Irish in Mexico: Battalion of Saint Patrick

Los San Patricios became synonymous with colonies of integrated settlers in the United States at a time of mass emigration from Ireland and other places in Europe during the nineteenth century. Their legendary role in the Mexican-American War (1846-8) is extensively chronicled in historical and contemporary literature. It has been portrayed in several films and is lauded in patriotic songs. Events are held to remember the sacrifices of the “San Patricios”, soldiers of Saint Patrick. Dedicated ceremonies have been conducted and a special stamp showing a Celtic cross was issued by the postal authorities in Mexico and Ireland (32p) to honour the 150th anniversary of Saint Patrick’s Battalion (1847-1997).
On 13 September they are remembered in a dedicated ceremony in the presence of Mexican and Irish dignitaries. A roll call of names, beating of drums and playing of national anthems honours the soldiers brutally tortured and executed by the Americans after the Battle of Churubusco. Their green silk flag displayed ‘Erin Go Bragh’ and the Irish symbols of shamrock, harp and image of Saint Patrick. Considered as national heroes in Mexico, their names are inscribed on a wall plaque and in Clifden, Ireland, the home origins of artillery leader, Commander John Riley, Chief of the San Patricios, they are remembered with a decorative wall mural dedicated to ‘Batallon de San Patricio 1847’
Irish in Mexico
The Mexican-American War has overshadowed both the presence of earlier Irish immigrants in ‘New Spain’ and the prominent role some of them played in Mexico’s transition from Spanish colony to independent state. While the story of the Irish in Mexico, as in Spain, is one of rapid and often complete cultural assimilation, some immigrants paid a high price for involvement in revolutionary political activities or for falling foul of New Spain’s rigid religious orthodoxy.
John Martin from Cork was among the earliest recorded settlers of Irish birth. Having reached New Spain as a crewman aboard the fleet of the English slave merchant John Hawkins, he was put ashore and was captured by the Spanish in 1568. Though he eventually settled and married in Guatemala, then part of New Spain, his behaviour, combined with previous English residence and service, aroused the suspicions of the Inquisition. Arrested in 1574 and brought to Mexico City for interrogation under torture, he admitted participating in Protestant services while remaining a Catholic at heart. On 6 March 1575 he was garrotted and his body burnt at the stake.
By the seventeenth century, Irish-born missionaries begin to appear in New Spain’s records. Michael Wadding of Waterford, a Jesuit teacher and mystic and first cousin of the famed Franciscan friar Luke Wadding, ministered to the Mexican Indians of Sinaloa province, 1619-26, and was a professor and rector of several colleges in New Spain, his name hispanicised to Godinez. He died in 1644 in Mexico City. It was not until 1681 that the first edition of his enduring work Practice of Mystical Theology, celebrated as a commonsense manual of spiritual life, was published in Puebla, Mexico.
The Franciscan friar John Lamport of Co.Wexford, his name hispanicised to Juan Lombardo, a contemporary of Wadding, served on the missions in Zacatecas province. His younger brother William, Guillén Lombardo, a former Spanish soldier who had won notoriety as a womaniser, reached Mexico in 1640, fleeing scandal at the Spanish Court. In New Spain he quickly came to the attention of the Inquisition for alleged plans to free Mexico’s oppressed Indians and black slaves and to declare himself king. He escaped from the Inquisition’s cells and became a folk hero for his bold defiance of the authorities. Recaptured, after being found in bed with the Viceroy’s wife, he was burnt at the stake on 19 November 1659. Because of his early espousal of the rights of native Mexicans he is recognised as a pioneer of national independence.
In July 1821, towards the end of Mexico’s independence struggle, a Spanish general landed in New Spain with orders to quell the insurgency. As Spain’s last Viceroy-designate, General Juan Dumphi O’Donoju of Sevilla, the son of Kerry and Tipperary emigrants, grasped the fact that the imperial cause was lost, and on 24 August 1821 he signed the Treaty of Cordoba, recognising Mexico’s autonomy. In October 1821, a month after receiving the rebel leader Iturbide in the Vice-regal palace, O’Donoju died. This unexpected turn of events settled the emissary’s place in Mexican history: instead of answering a furious call to Spain, where he would probably have faced a firing squad, he was honoured with a state funeral and burial in the National Cathedral.
Battalion of Saint Patrick
Los San Patricios was an artillery battalion composed of foreigners that fought for Mexico against the United States in the war of 1846-8. It engaged in all the principal battles of the war. At Churubusco, US forces captured or killed 60 per cent of the battalion in combat, fifty of those captured were deemed guilty of desertion during a time of war and were put to death by order of US court martial. During US occupation of the capital the Mexican army reconstituted the battalion, but President Herrera dissolved it after the US evacuation of 1848.
Irish influence is evident from the unit’s name, but the assessment of that influence has been a source of controversy since the battalion’s formation; in fact the Irish component was probably not more than 40 per cent. At first, American reaction cited the battalion as another example of Irish-American disloyalty, claiming that its Irish members had deserted from the US army. Mexican historians and popular memory, on the other hand, have respected the battalion’s courage and questioned the justice of the US court martial.
Recently American historians have argued that Irish members of the battalion, even had they deserted, could not have been ‘disloyal’ to the United States, as most of them were recent immigrants, who knew little English and had little in common with American culture. Instead the United States betrayed them: army recruiters offered them citizenship and steady pay for military service, only to have them serve under abusive nativist officers. Mexican commanders during the war also demonstrated their awareness that many Irish did not consider the United States their home by producing leaflets soliciting their service, emphasising their shared Catholic faith and oppression by Protestant countries.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to The Encyclopaedia of Ireland and other sources used in preparation of this text. It follows a visit to the 41st Inter-Celtic Festival, Lorient (August 2011), with participation of kilted members of the Mexican Pipe Band “Batallon San Patricio”, descendants of Irish, Scottish, German and Polish immigrants. A concert by Ireland’s legendary group The Chieftains was in honour of soldiers of Irish origin at the Battle of Churubusco, 1874.