Bud Kennedy

Irish soldiers sided with Mexico? Yes—in the name of St. Patrick

Texans wear green Sunday, but not all for the same reason.

Most Texans know it’s St. Patrick’s Day. But some might also share Mexico’s celebration, honoring a few Irish immigrants who deserted the U.S. Army in 1846 and instead fought for Mexico under Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna.

In Mexico, St. Patrick’s Day honors Irish soldiers with names such as O’Connor, Casey, Riley and Sheehan from the storied Batallón de San Patricio (St. Patrick’s Battalion).

In 2003, then-President Vicente Fox described them as a “brave group of Irish soldiers [fighting] the foreign ground invasion” by U.S. forces.

On April 12, 1846, Galway immigrant John Riley of the 5th U.S. Infantry swam the Rio Grande from a fort in Brownsville to Matamoros. Within weeks, more than 40 Irish had joined him to man Mexico’s artillery.

“Mexico was trying to recruit soldiers, playing up the Catholic angle,” said UT Arlington history professor Sam Haynes, a scholar on the U.S.-Mexican War.

Some accounts say the contingent included Irish Texans who had settled in what is now San Patricio County. But most accounts say the defectors — eventually about 200 — were new immigrants who arrived during Ireland’s Great Famine.

“They were just off the boat from Ireland, and they joined the Army just to feed and clothe themselves,” Haynes said.

In Mexico, they’re honored as martyrs, with monuments to “the San Patricios.”

“But in the U.S.,” Haynes said, “they’re something of a footnote.”

From Mexico’s point of view, Roman Catholic immigrants from Europe had good reason to help defend a homeland against Protestant attackers.

Or that’s the way the story of St. Patrick’s Battalion was told until recent years.

Schoolchildren in Mexico carry Irish flags at the annual observance for St. Patrick’s Battalion. Ireland Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

“You would have to think there was bias in the rank and file, but anti-Catholicism wasn’t the driving factor,” Haynes said, citing the work of historian Robert Ryal Miller (“Shamrock and Sword”).

“The desertion rate for the Army then was the highest ever. Mexico was advertising heavily” — offering better pay, acreage, citizenship and vacations — “but mainly, they just didn’t want to be in the U.S. Army.”

The battalion met its end at Churubusco, outside Mexico City, where about 50 were whipped and branded with a “D” as deserters. Eventually, 50 were court-martialed and hanged after the U.S. victory at Chapultepec.

According to eyewitnesses, their banner was emerald green and gold.

It bore Mexico’s coat of arms and today’s toast: “Erin go bragh.”