Remembering St. Patrick’s Battalion on March 17

Over time, March 17 became an exercise in avoiding the tens of thousands who chose to make a drunken spectacle of themselves or following the annual struggle being waged by gay men and women seeking to participate in the parade. (I never understood why they chose that battle-it’s like disabled people fighting for access ramps to McDonald’s.)


It was during the buildup to the Mexican-American War (1846-8) that scores of immigrant Irishmen joined the army for the $7 a month. "The U.S. anti-immigrant press of the time caricatured the Irish with simian features, portraying then as unintelligent and drunk and charging that they were seditiously loyal to the pope," Anne-Marie O’Connor wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1997. "But cheap Irish labor was welcome. Irish maids became as familiar as Latin American nannies are today."


After President James Polk incited hostilities by sending U.S. troops into disputed territory, many of those Irish soldiers found themselves heading west to fight a war of conquest. The American army at that time, says Howard Zinn, was made up of "volunteers, not conscripts, lured by money and opportunity for social advancement via promotion in the armed forces." Half were recent immigrants and, as Zinn reminds us, "their patriotism was not very strong."


"This is a story about assimilation," historian Peter F. Stevens added. "A lot of these guys deserted because of the anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner movement."


A wartime newspaper correspondent from New Orleans described the banner as made of "green silk, and on one side is a harp, surmounted by the Mexican coat of arms, with a scroll on which is painted, Libertad para la Repblica Mexicana. Underneath the harp is the motto Erin go Bragh (Ireland for Ever). On the other side is painting…made to represent St. Patrick, in his left hand a key and in his right a crook or staff resting upon a serpent."


In five major battles, the San Patricios earned a reputation for bravery that peaked on August 20, 1847 at Churubusco where, over the course of three hours, 60 percent of the San Patricios were killed or captured by a numerically superior American army. One of the prisoners was Brevet Major John Riley.


"They needed an excuse. They couldn’t say I hated the United States,’ so they said they weren’t responsible," said Miller. In some casesincluding Rileythis defense was effective. While 50 San Patricios were sentenced to death, five others were pardoned and 15 others received a reduced sentence.


The war was over and in the name of historical cleansing, the legend of St. Patrick’s Battalion was essentially forgotten north of the border (except for the San Patricios column that marches in the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day parade each year). The same cannot be said for Mexico where there is even a San Patricios public school.


Zedillo called the desertions "an act of conscience" and said the men "listened to the voice of justice, dignity and honor, and joined Mexican patriots who faced an aggression that lacked any justification."


Mickey Z. (Michael Zezima) can be reached at


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