Today is Saint Patrick’s Day, which means in a few hours pubs across the world will be flooded with shamrock bespangled bro-dudes and their female counterparts sticking their tongue out for group photos as they suck down pints of Guinness. There will be a parade of bagpipers, policemen and firefighters making their way down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for the 253rd time, and everyone in the country, all of a sudden, will be part Irish (on their mom’s side.) But, more than an excuse to get drunk and wear tacky green wigs, St. Patrick’s Day is a solemn religious celebration that recognizes the life of a pious man who used a wooden staff to banish all of snakes from the Emerald Isle. Yes, he just up and told the snakes to leave… and they did. That’s boss status right there.
But Saint Patrick also resonates with Latin American countries in his own special way. In addition to being revered as a patron saint in the town of Loíza Aldea – the heart of Afro-Puerto Rican folklore – he has become a symbol of international solidarity with the cause of Mexican independence. I’m talking about el Batallón de San Patricio: a hodgepodge of expatriate Catholics who fought valiantly against the invading U.S. army during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Comprised primarily of deserters from the ranks of U.S. infantry, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion included to a smaller degree Italians, Poles, escaped African-American slaves, and Germans, while Irish immigrants made up the bulk of the more than 700-strong artillery unit.
Lured by offers of religious freedom, higher wages, and generous land grants, the members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were disenchanted by forced conscription into the U.S. army, where they found themselves the object of religious persecution and general mistreatment at the hands of native-born soldiers. And guess what? They made a movie about it. Behold One Man’s Hero, directed by Lance Hool.
Now there’s nothing in the historical record to suggest John Riley, the Irish-born leader of the Battalion, looked anything like ’80s heartthrob Tom Berenger, but Berenger’s squinted gaze and tousled blond locks likely made the story of an ex-U.S. soldier fighting for the Mexican cause that much more palatable for U.S. audiences, despite the whole treason thing. Yet few could deny Riley was a man of exceptional bravery and One Man’s Hero gives his epic, and ultimately tragic story a highbrow Hollywood makeover, complete with a Mexican señorita and unobtainable love interest named Marta, whose historical accuracy is somewhat questionable.
Still One Man’s Hero does a good job of sticking to the events that made the Saint Patrick’s Battalion an almost mythical force in the history of the Mexican Republic, fighting tirelessly at decisive battles like Monterrey, Cerro Gordo and Churubusco, all under the emerald-green shadow of the Battalion’s characteristic flag, which featured a golden Irish Harp and Mexican coat of arms emblazoned with the quintessentially Irish slogan, “Erin Go Bragh.”
Ultimately, as we all know, Mexico lost the war along with about fifty percent of its territory, and many members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were found guilty of treason by U.S. forces and summarily hanged in a controversial public spectacle that coincided with the hoisting of the American flag at Chapultepec. But at least Riley got to ride off into the wilderness with Marta by his side.
Hollywood endings aside, the story of el Batallón San Patricio is a reminder that the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on providing refuge to the persecuted, and in some instances did its fair share of persecuting. For those interested in more background on the matter, here’s a BBC Radio story that recounts the history of Los San Patricios.