By Paul Gilmore
So. Walking into the local watering hole the other day, eyes adjusting to the blackness, the dim figures of my buddies Frank Maddox and Medford (Med) Boorman slowly materialized at the end of the bar. I followed their voices, tripping over a couple of stools on the way, and hearing them get an early start on Saint Patrick’s Day.
“Hey Frank. You ever have any of that green beer?”
“Once. In my 20s. In one of those fake Irish bars. It had those big ugly signs with green letters with shit like ‘Luck o’ the Irish’ on them. The Bud distributor gave those out. Right off the cover of a box of Lucky Charms, man. We drank pitchers of that green beer. Never again.”
“I always figured you for a higher-class fake Irish bar—like Fado,” I said. “Remember Fado? Owned by some corporation in London—fake Irish?” Silence.
“But you’ll celebrate Saint Paddy’s Day, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Frank, “in a decent Irish way—Bushmills.”
At this, Med gave Frank a good thwack on the shoulder. “Goddamn Bushmills?! What the hell are you talking about? It’s Saint Paddy, Frank. Saint Patrick! You think that guy would drink that Protestant whiskey? It’s a shot of Catholic Jameson for you, my friend. Learn some manners.”
I pointed out that both companies today are owned by the French and probably employ both Catholic and Protestant. Med gave me a scowl. “Listen. It’s the principle, man. The principle.”
A guy down the bar mumbled something about excommunicating whiskeys.
“I defer to your judgment, my friend,” said Frank, “if you’re buying.”
Tommy, the bartender chimed in. “I thought you were Irish, Frank.”
“Hell, I’m an Okie, man. Both sides of the family—they came out in the dust bowl. So that makes me Scotch-Irish, so I’m told.”
“So that’s sort of Irish, right?” I asked.
“Most folks put the emphasis on Scotch in that mix,” Med said.
“Tommy—let’s put the emphasis on the Irish. Three Jamesons here.”
I begged off—I never drink liquor (except when I do)—and asked Med, the neighborhood encyclopedia, who Saint Patrick was anyway.
“Wellll.” This from the guy down the bar. A real talker—the kind you don’t make eye contact with. You just look straight ahead—and don’t let him catch your eye in the back bar mirror either. He’ll take any opening. I assumed that Frank had glanced his way. I blamed Frank.
The talker started in: “Saint Patrick was the guy who rid the entirety of Ireland of all their snakes. He drove them out with, some said, god-given powers.” Was that an Irish accent this guy was developing? You get into March and folks in bars start doing this.
He continued. “Then the landlords of Ireland refused to pay the gentleman for his services. Patrick, I mean. For driving the snakes out. So, he reached into a big green leather sack that he carried and pulled out an Irish pipe—it wasn’t Irish at the time, but now it tis—and started playing it. All the Irish children were mesmerized by this and began to follow him over hill and dale and…Wait a minute. That’s not how it goes. No, no. Let me see…”
I took the lull caused by the talker’s confusion to turn back to Med with a “and so…anyway.”
If anyone could be expected to take the room back from the talker, it was Med. He has a way with words, or more precisely, volume.
“I don’t know a goddamn thing about the history of Saint Paddy’s Day,” Med said emphatically. “I was raised Catholic, but it never took. I was 12 before I realized God was the Supreme Being, not the supreme bean. Come to think of it, bean or being, it didn’t clear up much. Never learned the saints, either. But I do know about some folks who took the name of Saint Patrick. The heroic Saint Patrick’s Battalion, man—ever heard of them?”
I considered giving the talker another opening—the pied piper Patrick story could get good. Maybe with Med, I was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. But I took the leap. And Frank and Tommy did too. In unison, we looked to Med—“Saint Patrick’s Battalion?” And Med was off.
“Well, let me tell you man. It’s actually the San Patricios Battalion and they were like a legend, because the history has been buried, but it’s mostly true. Few people knew about these guys—few know now, right?” We nodded and Med continued. “Well, they’re called the San Patricios because these guys fought on the Mexican side in the Mexican American War.
“Back in the 1840s, the Irish were starving. A million died in the famine. And a million more came to America. The books and papers at the time are filled with talk of the ‘wretched’ condition of the Irish coming to America. Thousands didn’t even make it over—they died in passage.”
Frank interrupted. “Alright Med. We know about the potato famine. But what about the San Patricios?”
Med looked hard at Frank. “Man. There’s no such thing as the potato famine. There was a huge crop failure from potato blight, but that didn’t cause the famine. As John Mitchell said at the time, ‘The Almighty may have sent the blight, but the English created the famine.’ There was always food, but the English didn’t see to it that the Irish were fed. That’s important man, because these ‘wretched’ Irish coming over here in those death ships—well, they might have been poor and starving, but they knew who was doing it to them.”
“Okay, okay,” said Frank. “Go on.”
“Well. A lot of these Irish get off the ship and are enlisted right into the U.S. Army and sent down to Mexico to fight. Remember, that war started in 1846, right when all these desperate Irish people are coming to America. And they’re sent down to Mexico with Zachary Taylor and ‘Old Fuss ’n Feathers’ Winfield Scott.
“Pretty quick though, some of the Irish soldiers realized that this is just a war of aggression—to expand the country, to steal half of Mexico! And these guys are mistreated, too. This was a mainly Protestant country back then, and the officers really treated these hated Catholics like shit. One of these Irishmen, John Riley, decided to desert to the Mexican side really early, and hundreds more came later—they formed the San Patricio Battalion.”
“They were deserters then?” said Frank. “That’s hardly heroic.”
“Well, Maybe. Maybe not. Santa Anna’s government did offer incentives—money and land—for those who came over to the Mexican side, so that might be one reason for desertion. But part of it was helping the Catholics of Mexico kick out the ‘Protestant tyrants,’ something the Irish knew a lot about. And in the U.S. Army, they were just mercenary fodder, hired by heretics. Fighting for Mexico, they at least weren’t slaughtering their fellow Catholics. And they fought, too, in several battles.”
“What happened to them?” I asked.
“Well, the most important battle they fought in was at Churubusco, as Santa Anna was trying to stop the American advance on Mexico City. These guys fought hard too—unwilling to surrender because they fight with a noose around their necks. They’re deserters, remember. Of course, the U.S. praised deserters to our side for their gallant service, but deserters to the other side, well, that’s the worst crime, of course. All’s fair, so they say.
“So they captured about 50 of these guys, and put them before a court martial. About 50 of ’em were hanged. Winfield Scott himself approved their executions. The Mexicans protested, especially the Catholic Church, but there were only a couple of commutations. And there was one group of about 20 that really got their noses rubbed in it. They were marched to the gallows and had nooses put around their necks, but had to stand for hours and wait for their deaths. The battle for Chapultepec Castle was going on at the same time and Colonel Harney decided to wait until the U.S. flag was raised over the castle before killing those men. A last bit of gloating.”
“What about Riley?” I asked.
“Only a few of the San Patricios survived, but the way I heard it, Riley was one of them. He had deserted before war was actually declared, and so they gave him 50 lashes and branded his cheek with a D.”
“Still, man I don’t know—deserting?!” Frank said. “Mexicans can celebrate them, but…”
Med interrupted. “Hey man. What were they deserting? A U.S. that had taken them in? Not really. They were fodder! And what kind of war were we fighting down there man? Excuse it however you want with talk of some overpowering idea of Manifest Destiny, it was a war of aggression to expand slavery.
“I mean, deserting under those conditions should be considered as American as apple pie. Or at least, America at its best! And look at the situation these guys were in—what were their choices? I mean you’re never going to get real moral clarity in a war—asking for that is asking for a fairy tale, but the San Patricios at least followed their consciences. And they didn’t have the luxury of some middle-class guy like Henry David Thoreau.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tommy.
“Well, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes and went to jail in protest against this war. He knew this war was wrong and took a stand—that’s impressive, but he wasn’t a soldier risking his life by breaking the law. He made it pretty clear though in that essay on civil disobedience. ‘Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.’
“And Thoreau pointed out that you could see this exact thing by watching of all these soldiers ‘marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, their common sense and consciences…They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all?’ No, he says, they’re machines.
“Now, I’m not blaming them. Maybe some of those guys in the 1840s went to that war with eyes open and clean consciences and more power to them, I guess. And even those who didn’t, well, it’s tough to risk your life by deserting, but those San Patricios—they saw that it was a damnable business, and they had their consciences too, and they followed those consciences, and paid for it with their lives, and it was a heroic thing.”
With that, Med turned to Tommy. “A toast to the San Patricios! Jamesons all round!” I drank one too.
Paul Gilmore teaches history at Fresno City College. Contact him at email@example.com.