Each year, Mexico honors Irish-American Saint Patrick’s Brigade (San Patricios)

Plaque commemorating the San PatriciosFrom behind the bullet-scarred walls of an ancient fortress, the wail of bagpipes and a thundering bass drum echoed through a plaza in the center of Mexico City.

Passers-by stopped in their tracks. Children craned for a look as a platoon of Mexican bagpipers marched through the gates in tribute to a strange and divisive chapter of Irish-American history.

The bagpipers play each month in honor of the St. Patrick Battalion, a group of 600 Irish-American soldiers who switched sides to fight for Mexico in the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. Mexico lost half its territory to the United States as a result of the war.

To the United States, the deserters are traitors. But to Mexicans, the “Irish martyrs” are heroes, honored in street names, plaques and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the country. The battalion’s name is written in gold letters in the chamber of Mexico’s House of Representatives, and a ceremony is held in a Mexico City park every year to commemorate the executions of the group’s members.

“It’s a little bit of a weird twist on history . . . and quite romantic for the Irish community,” said Myles Doherty, the Irish consul in Mexico City.

Immigrants turned soldiers

The battalion’s story begins with Ireland’s Potato Famine of the 1840s, which forced thousands of Irish to emigrate to the United States and other countries.

In May 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico in a dispute over the boundaries of Texas. Many of the desperate Irish were recruited for the war, sometimes within days of landing in New York, said Carlos Mayer, a historian and expert on the battalion.

Most of the American commanders were Protestants, and they treated these Catholic immigrants badly, Mayer said. Mexico, meanwhile, was offering land and higher wages to its recruits. As the fighting wore on, some of the U.S. recruits began to grow restless.

“Many of them began to realize that Mexico was a fellow Catholic country that was being invaded and that was really defenseless in the face of the American military superiority,” he said. “So they began switching sides.”

The deserters were led by John Riley, an artilleryman who had previously fought in the British Army. They were joined by a few Swiss, French, Scottish and German recruits, most of them also Catholic.

Called los colorados, or “the redheads,” by their Mexican comrades, they fought against the Americans at the key battles of Monterrey, Buenavista and Cerro Gordo.

The Americans eventually reached the outskirts of Mexico City on Aug. 20, 1847. Mexican troops, with the remaining San Patricios handling the artillery, pounded the American forces from a monastery-turned-fort on the Churubusco River until they ran out of ammunition.

Thirty-five San Patricios died in the battle, 85 were captured and another 85 retreated with the remnants of the Mexican army.

On Sept. 13, 1847, the Americans seized Chapultepec Castle in the war’s last major battle.

San Patricios who had deserted before the war were branded with the letter “D” on one cheek. The rest were hanged, including 30 who were executed at the foot of Chapultepec Hill.

“They were hanged at the moment that the American flag was raised over the castle of Chapultepec so that they would take that sight to hell with them,” Mayer said.

Mexicans consider the war a blatant land grab by the United States, and the loss continues to haunt relations between the two countries today.

Awareness today

The former monastery of Churubusco, where the San Patricios were defeated, is now a national museum dedicated to the invasions Mexico has suffered. The bullet holes are still on the walls, and the cannons commanded by John Riley stand outside.

The first Sunday of every month, the St. Patrick Battalion Pipe Band plays in the soldiers’ honor. And on several weekends each year, an actor portraying Riley gives talks to schoolchildren and tourists. The San Patricios were seen much differently in the United States, even by fellow Irish immigrants, said Ian McGowan, archivist at the Institute for Irish-American Studies at the City University of New York.

“In the military particularly, there was a sense of shame,” McGowan said. “For a good 40 or 50 years they were almost completely forgotten about. The unofficial position of Irish who were looking to become Americans in the 19th century was not to discuss them.”

Recently, however, Americans have begun to pay more attention to the battalion. Historians have written a number of books about it in the past decade, McGowan said, and in 1999 MGM released a movie about Riley, One Man’s Hero.

Bernard Brennan, an Irish-American tourist from San Francisco, said he had become curious about the battalion after discussing it with a Mexican friend. On a recent afternoon, he snapped pictures of a carved stone plaque marking a Mexico City plaza where 16 of the Irish soldiers were hanged. The plaque reads: “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic St. Patrick Battalion, who gave their lives for the cause of Mexico during the unjust American invasion of 1847.”

Brennan said he doesn’t see the soldiers as traitors.

“As an Irish-American, I’m proud of them,” he said. “Sometimes you have to stand up and say, ‘What my country is doing is wrong.’ I think they’re heroes, heroes of conscience.”

  • marty shanahan vagenas



    I just want to say Thank you, and Honor those Irish soldiers who fought and died for what they believed in.

    And for my little friend Marty, what do you know of war Sir. Men like John McCain, and myself fought for our country, so people like you, can have the freedom to voice your opinion. Don't you ever forget it.

    When you become an elected leader, then you can determine which wars, should be engaged, and avoided.

    "Definition of a Veteran"

    A Veteran – whether active duty, retired, national guard or reserve,

    is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made

    payable to "The United States of America", for an amount of "up to

    and including my life."

    That is honor, and there are way too many people in this country who

    no longer understand it.

    Author Unknown

    J.M. Griffin

  • PMC

    You said it all J.M. They no longer understand it if they ever did.

    I'm an USAF veteran from the Vietnam era. My bother flew a boom on a KC-135. Our father was a veteran of WWII with the USAAF in Europe. One Uncle who fought through Italy and another who fought in the Pacific theater.

    I', also of Irish ancestory which I guess is why here in Mexico, people seem to go out of their way to be nice, polite and friendly. Or maybe, that is just the way Mexico and it's citizens are.

  • anonymous

    for people whom want to change the world, past in the 1959's to 1961 year, the American expresident he were all over at the Mexican duties and politics, the Mexicans ever warring with them communist talking, and as arguing, the American expresident he said some time in the future the American soldiers them are going to take the Mexican country, under military power, because the American expresident 1957’s 1961's he believe that the Mexican doesn’t need any help, but them self to work in them own land, the American expresident, he said he want to take the Mexican country, to view place by place, under and over the Mexican ground, to find, where it is the worries, them can be many tings, even any ting, he said some day the Americans soldiers them are going to take the Mexican country, except he said them start to talk about communism how late he is going to be almost out his presidential period from 1957 to 1961, the American expresident 1957 to 1961, he argue something as for the next Cumming unknown expresident 1961 to 1965, he said it may be he is going to do something at the Mexicans because, the Mexicans them are worrying how much as becoming a communist country, many person believe that the next coming expresident 1961 to 1963, he gave the hand to the Mexicans. “ Others believe Or the Mexicans them took the American expresident hand 1963, with German power, to stole the American country “ ., how much as the Americans them were communist, the deal it were to kill the Mexican country same in the 1959’s , now there have to be, the chance for another next fine good American president, to make to the Mexicans to pay for them much them stolid to the American country, as the Mexicans under communisms power, this is for people whom want to change the world.-

    • Leo

      To anonymous:

      WHAAAAAAAAAAAT? What language is that? If you don't know how to write in English, don't call us communists, comprende?

  • hello my name is donald and i have a few questions but first i'll tell you a little about my adopted ancester,his name was general winfield scott and i thought he was a great man untill i was told i had a real ancester in the saint patricks battalion so i've been doing research for days and can't find hardly anything,can somebody please help me do some research?ok my dad is really proud of his ancestry with the general and gets pissed when i bring up the subject,i plan to get the battalion flag tattooed on my side weather he likes it or not,my wife also has an ancester in the battalion his name was john mcdonald.

  • Mr. Resendiz

    The history continues differently now days, but I will tell you something the quitting of the army forces was for humility, discrimination, bad treaty of human being, laughing about the roots, disrespect about U.S citizen, envy of the person who wants to progress and continue their develop their career as a person in society, yes there is people with principles and ethics that deserve respect where they believe progress is the key of life. And these people who give their life their ancestry with them who every time they have cry asking for life to live and continue in a land that they do ot know but people who give them home and respect feel the differences feel at home and wanting to fight to have respect and truth. Since the crusades the ancestries fighting bringing the best and continue developing and practicing the surviving of world society. Now days we would like to have a good and continue develop the way of life helping others treating them as a person participating in our communities saying that we are here to have a better life by treating you with respect and continue give the best of our life to our defendants Thanks to the people who practice the best and the ancestries who taught us to treat and practice respect. Americans-Mexicans are together to built the way of life better in this planet our neighbor in the north Canada to the south Mexico who always helped us even after this war and the happiness the mexicans have. We are here together teaching the best and have the respect to others. We are here together to continue and develop our best. Thanks

  • HollyAvila

    We fought side by side against tyranny, and I dare say we’d do it again.
    Viva los San Patricios!