Saturday, May 05, 2012

The San Patricios

On this Cinco de Mayo, the day that Mexico celebrates its independence, I'm thinking about an incident in the long and fraught relationship between that country and ours, back when that relationship was at its most fraught, 1846-48, when we were at war with each other. It also involves Ireland, a country for which, through some ancestry, many friendships and now through marriage, I hold great affection.

The San Patricios, or St. Patrick's Batallion, were mostly Irish immigrants who defected from the U.S. Army either, like their leader Jon Riley, shortly before war was declared, or during the course of the war, to join and fight with the Mexican army. Along with Irish, the battalion also included immigrants from other European countries, almost all of them Catholics, a few native Mexicans who had enlisted in the U.S. Army, and some escaped African slaves. Few were U.S. citizens.

The song in the clip above, by David Rovics, of necessity gives a simplified account of the San Patricio story. The original 200 or so who defected with Riley are said to have been motivated by the discrimination they felt from officers and fellow soldiers because of their being Irish and Catholic (Irish immigrants were objects of considerable prejudice at the time) and by being denied the ability to practice their religion (no Catholic chaplains or masses) which the Mexicans, as co-religionists, could offer them. However, the Mexicans also offered higher pay to soldiers who would defect and serve in their army, and made promises of land to those who fought and survived. Immigrants to the U.S. may also have been offered land upon completion of army service.

They are said to have fought bravely and effectively. Many were killed in action. Those who were forced to surrender near the conclusion of the war were dealt with harshly. The ones who defected before hostilities were declared, including Riley, were given fifty lashes and had their faces branded with the letter "D" for deserter. Those who deserted after the war started were executed; a few by firing squad but most by hanging.

The Chieftains, in collaboration with Ry Cooder and many Mexican musicians, recorded an album, San Patricio, based on the battalion's history.