The Saint Patrick’s Battalion in the US-Mexican War has placed the Irish as a revered race in Mexico; even to this day, an Irish person in Mexico will be told a countless number of times about the famous ‘Irish Martyrs’ who defected from the US Army and gave their lives trying to save Mexico from US aggression from 1846-1848.
A main reason for their hero status in Mexico is derived from their exemplary performance in the battlefield. The San Patricios ultimately suffered severe casualties at the famous battle at Churubusco near Mexico City, which is considered the Waterloo for the Mexican Army in this war. Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who also commanded the armed forces, stated afterwards that if he had commanded a few hundred more men like the San Patricios, Mexico would have won that ill-famed battle.
Dubious about why they were fighting a Catholic country and fed up with mistreatment by their Anglo-Protestant officers, hundreds of Irish, German and other immigrants left the US army and joined forces with Mexico.
Led by Capt. John Riley of Co. Galway, they called themselves the St. Patrick’s Battalion (in Spanish, the San Patricios) and fought against their former comrades in all the major campaigns of the war.
The history of the San Patricios is a woeful tale of angry, bewildered, naive, or calculating young men, from varied backgrounds, who deserted for a myriad of reasons and paid a fearful price.
The San Patricios, in the words of one Mexican general, “deserved the highest praise, because they fought with daring bravery.” But eventually, Mexico surrendered, ceding almost half its territory to the United States.
Each San Patricio who deserted from the US side was interned after the war in Mexico and subsequently given an individual court-martial trial. Many of the Irish were set free, but some paid the ultimate price. Roughly half of the San Patricio defectors who were executed by the US for desertion were Irish.
The importance of these Irish renegades has not waned in Mexico over the years. In 1959, the Mexican government dedicated a commemorative plaque to the San Patricios across from San Jacinto Plaza in the Mexico City suburb of San Angel; it lists the names of all members of the battalion who lost their lives fighting for Mexico, either in battle or by execution.
A major celebration was held there in 1983, when the Mexican government authorized a special commemorative medallion honouring the San Patricios. First there was a special mass at a nearby parish, then school children placed floral wreaths at the plaque; the Mexico City Symphony played the national anthems of both Mexico and Ireland; Mexican officials eulogized the Irish Martyrs, and a few words were spoken by Irish Ambassador Tadgh O’Sullivan.
Beginning in 1993, the Irish began their own annual ceremony in Clifden, Co. Galway, John Riley’s hometown.
While the brave soldiers of Saint Patrick’s Battalion are not particularly well-known outside Mexico, it is clear that their status in Mexico is enough to compensate for the attention they failed to receive in other countries. There is still a fond memory of “Los Colorados” the red-headed Irishmen who gave their lives in the struggle for Mexican sovereignty.
There are Irish names in prominent places - if you can recognize them. There’s “O’Brien City,” for instance, better known as Ciudad Obregon in the northern state of Sonora. Alvaro Obregon (1880-1928) was a famous and admired Mexican soldier and statesman.
Today few towns in Mexico are without a street by the name. O’Brien became the Spanish “Obregon,” just like O’Dunn and McMurphy are changed to American-English “Dunn” and “Murphy.” Sainte mait cuzat! (Irish for “Good health to you.”)
There are ceremonies there twice a year, on September 12 which is the anniversary of the executions, and on Saint Patrick’s Day.