Turtle Bunbury

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The Irish Battalion who fought for Mexico

By Turtle Bunbury

This week [8th March 2010] sees the release ‘San Patricio’, an extraordinary and beautiful concept album by the Grammy Award winning partnership of Ry Cooder and The Chieftains. The album, which blends traditional Mexican and Irish music, was inspired by the story of the San Patricios, a battalion of mainly Irish deserters from the US army who fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

To the Americans, the San Patricios were traitors. However, in Mexico, as Chieftains' frontman Paddy Moloney says, ‘they are remembered by generations of Mexicans to this day as heroes who fought bravely against an unjust and thinly veiled war of aggression.’

There have been several attempts to capture the gallant spirit of the San Patricios in the past, most recently in the straight-to-DVD film ‘One Man’s Hero’ which starred Tom Berenger as the San Patricio’s ill-fated leader, John Riley. With Cooder at the helm, the San Patricios may soon find themselves as famous as the Buena Vista Social Club. Throw in a monologue by Liam Neeson, a lullaby by Moya Brennan and a string of work by some of the finest Mexican musicians alive and this could very well be the surprise smash of the year.

The story of the San Patricos is epic, noble and relentlessly tragic. It effectively begins with the election of the war mongering Democratic candidate James Polk as 11th President of the USA in 1845. A plantation owners’ son whose grandparents hailed from Lifford, Co. Donegal, Polk quickly ran his eyes along the vast border between the United States and the United Mexican States, more commonly known as Mexico. California and New Mexico were then a part of Mexico. Polk offered to purchase the two states. Mexico turned him down.

In the spring of 1846, sixteen US soldiers were killed in an ambush just south of the Rio Grande in an area which both the US and Mexico claimed as their own. Polk seized the opportunity to declare war on Mexico. Congress granted him a $10 million budget to raise 50,000 troops and transport the very latest in military hardware to the southern border. A massive recruiting drive got underway across the United States as General Zachary Taylor marched the US army into Mexico.

These events coincided with the outbreak of the Great Famine in Ireland. A tidal wave of Irish emigrants was already surging across the Atlantic Ocean. For many of the men who arrived, hungry, exhausted and penniless, the most logical step was to join the US Army in return for immediate food and lodging.

Life as an Irish Catholic soldier in the US army was by no means easy. Officers were almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon Protestants who invariably treated European immigrant conscripts like dirt. Sunday Mass was prohibited. And there was almost no chance of a promotion. Nonetheless, thousands of Irishmen signed up, in return for $10 a month, with three months advance pay, and the promise of 160 acres of farmland for every soldier when the war with Mexico was won.

Mexico was on the hop from the word go, unable to compete with the sheer weight and firepower of the US Army. However, as General Taylor’s troops ran roughshod over the Mexican Catholics, ravaging their women and plundering their churches, large numbers of Catholic soldiers in the US Army began to have second thoughts.

One of the first to desert was John Riley, a 40-year-old from Clifden, Connemara, who had arrived in the US in 1845 and enlisted in Michigan. He was one of the first soldiers posted to Mexico and appears to have transferred his allegiance to the Mexicans before the war had even begun. His decision was probably financial. The Mexican army offered better wages than the US and a real chance at promotion, as well as land grants starting at 320 acres.

In April 1846, Riley was appointed 1st Lieutenant and placed in command of a company of 48 Irishmen in the Mexican Army. For the most part, these men came from Dublin, Cork, Galway and Mayo. The Mexicans referred to them as ‘Los Colorados’, after their red hair and ruddy, sun burnt complexions. A month after they were established, Riley’s company manned the canons during an unsuccessful six-day siege of the US garrison at Fort Texas on the Rio Grande.

During the summer of 1846, Riley’s men combined forces with the Legión de Extranjeros (Legion of Foreigners), a ragtag mixture of Catholic European emigrants, as well as a few Canadians, Americans and African-American slaves who had escaped from the American South. By September, these men had been formed into one unit, the Batallón de San Patricio, St. Patrick’s Battalion. Mexican nuns embroidered their distinct Green silk flag with a harp and the twin mottos ‘Libertad por la Republica Mexicana’ (‘Liberty for the Mexican Republic’) and ‘Erin go Bragh!’ (‘Ireland Forever!).

The San Patricios served with distinction at most of the war’s pivotal battles, every one of which Mexico lost. Each month brought new recruits and by the start of 1847 they were said to have numbered over 700 men. At the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, Riley’s men commanded the Mexican’s three heaviest canons but an ill advised shoot out with the more powerful American artillery left almost a third of the battalion dead or wounded.

The curtain fell at the Battle of Churubusco, which took place at a convent just outside Mexico City in August 1847. As the US army advanced, the San Patricios set up five canons to hold them back. Disaster ensued when a stray spark from one of the canons scorched into a wagon that had just arrived with badly needed back-up ammunition. A huge explosion ripped through the air, seriously injuring many, including the memorably named Captain Santiago O'Leary. While the Mexicans fled, the San Patricios held their ground.

With an inevitability that is common to gunslinger westerns, they now awaited certain death. Ammunition was running low so they made every shot count, aiming directly at the American officers, particularly those whom they had known from their past life when they too had been in the US army. As the US soldiers arrived, the fighting became brutal hand-to-hand stuff, with sabres, bayonets, blades and fists. Eventually, the US overwhelmed them and, as one commentator put it, ‘ventilated their vocabulary of Saxon expletives, not very courteously, on Riley and his beautiful disciples of St. Patrick’.

Seventy-one of the San Patricios were executed as traitors within two weeks of Churubusco. Indeed, one of the most macabre episodes of the entire war was the mass execution of 30 prisoners at once during the final Battle of Chapultepec. Choreographed by Colonel William Harney, the condemned men dropped at the precise moment that the US flag replaced the Mexican one on top of the town’s citadel, in full view of both armies. A witness recalled how ‘hands tied, feet tied, their voices still free’, the condemned men managed to let out a final ‘Braveheart’ like cheer for the Mexican flag before the nooses tightened.

Mexico surrendered. Polk’s war had secured for the US undisputed control of Texas, as well as ownership of the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, and substantial parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

In the film, Tom Berenger’s Riley died with his men. However, Riley was in fact among those spared, because he had deserted before the official declaration of war. Instead the man from Clifden received fifty lashes on his bare back and was branded with the letter 'D' for deserter on both cheeks. After the war, he was given charge of the remaining San Patricios but the battalion was disbanded after an unsuccessful military coup. Colonel Juan Riley was ‘retired’ and sent to Veracruz, with full pay, presumably on the basis that he would sail back to Europe. However, he appears to have contracted yellow fever at about this time and, turning to the bottle, he succumbed and died.

The Mexican flag flies in Clifden, Riley’s birthplace, every September 12th in memory of Cherubusco. In 2004, the Mexican government presented a commemorative statue to the Irish government in ‘perpetual thanks for their bravery, honour and sacrifice’. The San Patricios are also recalled by a memorial in the affluent suburb of San Ángel outside Mexico City. Ry Cooder and The Chieftans’ musical collaboration will further enhance this curious military alliance.

 

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