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Mexican St. Patrick’s Day: No Pot of Gold for the St. Patrick's Brigade


It is often said that “everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day” but to Mexicans this celebration has special meaning of historical importance. The St. Patricks Brigade also known as the Saint Patricks Battalion or “Los San Patricios” were Irishmen who fought and gave their lives for Mexico in the Mexican American War.


The United States annexation of Texas in 1845 was the primary cause of the Mexican American War (1846 -1848). During this period Irish immigrants came to the United States for several reasons all related to British rule and intolerance. Religious prejudice against Irish Catholics and British landowner’s decision to export food for profit rather than feed the Irish led to what has been mistakenly referred to as the Irish Potato Famine. The “An Gorta Mor”, Irish for the “Great Hunger” resulted in mass immigration to the United States.


As seen in Martin Scorsese's “Gangs of New York”, Irish immigrants joined the Army in order to gain a path to citizenship. After their inscription into the army these Irish immigrants were sent West to fight in what would ultimately become the war with Mexico.


These Irish soldiers noticed many similarities between their treatment by England and what the United States was trying to do to Mexico. Additionally these Irish soldiers were treated poorly by their Protestant officers and never really liked the idea of fighting a Catholic country like Mexico. The US army would not allow Irish soldiers to attend mass and many began to cross over into Mexico on Sundays to attend religious services. Soldiers who had fought against each other all week quickly became friends after realizing their common religious bond and struggle from oppressive actions of primarily English countries.


Led by Captain John Riley, approximately 800 soldiers left the US army to join the Mexicans in their fight against the United States. Irish soldiers who left to fight for Mexico before war was officially proclaimed were considered deserters while those who left after were labeled defectors by the United States Army. To the Mexicans they were considered heroes and called “Los San Patricios”, the Saint Patrick’s Brigade or “Los Colorados” because of their red hair.


The San Patricios were fierce fighters who knew they would be put to death by US troops if captured. Knowing their fate they refused to surrender and were responsible for large numbers of casualties to the US Army forces. Mexican General Santa Anna said that if he had a few hundred more men like the San Patricios, Mexico would have won the Battle of Churubusco and ultimately the Mexican American War. 


After the war was lost, Mexico ceded half of its land to the United States. Captured members of the St. Patrick’s Battalion who deserted the US Army before war was officially announced had their faces branded with the letter “D”. Those who left the US Army to fight for Mexico after war was announced were considered traitors and hung. Over a two day period the US Army lynched 50 members of the St. Patrick’s Brigade in what is considered to be the largest lynching in US military history and an example of national intolerance to the Irish.


Mexicans honor the San Patricios or St. Patricks Brigade with celebrations on September 12, the anniversary of their lynching by the US Army and March 17th. In San Angel, a suburb of Mexico City, a plaque lists the names of the Irish San Patricios who died while fighting to prevent United States domination of Mexico.


In 1997 Irish dignitaries where invited to Mexico to celebrate the issue of a 32 peso stamp honoring the St. Patrick’s Brigade. The 1999 film “One Man Hero” staring Tom Berenger is based on the St. Patrick’s Brigade and their leader John Riley.


So when you’re raising your glass of green beer on St. Paddy’s Day don’t forget to say “Viva Los San Patricios“.




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