By Juan Sempere
If you happen to find yourself in the Riviera Maya celebrating St. Patrick's Day this year -- maybe at a special pool party at Moon Palace Cancun commemorating the day or any other of the dozens of parties in and around Cancun -- you might be taken aback by the depth of appreciation with which locals revere the holiday. Why is it that Mexicans have a particular fondness for the Irish? It has to be more than both nationalities being mostly Catholic, sharing a history of oppression, or holding pride as one of our most cherished traits.
No, the reason you’ll likely run into a fair share of places where you can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in this Latin American country can be traced back to a particular group of heroes that fought in the Mexican-American War: The brave men of the Batallón de San Patricio (St. Patrick’s Battalion).
Who were they? The bulk of this fighting force was made up of Irish deserters who had been recruited by the U.S. Army under the promise of land, money, and advancement within the ranks. A few more were Irishmen who had settled on Mexican soil upon arrival from Europe. There was a handful of German Catholics filling up the company, but one trait was common among its members: They were all immigrants.
Why were they fighting for Mexico? Well, most historians agree on the fact that Irish Catholics faced discrimination in the mostly-Protestant USA, whereas Mexico offered them the common bond of a shared religion. But the Irish were also enticed by conscious efforts made by the Mexican Army, who distributed large numbers of pamphlets pointing out the similarities between English oppression of Ireland and Mexico’s own struggles against their mightier neighbor to the north. A considerable number of recruits were thus swayed and changed allegiances at the onset of the hostilities.
Respected and Fierce
How were the Irish troops regarded by their Mexican superiors? To put it simply: As an elite fighting force that showed no fear on the battlefield. While they started service as part of the so-called “Foreign Legion,” they were reformed as their own artillery unit and given the unified name of Batallón de San Patricio. At full strength it garnered about 700 fighters, led by the respected Captain John O’Reilly (also identified as Riley) on the First Company and Captain Santiago O’Leary on the Second.
How did they fare in combat? Even though the Mexican Army had a rough time against the U.S. forces led by General Winfield Scott, the San Patricios were a force to be reckoned with. Mexico’s sole military victory at the Battle of Angostura was largely attributed to the bravery of the Irish soldiers. But they are mostly remembered by their courage at the decisive Battle of Churubusco, at the very gates of Mexico City.
Overwhelmed by the powerful U.S. Army, the Mexican troops tried to hoist the white flag of surrender on three different occasions, but the fierce Patricios tore it down every single time. These actions inspired Mexican General Pedro María Anaya to command his men to fight until they ran out of ammunition.
What happened to the Battalion? Most of them died or were heavily wounded on the battlefield, the rest were taken prisoner and a handful managed to escape into the streets of Mexico’s capital. Those who weren’t lashed and branded as traitors were summarily executed during the days preceding the end of the war. The unit reformed with a handful of members, but it disbanded about two years after their heroic deeds.
How are the San Patricios remembered in Mexico? As true heroes, of course. The Plaza de San Jacinto in Mexico City holds up a ceremony of remembrance on September 12, and most of the cities on the path of the Battalion’s storied run have plaques and monuments dedicated to the Irish heroes.
And of course, on St. Patrick’s Day you are likely to run into someone who will raise his glass in honor of the cherished San Patricios, whose green and gold banners serve as a permanent reminder of how three great nations who were once enemies can now share a beer in harmony. Erin go Bragh, amigos!