que ofrendaron su vida por la Libertad de Mexico

  18. What many do not know is that preseeding the san patricios was a batallion known as
    “Los estrangeros”
    that faught for mexico and later became part of the san patricios. The countries of origins for these men were Poland,France,Canada,Switzerland
    Germany,usa, black slaves possibly many more. From my understanding many peoples had deserted the united states prior to the war during the war and also after the war. I wonder what the underlying reasons were there had to more than religious for such a large number to desert the USA.

  19. I forgot to Add Italians also fought with the san patricios

  20. If you look close at the memorial dedicated to the men who died there you will find the name of a distant family member, Harrison Kenny. Then look at the Alamo will find another distant family members name James Kenny. The Irish always love a good fight, for what we think is right.

  21. There is also a movie made which Tom Beranger had a big say in. Worth watching to find out how much truth is in it.
    It is a good movie but also very sad what happened these men

  22. After the Mexican War the US Army was quick to recruit Catholic chaplains.Before the US triggered hostilities many soldiers crossed the Rio Grande to attend Mass.The Irish soon found out the Mexicans were being treated as the English victimized the Irish.Having fled to escape this slavery now they found it in the so called Land of the Free….

  23. Excellent article on an underreported piece of history. San Patricio County in South Texas was settled by Irish Catholics before the Texas ‘Independence’ war. I know most fled during the Mexican American war but I wonder if some of them may have also joined the San Patrician.
    A little clarification – You quote a contemporaneous account referencing mezcal being distilled from pulque and having a smoky taste like poteen. But you go on to say the Irish had a liking for the pulque.
    I imagine they liked the distilled mezcal which has the distinctive smoky taste and a high alcohol content similar to the distilled Irish poteen. The fermented pulque has a much lower alcohol content and a definite fermented taste. Mezcal and pulque are both made from the heart of the agave cactus, but pulquexis a separate process, not an intermediate process.

    • You’re right. In hindsight, I must’ve bridged the connection in my mind. But, yes, the source spoke of the mezcal and associated it with the poteen. And you’re absolutely right, pulque is far less potent when compared to mezcal.

      Thanks for your interest and your comment. If you haven’t already read my post on mescal, I invite you to read it:

  24. This is why, in every St. Patrick’s church in the USA, including the beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, there is a great consecrated and revered image of Our Lady Of Guadalupe, the patron of all of Mexico.

  25. I would like to know if these is a published list of all of the Los An Patricios that died during the war?
    This could help me trace my Irish History.
    Thank you kindly
    Kathy Mazel

    • Hi, Kathy, I’m not sure that there is an exhaustive list; however, there is a commemorative plaque at San Jacinto Plaza in Mexico City. If you do a search, you will find images of that plaque; it contains a list of 71 members who were captured and executed.

  26. Thanks to everyone fir their contributions it is only right that these me are rememberred, Puritan American had an inherent dislike fir Catholic Irish and it’s no wonder these brave Irishmen decided to fight fir Catholic Mexico.
    Regards from Erin

  27. Thanks for sharing this

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