The rebels of the Rio Grande

It's a story that some have cho­sen to for­get. Not down Mex­ico way, how­ever, where the San Pa­tri­cios, a bat­tal­ion of Ir­ish sol­diers who switched sides to fight against the US in­vaders in the war of 1846-1848, are cel­e­brated as he­roes. The Chief­tains have j

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

IN CLIF­DEN, Co Gal­way, they raise the Mex­i­can flag ev­ery Septem­ber 12th in hon­our of a lo­cal man, John Ri­ley, who was once de­scribed as “the most hated man in Amer­ica”. Ri­ley was the leader of the lit­tle-known “Batal­lón de San Pa­tri­cio” (St Pa­trick’s Bat­tal­ion) who fought against the US in the 1846-1848 Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can War. The San Pa­tri­cios (a group num­ber­ing in the hun­dreds – the ma­jor­ity of whom were Ir­ish­men) were par­tic­u­larly re­viled by the US forces as they were con­sid­ered ide­o­log­i­cal de­sert­ers to the Mex­i­can side.

When the US army pre­vailed, th­ese de­sert­ers were cer­e­mo­ni­ously hanged in grue­some cir­cum­stances. The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment at the time de­scribed the na­ture of their deaths as “a cruel and hor­ri­ble tor­ment, im­proper in a civilised age and ironic for a peo­ple who as­pire to the ti­tle of il­lus­tri­ous and hu­mane”. A jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing the war de­scribed the na­ture of the hang­ings as a “re­fine­ment of cru­elty”.

The San Pa­tri­cios are revered to this day in Mex­ico as the bravest of the brave. The bat­tal­ion’s name adorns many streets and land­marks in the coun­try and their name is in­scribed in gold in the Mex­i­can par­lia­ment. St Pa­trick’s Day in the coun­try is cel­e­brated, pri­mar­ily, in hon­our of the “Ir­ish mar­tyrs”. Six years ago, the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment pre­sented a com­mem­o­ra­tive statue to the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment in “per­pet­ual thanks for the brav­ery, hon­our and sac­ri­fice” of the San Pa­tri­cios.

The story has been largely writ­ten out of US his­tory – it is said the US mil­i­tary is still ashamed about the bru­tal man­ner of their ex­e­cu­tion. Ir­ish im­mi­grants in the US pre­ferred not to talk about how their coun­try­men were “traitors” to the US cause. In Ire­land, the San Pa­tri­cios are rarely, if ever, men­tioned.

A new al­bum by The Chief­tains and Ry Cooder, San Pa­tri­cio, aims to lift the veil of si­lence that has de­scended around th­ese men. With con­tri­bu­tions from Liam Nee­son, Linda Rond­stadt, Clan­nad’s Moya Bren­nan and a host of big-name Mex­i­can mu­si­cians, San Pa­tri­cio is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing mix of Ir­ish-Mex­i­can rhythms and rhymes which ex­plains who the San Pa­tri­cios were and what they fought for.

“I first came across this story about 25 years ago,” says Paddy Moloney of the The Chief­tains, sit­ting with Ry Cooder in Dublin’s Clarence Ho­tel. “I had just been given this honorary doc­tor­ate from Trin­ity Col­lege and an aca­demic there asked me to do a mu­si­cal project about the Amer­i­can civil war. It was while do­ing re­search for that that I came across th­ese peo­ple called the San Pa­tri­cios – Ir­ish­men who had de­serted to US army to fight for Mex­ico. This was a story that has

“I heard this trib­ute to their fa­mous rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader Pan­cho Villa, and the melody was vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal to the Ir­ish rebel song Kevin Barry”

never been told in his­tory books – there was a lot of shame as­so­ci­ated with what th­ese men did. It’s taken me all this time to get around to it and I started by go­ing to Mex­ico for a month and just dig­ging around looking for in­for­ma­tion about them.”

Ry Cooder, a reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor with The Chief­tains and co-pro­ducer of the al­bum, gives his take on the sig­nif­i­cance of the US-Mex­i­can war. “The 1846-1848 war was an act of sav­agery,” he says. “It rep­re­sented the first time the US in­vaded a coun­try for ter­ri­tory. This wasn’t a so-called ‘pre-emp­tive’ at­tack; it was a sheer land grab. The US took 50 per cent of Mex­ico’s land af­ter winning the war. The US were af­ter the state of Cal­i­for­nia, ba­si­cally, and they got it. Shortly af­ter the war, there was a gold rush in Cal­i­for­nia which brought great wealth to the area. Co­in­ci­dence?

“By los­ing 50 per cent of its land, Mex­ico was left se­verely eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged, and you can trace the di­ver­gence in both coun­tries’ economies back to that war. The real story of this war, and by ex­ten­sion the role of the San Pa­tri­cios in it, isn’t told in US his­tory classes. Whereas so many bald­faced lies are taught in our schools about our his­tory: the myths con­cern­ing our na­tion­hood and the su­per­sti­tion about our democ­racy – that ev­ery ci­ti­zen is equal un­der our law. What Amer­i­cans call ‘democ­racy’ is ac­tu­ally just mak­ing the world safe for their busi­ness in­ter­ests.”

Paddy Moloney’s first point of call when he trav­elled to Mex­ico was a place called Chu­rubusco, just out­side Mex­ico City. Chu­rubusco was where the St Pa­trick’s Bat­tal­ion made its last stand. Within months, the war was over. “There’s a con­vent in Chu­rubusco where this last great bat­tle took place,” says Moloney. “You can still see the bul­let holes in the walls there. I was amazed to find that ev­ery Sun­day, a Mex­i­can pipe band plays for the tourists. The pipes they

play are Ir­ish pipes in hon­our of the San Pa­tri­cios.

“Here was my mu­si­cal ‘in’, be­cause the main idea be­hind the al­bum was to trace the Ir­ish mu­si­cal in­flu­ence, via the San Pa­tri­cios, on Mex­i­can mu­sic. I had this march com­posed for the al­bum and I got this Chu­rubusco pipe band to record it on the spot. Then it all un­rav­elled beau­ti­fully for me: I heard this early 20th-cen­tury trib­ute to their fa­mous rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader, Pan­cho Villa, and the melody was vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal to the Ir­ish rebel song Kevin Barry. Was this learnt from the de­scen­dants of the San Pa­tri­cios who weren’t killed in the war and set­tled in Mex­ico? The more I trav­elled and the more I heard, the mu­si­cal con­nec­tions be­tween the two coun­tries were be­com­ing very clear and very ap­par­ent to me.”

“There are still many O’Learys and O’Briens in Mex­ico,” adds Cooder. “You see all th­ese blue-eyed, red-haired peo­ple who are di­rectly de­scended from the San Pa­tri­cios who sur­vived. Paddy’s great in­put to this al­bum was wan­der­ing through the mu­si­cal land­scape of Mex­ico and re­ally un­der­stand­ing the mu­si­cal links be­tween the coun­tries, and this is all over the al­bum – Mex­i­can gui­tars, ac­cor­dions, bajo sexto and trum­pets min­gling with uil­leann pipes, tin whis­tles, bodhráns and flutes. And apart from all the Ir­ish mu­si­cians on it, you have some amaz­ing Mex­i­can acts such as Los Ti­gres Del Norte, Los Folk­loris­tas and Lila Downes. We even got the old Beach Boys com­poser and ar­ranger Van Dyke Parks to be in­volved.”

“Af­ter just a month in Mex­ico, I came back with more ma­te­rial than I could ever use,” says Moloney. “And once word got around about this project, a lot of peo­ple be­came very keen to get in­volved – Liam Nee­son, for ex­am­ple, just jumped at the chance.

“And the more time I spent in Mex­ico talk­ing about the legacy there of the San Pa­tri­cios, the more I be­gan to un­der­stand their story. You have to re­mem­ber that a lot of the Ir­ish who ended up in the San Pa­tri­cios would have been peo­ple who had just ar­rived at El­lis Is­land af­ter leav­ing Ire­land to es­cape the famine. Ap­par­ently what hap­pened was there were US mil­i­tary re­cruit­ment of­fi­cers at El­lis Is­land. As soon as th­ese men got off the boat, they had a gun put in their hand and they were told to go off and ‘kill Mex­i­cans’.

“It so hap­pened that a lot of the peo­ple giv­ing th­ese men or­ders in the US army, the gen­er­als, were Protes­tant, and th­ese Ir­ish­men found them­selves, as poor Catholics, be­ing asked to kill poor Mex­i­can Catholics in a war they didn’t re­ally un­der­stand. This, I be­lieve, was the main rea­son for the de­ser­tion. You will also hear that the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment of­fered the Ir­ish more money to fight for them and promised them land af­ter the war’s end, but how much of that is pro­pa­ganda I don’t know.”

For Moloney, San Pa­tri­cio has been a 25year “labour of love”, from ini­tial con­cep­tion to the al­bum’s release. “I re­ally hope that by telling the San Pa­tri­cios’ story in mu­sic, we have gone some way to ac­knowl­edg­ing their ex­is­tence and their un­told story,” he says.

“Al­though the back­drop to all of this is a war be­tween the US and Mex­ico, it re­ally is a typ­i­cal kind of Ir­ish story: it’s about the ter­ri­ble time we had with the neigh­bours who came to visit and for­got to go back!”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.