From Church & State: Spring 2007, No. 88

When The Fighting Irish Fought America

Forget the Alamo! The independence of Anglo-Saxon Texas which had been declared on 2 March 1836 was secured at the Battle of San Jacinto on 21st April of that same year. Then to and fro hit and run raids, each which and whatever way across the Rio Grande, dragged on until 29th December 1845 when Texas became the 28th state of the Union. Then things hotted up in 1846 when the Mexican-American war began.

That war was in a very real sense the first of the wars of Manifest Destiny. Though Jefferson had thought and acted in a framework that assumed Manifest Destiny he never used the phrase. The phrase comes from the most effective propagandist of Young America, the editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, John L. O'Sullivan.

In 1845, having taken Texas, America was set to take California (And tomorrow the world). As O'Sullivan wrote in July of that year:

"Texas is now ours. Already, before these words are written, her Convention has undoubtedly ratified the acceptance, by her Congress, of our proffered invitation into the Union…

"Why, were other reasoning wanting, in favor of now elevating this question of the reception of Texas into the Union, out of the lower region of our past party dissensions, up to its proper level of a high and broad nationality, it surely is to be found, found abundantly, in the manner in which other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves into it, between us and the proper parties to the case, in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions…

"California will, probably, next fall away from the loose adhesion which, in such a country as Mexico, holds a remote province in a slight equivocal kind of dependence on the metropolis. Imbecile and distracted, Mexico never can exert any real government authority over such a country. The impotence of the one and the distance of the other, must make the relation one of virtual independence; unless, by stunting the province of all natural growth, and forbidding that immigration which can alone develop its capabilities and fulfill the purposes of its creation, tyranny may retain a military dominion, which is no government in the legitimate sense of the term.

"In the case of California this is now impossible. The Anglo-Saxon foot is already on its borders. Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meetinghouses. A population will soon be in actual occupation of California, over which it will be idle for Mexico to dream of dominion. They will necessarily become independent. All this without agency of our government, without responsibility of our people—in the natural flow of events, the spontaneous working of principles, and the adaptation of the tendencies and wants of the human race to the elemental circumstances in the midst of which they find themselves placed…

"Away, then, with all idle French talk of balances of power on the American Continent. There is no growth in Spanish America! Whatever progress of population there may be in the British Canadas, is only for their own early severance of their present colonial relation to the little island 3,000 miles across the Atlantic; soon to be followed by annexation, and destined to swell the still accumulating momentum of our progress…

"And whosoever may hold the balance, though they should cast into the opposite scale all the bayonets and cannon, not only of France and England, but of Europe entire, how would it kick the beam against the simple, solid weight of the 250, or 300 million—and American millions—destined to gather beneath the flutter of the stripes and stars, in the fast hastening year of the Lord 1845! "

The spirit of Manifest Destiny having been invoked, America declared war on Mexico on 13th May 1846. A large force under future president General Zachary Taylor crossed the Rio Grande, occupied the city of Matamoros and moved south to besiege the city of Monterrey.

Part of the Mexican army at Matamoros was a group of foreign volunteers known as "Las Companias de San Patricio". These were organised around a core of 200 or so Irish soldiers, famine emigrants who were so outraged by anti-Catholic atrocities committed by the American army and the uncontrollable Texas Rangers that they had defected to the Mexican side. The founder of these battalions of Saint Patrick was John O'Reilly from Clifden in County Galway. Their banner displayed a harp and the Mexican coat-of-arms with slogans that read "Freedom for the Mexican Republic" and "Erin go Brágh".

At Matamoros and Monterrey the artillery of the San Patricios caused heavy casualties among the otherwise victorious Yankees. In February 1847 a third of them were killed or wounded helping to win the battle of Angostura.

In June 1847 the San Patricios were transferred from the artillery to a newly formed Mexican Foreign Legion as the First and Second Militia Infantry Companies of San Patricio. In August 1847 then at the battle of Churubusco the San Patricio Companies and the Los Bravos Battalion, though heavily outnumbered, fought the invaders to a bloody standstill until their ammunition ran out and they were forced to surrender.

Some thirty-five of the San Patricios were killed in that battle and many more were wounded. Eighty-five escaped to rejoin the Mexican army. But the victorious Yankees were free to wreak a terrible vengeance on their captives.

Seventy-two of the San Patricios were charged with desertion from the American army and court-martialed. Fifty were sentenced to be hanged; a further sixteen, including Captain John O'Reilly, who had deserted before war was declared and so escaped the death penalty, were sentenced to be flogged and branded with the letter "D" for deserter.

On 10th September 1847, 16 of the condemned San Patricios were hanged at the San Jacinto Plaza, San Ángel. Eight mule-drawn wagons were then brought up with two prisoners in each. Sixteen nooses hanging from the crossbeam were placed around their necks, and Mexican priests were brought forward to administer the last rites. Then the wagons drove off leaving the 16 Irishmen dangling from their nooses. Fourteen others were whipped and branded

Some, including one of the founders, Captain Patrick Dalton, had asked to be laid in consecrated ground, and were buried in nearby Tla-copac. The rest were buried beneath the gallows in graves dug by O'Reilly and the rest of their tortured comrades. Two days later four more convicted San Patricios were hanged at the nearby village of Mixcoac.

The remaining 30 convicted San Patricios were hanged near Tacubaya on 13th September. Francis 0'Connor, who had lost his legs at Churubusco was dragged from the hospital tent and propped up on a wagon with a noose around his neck. When the US flag was raised over Chapultepec Castle the San Patricios, O'Connor included, were hanged.

In 1993 the people of Clifden began to mark 12 September as a celebration of those brave Irishmen who were at the cutting edge of the first people's war against manifest destiny. The Mexican people have never forgotten them. Ever since 1847 they have celebrated the victory in sacrifice of those Irish martyrs.
On the 150th anniversary of the executions, on 12th September 1997, the Mexican people celebrated the San Patricios. Their President Ernesto Zedillo said:

"One hundred and fifty years ago, here in San Ángel, ... members of the St. Patrick's Battalion were executed for following their consciences. They were martyred for adhering to the highest ideals, and today we honor their memory. In the name of the people of Mexico, I salute today the people of Ireland and express my eternal gratitude…While we honor the memory of the Irish who gave their lives for Mexico and for human dignity, we also honor our own commitment to cherish their ideals, and to always defend the values for which they occupy a place of honor in our history."

Those are the fighting Irish we remember, the wild geese who in every corner of the globe have fought for freedom and against the oppression of subject peoples.

In Belfast on Saturday 16th September we remembered others of that breed when International Brigade veteran Bob Doyle unveiled a plaque dedicated to the XVth International Brigade and the other volunteers who stood against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

Forget the Alamo! Remember the San Patricios and the Brigadistas!

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