They came to America as immigrants fleeing poverty and starvation. They were cursed for their accents and for their religion. Many employers refused to hire them. When conflict came, some took up arms against the United States and were reviled as traitors and executed. They didn’t come from Syria or Iraq or Yemen or Afghanistan; they came from Ireland.
History, it is said, is written by the winners, so Los San Patricios don’t get mentioned often, even though Tucson honors an Irish immigrant, Hugh O’Connor (aka Hugo O’Conor) as its founder. History is often complicated by social and political relationships, and shifting concepts of patriotism and loyalty. The 1840s potato famine brought starvation and death to Ireland and much of Europe. Many Irish Catholics emigrated to the United States to find “No Irish Need Apply” signs on factory gates and their people referred to as “n—-rs turned inside out.”
Their religion was seen as un-American and in 1844 Catholic churches were burned in major cities during anti-immigrant riots. Many Irish immigrants supported the abolition of slavery. The Irish always had a strong presence in Mexico as a result of American discrimination, and a shared Catholic faith.
In 1836 Texas seceded with force of arms from Mexico, becoming a state ten years later. As a result, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. Hungry for treasure and territory the U.S. government, which had first offered to buy what is now the American Southwest and California from Mexico, sent its army across the border to invade the nation, ultimately taking half the country as U.S. territory.
America’s imperialism was not universally supported. Future president Abraham Lincoln was among those questioning the war, and future president Ulysses S. Grant wished he had the “moral courage” to resign from the Army over “this immoral war.” Past president John Quincy Adams opposed the war as an attempt to extend the reach of slave-holding states. Still another future president, General Zachary Taylor, commanded American forces as they marched into Mexican villages trying to provoke a fight.
The Irish of South Texas, in the towns of Refugio (Refuge) and San Patricio (Saint Patrick) saw the war as yet another attack by Protestants on Catholics and formed an Irish battalion, led by John Riley, to fight the American invaders. Thousands of young immigrant men, tenant farmers who had been recruited into the American army with promises of 100 acres of soon-to-be-liberated western farmland for enlisting, chose to desert. Many joined Riley in the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, Los San Patricios, to escape anti-Irish discrimination in the military.
Los San Patricios asked Irish immigrants in the U.S. Army: Can you fight by the side of those who put fire to your temples in Boston and Philadelphia? Did you witness such dreadful crimes and sacrileges without making a solemn vow to our Lord? If you are Catholic, the same as we, if you follow the doctrines of Our Savior, why are you murdering your brethren? Why are you antagonistic to those who defend their country and your own God?
The Mexican government offered citizenship, land grants and higher wages, and the Irish were joined by German Catholics, Scots, Canadians, English, French, Italians, Poles, Spaniards, Swiss, and escaped slaves from Texas. The ranks of Los San Patricios swelled to 700 fighters. And they did fight, participating in all major battles, including one crucial fight where Mexican troops, out of ammunition, raised the white flag of surrender. Los San Patricios tore it down and fought on with bayonets against the Americans.
When the war ended after nearly two years, there were over 13,000 American dead and some 10,000 Mexican dead. Eighty-five captured Los San Patricios survivors were whipped, branded, forced to wear iron yokes, and hung in mass executions. Sixteen men escaped death from military tribunals, and founder John Riley was among six freed on the technicality that they had deserted before war was declared. Like the others, Riley was savagely whipped and had the letter D for Deserter branded on both sides of his face. He died in Puebla at age 45, unable to go home to County Galway where a statue now honors him.
Los San Patricios are regarded as heroes in Mexico to this day, and are honored in Ireland. Los San Patricios de Arizona, formed to commemorate the Irish soldiers and Mexican-Irish friendship, held an annual fiesta and rodeo in Phoenix in recent years, often riding horseback in the annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. To the American military victors, however, Los San Patricios were deserters and traitors.
This piece of Irish-American-Mexican history is not often told, and Irish Americans went on to become about 20 percent of the US. Population, 10 percent in Arizona, with near-majorities in many Northeastern cities where they dominated professions like teaching and law enforcement. Among the most recent of the 22 presidents claiming Irish ancestry are Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The legendary Irish band, The Chieftains (who played at Tucson’s Fox Theatre February 28) released an album paying tribute to the Irish fighters, San Patricio, in 2010, teaming up with Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, actor Liam Neeson and a host of Mexican artists including Lila Downs, Los Tigres del Norte, Chavela Vargas, and dozens of other musicians. Their first studio album in over six years, it was number one on the Billboard Latin charts for four weeks.
Yuma resident Shaun Cassidy, a descendent of San Patricio Thomas Cassady, says his ancestor’s war deeply affected him: “It made me question why we fought Mexico. I spent over 20 years traveling within that country searching for my own history…I often ask myself, what were (Thomas Cassady’s) last words before he died in Mexico City? I believe they were, ‘I protected those that others would not.’”
So on this Saint Patrick’s Day it might be useful to reflect on immigrants, from whom all of us are descended, and what they faced trying to find a better life: discrimination, hate, and exploitation, but eventually acceptance, dignity and the responsibilities of citizenship. It’s also worth remembering that Arizona, along with the rest of the Southwest, was part of Mexico that the U.S. invaded and dismembered by force of arms. Families whose ranches were originally Spanish land grants chose to stay with their land instead of changing countries. We have a shared, and bloody, history from both sides of the border.