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Reviving the Saint Patrick's Battalion

By Dan Leahy


Batallón San Patricio Comandantes marching in the Elissa Grissen parade
(Hidalgo del Parral, April 2002)

In Autumn 1990, I attended a strategy session in St. Paul, Minneapolis on how to defeat the proposed free trade agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico, known as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. There I met a man named Tom Laney who worked at a Ford production plant in St. Paul and was building relations between his UAW local union and the Ford workers at the Cuautitlán plant outside Mexico City, who were organising a union. 

Tom told me story. He said there were a group of Irish soldiers who switched sides and fought with the Mexican army against the US forces in 1847. I said that I didn't believe him. He said that there was a large plaque honouring their solidarity at the Plaza de San Jacinto on the outskirts of Mexico City. I still didn't believe him. He said that he had a photograph of the plaque and I told him to send it on to me. 

I returned home to Olympia, Washington and to my work at the Evergreen State College as a faculty member and as the Director of the Washington State's only Labor Education and Research Center. 

A few days later, Tom's photograph arrived. At the top of the plaque was the symbol of the battalion, a Mexican eagle over a Celtic cross. Under the battalion symbol, the plaque read: 'In memory of the Irish Soldiers of the Heroic Battalion of St. Patrick martyrs who gave their lives in the cause of Mexico during the unjust North American invasion in 1847.' There were 71 names chiselled in stone. 

I read those names and Mexico became a different place for me. I had never been to Mexico. I had no desire to be yet another gringo tourist. Now, however, I felt like I had a real connection, a legitimacy, a reason to go, a place in history. After all, there were no Leahys on that plaque, and they must have been there. I needed to do some research. 

Researching the Battalion 

I asked my staff and students at the Labor Education Center to research the battalion. They found books, dissertations, essays, novels, and stories. There was history, but like a lot of interesting history it was buried and out of print. 

There were a lot of arguments about why the Irish soldiers had switched sides. They were Catholics. The Mexicans were Catholic. The US Army was Protestant. They didn't much care for slavery. Mexico had outlawed it, but the US wanted to expand it by taking Mexican land. Some said it was the brutal conditions in the US army; some said they were drunk; others said it was the señoritas. All those reasons sounded good to me. This war had the highest desertion rate in US history for good reason. 

In August 1991, I flew to Zacatecas, Mexico, for the third round of the NAFTA negotiations. It was my first trip to Mexico and much to my surprise, I found a town full of cowboys and farmers who looked a lot like my Irish uncles in Eastern Washington, except, of course, that the Zacatecans spoke Spanish. I also met organisers from an independent labour federation called the FAT which had organised the alternative 'people's forum' that I was attending. 

The Labor Center Mission

When I returned from Zacatecas, I organised a Labor Education Center mission to develop relations with the FAT. We arrived in Mexico City in mid-March 1992, a few days before St. Patrick's Day. There were five of us from the Labor Center, myself, Ellen Shortt, Mary Rose Livingston, Kathleen Byrd and Helen Lee. Tom and Barb Laney soon joined us from St. Paul. We were hosted by a cadre of union organisers and Ford workers from the Cuauitlán plant. 

The revived Batallón at San Patricio/Melaque, 1995

We visited the Museum of Anti-Interventions in Churubusco. The Convento de Churubusco was the site of the last battle of the battalion in the war of 1847. Outside the walls of the Convento were markers honouring the battalion. After we toured the museum with its history of foreign invasions, we were walking around outside and discovered a side street, right in front of the museum. It was a street named after 'Capitán John O'Reilly, Cmdte, Batallón de San Patricio.' History was coming alive. 

Our hosts took us up to Plaza San Jacinto on St. Patrick's Day, and Mexican historians recounted to us the battalion's history as we sat in their barracks, now a furniture store. Afterwards, we sat in the square, as our friends played Mexican ballads. Somehow our hosts found a bottle of Jameson whiskey and we drank it until the police arrived. They were Irish, though, so we returned to our hotel rather than the police station. 

Reviving the Battalion 

When we got back home to Olympia, we started to see the Irish everywhere in Mexican history. Not only were there the battalion members in 1847, but sixty years later there were revolutionary heroes like Dorete O'Arango, Emilián O'Zapata, Alvaro O'Brien and the longest lasting of them all, Genoveso de la O! We also heard that the descendants of the battalion had been meeting with the great Lázaro Cárdenas just before he nationalised Mexico's oil on 18 March 1938. 

We also noticed that many of the organisers in Canada and the United States who were making alliances with the Mexicans to oppose the NAFTA were Irish. All of a sudden, we realised that the battalion was still alive building links between the two peoples. When our most famous baseball star, Edgar Martínez, opened negotiations with the Seattle Mariners management, he reportedly started off by demanding the renegotiation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the treaty that ended the US invasion of Mexico in 1847. 

Setting up the Organisation 

Being organisers, we decided to form an organisation, the Heroico Batallón de San Patricio, dedicated to celebrating and expanding links between the Irish and the Mexicans. We set up a non-profit corporation and opened a bank account. We created stationery with the battalion symbol and a list of comandantes down the left-hand side. We took 'Solidaridad por la Libertad de un Pueblo' as our slogan. We printed and laminated official wallet-sized credentials making us all 'comandantes,' stamped 'Priority.' We ordered T-shirts with the battalion symbol made by Cmdte. Ricardo in Minneapolis, and developed a book list of required reading. 

Then, of course, we made up rules. Comandantes had to have at least four names. Each comandante took on a 'cargo' - an area of responsibility - a way of shifting resources from north to south. Comandantes could only show their credentials when necessary and they needed to attend their daily mass.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 15 March 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Leahy, Dan, 'Reviving the
St. Patrick's Battalion' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:1 (March 2007), pp. 23-30. Available online (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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