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On Saint Patrick’s Day, Monday, March 17, 2014 we remember the contributions of the Irish to the United States.
Mexico honors the Irish twice each year, first on this same saints day and again on September 12 for the Irishmen who, as the Batallón de San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s Battallion), fought for Mexico during the 1846-1848 war with The United States.
Mexican and American eyes saw these approximately 150 Irishmen very differently. Mexico saw them as heroes and the United States saw them as traitors, because most of them deserted the US Army and were executed.Mexicans call that war,  La intervención estadounidense (The United States Intervention) and most Americans call it The Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Like much of our dual history, US Latinos have the unique conflict of thinking of this incident as, “These Irish left our side and fought for our other side”.

The joint history of Irish, Americans and Mexicans began long before this war. In Shamrock and the Sword, Robert Ryal Miller finds that “From 1810 to 1821, American, British and French citizens fought for Mexico’s Independence and some served with Jose Maria Morelos (who led Mexico after Father Miguel Hidalgo was executed by the Spanish).

The Texas Almanac states that large numbers of Irish immigrants came to Spanish Tejas, fleeing discrimination in their homeland and seeking cheap land. Hugh O’Connor, born in Dublin in 1734, as Hugo Oconór, was the Spanish governor of Tejas from 1767 to 1770.

According to The American Immigration Law Foundation, “The first Irish who came to America before the 1820’s were middle class tradesman, artisans and teachers, and almost half of George Washington’s soldiers were of Irish descent”.

From 1820 to 1850, fleeing famine and political unrest, more than one million Irish immigrated to the US, 800,000 between 1840 to1850. Most of these men were poor, fleeing hunger and English discrimination; they were also Catholics.

The United States was a homogeneous community of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of English descent. Miller found that not a single Catholic Chaplin officially served in the US Army before 1850. These Irish became a large part of the US Army just in time to serve in America’s first foreign war. They “often found themselves fighting Americans for manual labor jobs or being recruited off the docks, as they arrived by, the US Army”. Their feelings are expressed in another traditional song, “Paddy’s Lamentation”:Hear me boys, now take my advice. To America I’ll have ye’s not be going. There is nothing here but war, where the murderin’ cannons roar, And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin.
The US annexed Texas in 1845. General Zachary Taylor went into the disputed territory with approximately 4,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreign-born; 1,000 were Irish and 400 were German immigrants. (Many German immigrants at this time were also Catholic and also had strong anti-slavery traditions).

The US rate of desertions in this war was approximately 8% higher than any other American foreign war.  By the end of the war more than 111,000 US troops had served, and 4,000 had “gone over the hill” in Mexico (most did not join the Mexican forces).

According to James Callaghan, Private John O’Reilly and 48 other Irishmen deserted the US army and joined the Mexican side calling themselves the San Patricio Brigade, and by 1847 there were almost two hundred of them in The San Patricio Battallion. Most of these troops were Irish, also many were blacks fleeing slavery. Miller cites that of 103 San Patricios, 40 were Irish born, 22 US born. seven (7) Scots, 7 Mexicans and various others made up this immigrant battalion.Julie Reynolds states that “Under Riley’s leadership they served with distinction, bravery or stubbornness.” Callaghan adds that “In the battle of Churubusco to defend Mexico City, when Mexican troops began to raise the white flag, the San Patricios tore it down.”

Casualties were great and many were captured. All the captured deserters were found guilty of treason and between September 11 and 13, 1847, 46 of them were hanged. O’Reilly himself was captured, tortured and imprisoned. His later fate is unknown. In 1959, a plaque was erected in honor of the San Patricios in San Angel, Mexico City, and a September 12 ceremony is held there every year.

Some say that history is permanent and other say that “history is written by the winners”. Who are the winners today? Will they be the same tomorrow?Since 1998, PBS Television has aired a documentary and maintains a website titled, “The US-Mexican War 1846-1848”.

In 1999, The Rogue’s March by Peter F. Stevens said, “This is a story about assimilation. A lot of these guys deserted because of the anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner movement. America was trying to grapple with an unprecedented immigrant wave, just as we are today”.

In 2010, their story resurfaced in CD by the Chieftains titled “San Patricio”. Produced by Ry Cooder, the disc has songs by Linda Ronstadt, Lilia Downs, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Los Tigres del Norte and the legendary Chavela Vargas.

Credit: information in this article is from the books and authors mentioned. The books are available in the City of San Jose Public Library.

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