History: Los irlandeses en México; the Irish in Mexico

When I first became aware that some Hispanics are of mixed blood with Irishmen I was a bit taken back wondering just how this came to be. I found my answer in the story of San Patricios and the Mexican-American War. San Patricios is more commonly known as St Patrick and his memory is celebrated on St Patrick’s Day. In Mexico the connection between Mexicans and Irishmen is celebrated in remembrance of the Battalion of St Patrick and it is one of the least known stories in Mexican and Irish history.

The Irish battalion came to Mexico and fought on the Mexican side during the Mexican-American War which took place between 1846-1848. The Irishmen fought bravely for Mexico. Some died gloriously while others died on the gallows. Their battle standard was a simple green flag. They fought along Mexican soldiers in every major battle of the war and El Generalissimo Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana who was Mexico’s el Presidente and top general at the time cited them for their outstanding bravery in combat with American forces.

In the most intense battle during the war the Irishmen fought until they ran out of ammo and when their Mexican compadres raised a white flag to surrender the Irishmen tore it down refusing to surrender. Although they’d run out of ammo they took up their bayonets and continued to fight until they were overrun by the Americans. On that day 85 Irishmen were captured by American forces and sentenced to bizarre tortures and deaths by the Americans. That event became known as the largest hanging affair in North American history because all 85 Irishmen were hung by the Americans on that one day.

By the Spring of 1846 American forces were positioned to invade Mexico. The reason for the invasion was said to be due to Mexico being late on paying past due loans to the United States and indemnities. At least that was the “official reason.” The real reason was the US wanted control of the ports of San Francisco and San Diego which were on the trade routes through what was then the New Mexican Territory which included the lands of New Mexico and Arizona at the time. A part of Nevada was also included and it was rich in minerals. All of these lands belonged to Mexico at that time. The US had offered to buy the vast lands from Mexico for the price of $5 million US dollars. The US had also offered to buy California for $25 million from Mexico. However, Mexico steadfastly refused both offers. That refusal would eventually lead to the Mexican-America War of the 1840s.

Prior to the US giving a war declaration to take from Mexico what the US wanted a groups of Irish Catholics deserted from US forces and joined the Mexican Army. They were led by John Riley who was an expert artilleryman. He had also served in the British Army as an officer at one time and may have served in Canada as well prior to joining the American military. Riley turned his Irish unit in Mexico into a crack force. Within a year the numbers of soldiers under his command had grown greatly and most of them were Irishmen and Germans who had deserted the American army when the war broke out. Riley’s battalion became known as “Los San Patricios” translated means “Those of Saint Patrick.” Up until that time the Mexicans had called them simply, the “Legion of Foreigners.”

The San Patricios fought under the simple green flag with the Mexican coat of arms emblazoned on it along with an image of St Patrick and the words “Erin Go Bragh.” Riley’s battalion was made up of artillery and their help was essential to the Mexican army because the Mexicans did not have very good cannons at the time. Mexican cannoneers were also inexperienced for the most part and poorly trained. Several of the Irishmen ended up being awarded by the Mexican government with the Cross of Honor for their bravery in combat.

The 85 Irishmen whom I spoke of earlier as being all hung in one day by US soldiers were captured at the Battle of Churubusco. They were held up in a monastery there. They put up a strong fight against the Americans and when they ran out of ammo they took up their bayonets and continued to fight until the Americans blew up their gunpowder storage unit. They were then overrun by American forces and taken captive. The Americans put them on trial quickly in a military court-martial because most of these men were Irish and German soldiers who had deserted the US Army and joined Riley’s unit in Mexico. These men were tortured, scourged, branded, and finally hung in a manner that was so horrific and brutal that it’s still remembered today for how horrible it all was in Mexico.

After this horror was carried out by the Americans the US then dictated its demands to Mexico in what today is known as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which is dated at 1848. Under that treaty more than 2/3 of Mexican territory in the Southwestern US was taken by the US and it is from those lands that the states of California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, parts of Kansas, parts of Colorado, and most of Arizona were fashioned. The southern part of Arizona was part of another treaty later on by which Mexico agreed to sell that land to the US.

The Mexican-American War is little remembered or discussed today. It is seldom discussed in classrooms and is the least written about war in history. It is, thus, one of the least known wars America and Mexico fought by the general public. But, it was one of the biggest land grabs in American history as it added more land mass to US territory than all other conflicts combined.

The former Mexican lands were opened up to American pioneers who flocked into the region. The Irish and German deserters were quickly forgotten about as the American pioneers set up their homesteads and began to work the gold fields in California. And as the American Civil War began to dawn in the 1860s these pioneers began to put on the grey and blue uniforms that separated the Union from the Confederacy. And amid all this the tale of the San Patricios began to be forgotten and disappeared.

The Mexicans remembered the San Patricios, however, for the aid they gave Mexico during the war. An aid that was absolutely vital to the Mexican army at the time. Thus, solidarity with the Irish became a long tradition in Mexico along with friendship that still exists today. And the words that John Riley once penned are also remembered in Mexico today. Those words were, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth….especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”

Like many of Ireland’s rebels Riley’s battalion was also emotional, impulsive, and full of bravado. But they were also full of courage that had no bounds. Even in when the Mexican soldiers feared all was lost because there was no more ammo and they raised the white flag of surrender the Irish immediately ripped it down, took up their bayonets, and continued the fight for Mexico. That’s guts! That’s huevos mi compadres!!

As for that Irishman named John Riley he survived the Mexican-American War of the 1840s and was honorably discharged from the Mexican Army in 1850. Reports were that he died shortly thereafter but Mexican officials question the truth of that story based on new evidence uncovered that he did not die then. Yet, just what happened to him after his discharge remains unknown. He was not one of the men hanged by the Americans and that is known. Notably, there was another man in the midst of this Irish battalion in Mexico that was to be the ancestor of a famous American today. His name was Thomas Cassidy. He died still wearing his Mexican army uniform shortly after his capture in the Battle of Churubusco. His famous American descendant was to be the American actor Shaun Cassidy! He lives in San Diego as is an activist for immigration reform. He is of the blood of one of Mexico’s original “rebels” that, in fact, were really Mexican Patriots even though they were of Irish blood.

Riley’s battalion and the Battle of Churubusco are still remembered today in Mexico and in the town of San Angel there’s a celebration held to commemorate the Irish help and friendship. That even also honors the Irish who fought in the war and died for Mexico. A marble plague sits in the town square commemorating the war and Irish service. It reads, simply, “In Memory of the Irish Soldiers of the Heroic Battalion of San Patricios Who Gave Their Lives for the Mexican CAuse During the Unjust North American Invasion of 1847.” The monument then listed 71 names o the Irishmen. A crack troop of Mexican honor guard also participates in they yearly event.

So how does this all connect to the mix of Irish and Mexican people I’ve seen? Well come to find out the Mexican and Irish have had a long relationship and there’s been some mixing of the races between them over the years. Yes some Mexicans have some Irish blood or German blood in them. So if you didn’t know, now you do mi amigos. A lesson from history always enlightens.

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