By The Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder
If history is written by the victors, then the imagery crammed down our throat every St. Patrick's Day should come as no surprise.
The Chieftains, however, have a very different idea of celebrating St. Pat's. Their new album San Patricio, recorded with iconic Ry Cooder, is dedicated to reviving an incredible moment in this forgotten history.
If you've never heard of the San Patricios, you're not alone. The story of Irish immigrants joining Uncle Sam's army during the Mexican-American war might be the kind of thing Bill O'Reilly would celebrate — that is, if they hadn't defected en masse to defend Mexico from the invading forces!
The suffering that came with Ireland's potato famine in the 1840s is almost unimaginable. The British crown ruled over the Emerald Isle with ruthless force, and when the poor farmers' key food source was struck by a devastating blight, more than a million people starved to death while other food grown in Ireland was shipped to England.
Irish farmers who fled to the US on squalid coffin ships were expecting a land of greater opportunity. Instead, they found a country wracked by a xenophobic, anti-Catholic, Nativist movement.
Irish Catholics were denied all but the lowest-paying jobs. Epithets like "paddy", "boghopper" or "mick" were common. Anti-immigrant riots, specifically aimed at Irish Catholics, took place across the US.
This was the era of the doctrine of "manifest destiny". The US had been rattling its sabre against Mexico well before the annexation of Texas in 1845. In June, President James Polk began to send troops to the Nueces River to "defend American territory". By May 1846, full-scale war was declared on General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's Mexico.
Large numbers of Irish immigrants were drafted into the US army to swell its anaemic ranks. One of these immigrants was John Riley, a native of Clifden in County Galway, who had come to the US in 1843. In 1845, he found himself serving in the Fifth US Infantry Regiment. By spring 1846, he was commanding a detachment of defectors in the Mexican Army — the St. Patrick's Battalion.
There were plenty of reasons to defect to Mexico. The discrimination and poor treatment that ran through US society most certainly extended to the army. Irish Catholics no doubt saw the potential for more equitable treatment in Mexico, itself a Catholic nation. Mexico granted citizenship to those who fought — the US did not.
Though the San Patricios were composed mostly of Irishmen, their ranks included immigrants from all over Europe and, notably, a few escaped Black slaves.
But there was likely another, more basic, motivation: solidarity. The same country that had dashed the dreams of the Irish immigrants was also seeking to plant its boot on the necks of the Mexican people.
That spirit of solidarity is embodied in spades on San Patricio. The Chieftains' rousing Irish folk is complemented not just by Ry Cooder's inimitable guitar work, but groups and artists from throughout the Mexican-American music scene — Los Folkloristas, Los Camperos de Valles, plus legends of the Nueva Cancion movement like Chavela Vargas and Lila Downs. Even Linda Ronstadt makes an appearance.
While the San Patricios have been all but erased from US history books, in Mexico, they're the stuff of legend. A plaque in their honor hangs in Mexico City's Jacinto Plaza. A statue of John Riley was erected in his native Clifden by the Mexican government. And the battalion is considered an organic part of Mexico's long fight for self-determination.
But the San Patricios' story is also tragic. The battalion fought alongside the Mexican Army in several victorious battles, but at Churubusco, they faced defeat. Thirty-five San Patricios were killed, and 85 taken prisoner, including John Riley.
Seventy-two of the captured soldiers faced court-martial. None were provided lawyers. The US army sought to make an example of them.
In all, 50 San Patricios were hanged.
Even in the face of death, they remained defiant. Eyewitness accounts from the day report that the men cheered the Mexican flag as it was lowered in the moments before the horse-drawn carts were pulled from under their feet.
For sure, one man's traitor is another man's freedom fighter, but the San Patricios were most definitely heroes. They turned their back on a war for empire and joined with those fighting for sovereignty.
The resonance of their stories can be heard today quite clearly. Almost half of what was once Mexico is now the western United States, and the long history of exploitation continues. As the US continues to be committed to two foreign wars and deny basic rights to Latin American immigrants, it is worth remembering that the first US soldier to die in Iraq was a Guatemalan seeking citizenship.
It is also worth remembering that these stories are kept from us for a reason. The songs on San Patricio bring them to the forefront in a way that only great music can. They show how the human spirit runs deeper than borders or languages.
[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]