Mexico’s fighting Irish

As some of you may know, simply because I am a very fortunate person, I am able to spend half the year in Canada and the other half in Mexico. (No prizes for guessing which season is spent where.) Mexico is a wonderful country with stunning scenery and kind, friendly people, and they really know how to party. Some of their festivals are days long. I had been coming here for several years before it occurred to me to wonder why, on March 17th, there is a BIG party to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I’m talking green beer, green dress, music and dancing until the wee hours. The Mexicans don’t celebrate Sts. George, Andrew or David. Why Patrick? I decided to look into it.

The story goes that in 1846 when hostilities broke out between the U.S. and Mexico, thousands of Irish immigrants joined the U.S. army and served under General Zachary Taylor. Some of these men began to ask why they were fighting fellow Catholics on behalf of a country where they were treated badly both in civilian life and the army. They may also have realised that the U.S. interest was exploitation. Led by Captain John Riley of County Galway, at least 185 Irish went over to the Mexicans and called themselves the St. Patrick brigade – the San Patricios. Over the course of the war, the battalion grew in number as other immigrants joined, with some estimates as high as 700. Not all were Irish, but most were immigrants.

Battle banner of the San Patricios
Battle banner of the San Patricios

Things did not go well for the Mexicans in that war, but the Irish fought bravely on for the full two years. At the final battle of Churubusco, hand-to-hand fighting took place in the halls and rooms of the monastery. Some 60% of the San Patricios were killed or captured in the battle. Of 83 who were captured, 72 were court-martialed, of which 50 were hanged and the rest flogged and branded. The Yankees overran Mexico City and Mexico eventually surrendered.

The convent at Churubusco
The convent at Churubusco

After the war, the Mexican government insisted in a clause to the treaty that all San Patricio prisoners be released.

While in prison in Mexico City, Captain Riley wrote to a friend: ‘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.’ I second that. They welcome us snowbirds and vacationers. Their nature is such that they shrug off the arrogance and ignorance of those who treat them like second-class citizens in their own country.

To many in the U.S. who know the story, the San Patricios are a bunch of traitors, but to the Mexicans they are heroes. Today they are honoured in a special service on Sept. 12th, as well as on March 17th. The Irish honour them in Clifden, County Galway, Riley’s home town.

Many a Yank raises a glass of green beer at the St. Patrick’s Day parties, but I wonder if they know why.

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