The rebels of the Rio Grande

It's a story that some have chosen to forget

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. BRIAN BOYDtalks to Ry Cooder and Paddy Moloney

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 Patriciois an exhilarating mix of IrishMexican 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 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 bald-faced 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 Patriciohas been a 25- year "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!”

Liam Neeson:"I want to be in the film of the San Patricios"

One of the album's highlights is Liam Neeson's stirring narration of the song March To Battle. With music by Paddy Moloney and lyrics by Brendan Graham, Neeson was enthralled by the song, according to Moloney.

“The lyrics go: ‘We are the San Patricios, a brave and gallant band. There’ll be no white flag flying within this green command. We are the San Patricios, we have but one demand, to see the Yankees safely home across the Rio Grande . . . We’ve disappeared from history like footprints in the sand, but our song is in the tumbleweeds and our love is in this land. But if in the desert moonlight, you see a ghostly band, We are the men who died for freedom across the Rio Grande.’

"Liam gave it his all when narrating it, and when he was finished it, he shouted out 'Up The Rebels!'. He also said that if ever there was a film made of the story – which there really should be – he wants to play the lead."

The Irish Buena Vista Social Club

When The Chieftains were recording their 1996 album Santiago, they recorded some sessions in Cuba. Having worked with Ry Cooder before and knowing his knowledge of Latin music, Moloney invited Cooder to play on the Havana sessions.

"I was sitting in bar in Havana with Ry after the recording and I told him about this story I was really interested in about the San Patricio Battalion. He told me I had to record an album about them and he wanted to be involved. So that's when we really clicked on this project.

"But the other thing about those Havana sessions was that I introduced Ry to a whole bunch of Cuban musicianswho were in the studio with us for the Santiago album. The next year, he went back and assembled these same musiciansfor what would be the incredibly successful Buena Vista Social Clubalbum.

"So he owes me! But he's just repaid me by doing San Patriciowith us."

San Patricioby The Chieftains and Ry Cooder is released on March 5th. For further information, including details of the San Patricio US live tour, see  Irish tour dates to be announced later this year.