Archiver > IRISH-IN-CHICAGO > 2007-03 > 1173997486

From: dan hogan <>
Subject: [IRISH-IN-CHICAGO] Why MX Celebrates St. Patrick's Day (History ofIrish Soldiers)
Date: Thu, 15 Mar 2007 15:24:46 -0700 (PDT)

From the "Somos Primos" Hispanic genealogy

Why Mexico celebrates St Patrick’s Day!
The San Patricios: An Historical Perspective

At a recent screening of The San Patricios documentary
at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va, historian
BRIAN MCGINN gave the following analysis of the San
Patricio Battalion. The program was sponsored by the
Conradh na Gaelige (Gaelic League), based in
Washington D.C. We reprint his remarks with his

The first question that arises in connection with the
San Patricio documentary is why it took 150 years for
the story of the San Patricios to be told in such a
compelling manner? First, from the viewpoint of the
U.S. military, the less said about such subjects, the
better. Desertions reflect poorly on political
leadership and military command; defections even more
so. And this is still true, since many Americans are
still unaware of the U.S. defectors who fought with
the NVA/VC during the Vietnam War.

In general, Irish-Americans have also been
uncomfortable with the story of the San Patricios.
They could argue, and convincingly, that the
overwhelming majority of the 4,811 Irish-born soldiers
who served in the U.S. army during the
Mexican-American War did not desert. Even if all the
San Patricios soldiers were Irish--and they were
not--Irish-born deserters would represent less than
four per cent of Irish soldiers. During the 19th
century, when the Irish place in U.S. society was far
from secure, when Irish immigrants faced the
hostility of violent nativists and the Know-Nothing
Movement, dwelling on the San Patricios was seen as
giving ammunition to the enemy. And those instincts
were correct--the Know Nothings in fact used the San
Patricios in their propaganda as proof of the
unreliability of Irish Catholic immigrants. Most of
the leading generals of the Civil War--Ulysses S.
Grant and Robert E. Lee among them--had served as
junior officers in the Mexican-American War.

It is interesting to note that never again would U.S.
military commanders make the mistake of sending Irish
Catholic soldiers to face death under bigoted officers
or without chaplains of their own faith. The
well-known blood-sacrifices of the Irish during the
Civil War--at Antietam, Fredericksburg and
Gettysburg--to a large extent put to rest the question
of Irish loyalty to the Union. But it ushered in an
era of historical myth-making in which the Irish
became superpatriots, steadfastly loyal to the
Republic and always fighting on the "right" side.
Carried to its extreme, we have the claim that Irish
Catholics were loyal patriots to a man and that
Irishmen in fact composed half the forces of George
Washington during the American Revolution. This school
of Irish-American history, of which the leading
exponent was Michael J. O'Brien of the American Irish
Historical Institute, tolerated no exceptions to its
But perhaps Irish people have a more realistic view of
their own military history.

They know that Irish soldiers could be found fighting
on both sides of almost every major conflict from the
17th through the mid-20th century. In Europe, in the
armies of France, Spain, Austria, Russia--and Britain.
In the New World, on both sides of the American
Revolution--we have eyewitness accounts of the Maguire
brothers, who had been fighting on opposite sides,
meeting. So most Irish-American scholarship on the San
Patricios, until recently, was devoted to proving
that a) the unit was not really Irish, b) if it was
Irish, it was not Catholic, and c) in case a and b
were proven correct, it was an ineffectual band of
drunks who had repudiated their Irish heritage.

After watching the film, we know better. Although men
of Irish birth may not have made up an absolute
majority of the San Patricios at all times, Irish
Catholics did form its largest ethnic
component--ranging by various estimates from 40 per
cent to 60 percent. And the ethos of the unit was
undeniably Irish.

Curiously, people in Ireland have no trouble in
accepting and indeed embracing the San Patricios as
national Irish heroes. I happened to be visiting
Ireland last after the battle of Saratoga. And they
know that Lord Edward Fitzgerald, one of the heroes of
the 1798 Rising, served in the British uniform in
South Carolina during the Revolution. They know that
opposing the 144,000 Irishmen in the Union Army were
some 30,000 in Confederate ranks, and that the Irish
Brigade's charge up Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg
was halted by the fire of Robert McMilllan's regiment
of Irish rebels. They also know that desertion and
defection are part and parcel of every war. And that
bodies of Irish soldiers have changed sides since at
least 1586, when a regiment of Irish Catholics rounded
up after the Desmond Rebellion and shipped to the
Netherlands to fight for the Protestant Dutch,
promptly deserted to their Spanish Catholic opponents.
They recall that during World War I, Roger Casement
toured German POW camps and recruited some 50 Irish
prisoners--captured as members of British units--to
form the nucleus of an Irish Brigade fighting on the
German side. So the fact that 200 or more Irishmen
deserted and changed sides during the U.S., war with
Mexico should not surprise us. Indeed, in the
political and religious climate of the time, we could
legitimately ask why the number was so small.

Which brings up a final point: the vast majority of
Irish soldiers who have fought in foreign armies have
served with noted courage and loyalty. Witness the 202
Medals of Honor awarded to Irish-born U.S. soldiers
between 1861 and 1914. Against that background, we
should take note when Irishmen as a body make a
conscious decision to risk their lives by switching
sides in the midst of a conflict. And we should treat
with healthy skepticism simplistic explanations that
they were simply a misguided bunch of naive and
reckless adventurers, motivated by opportunism and
too much alcohol.

Finally, we should welcome this film, and the school
of "warts and all" history it exemplifies, as
evidence of the maturity and self-assurance of Irish
America, of its openness to an honest reexamination of
its own past and the many varieties of Irish
experience in the Americas.

Brian McGinn

Dan Hogan

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