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St. Patrick’s Battalion of 1847

By Rodrigo Manterola

St. Patrick’s Battalion, what was it, and what Ireland and Mexico have in common?

To answer that question we need to go back in time

Ireland and Mexico Connection

Ireland and Mexico connected? Yes, even before the St’ Patrick’s Battalion, and in many more ways than you think. Ireland and Mexico share a religion, family ties, a history of invasion, and preservation of our own cultures, languages, and heritage through hard times.

Irish and Mexicans share the love for a good laugh, music, myths, and stories.

 Lorna as an Irish woman and me as the “Mexicano” have been looking for, and finding these connections over and over again, we even made a film about it, showed at the Mexican Embassy in Ireland,  but first things first.

The Ireland and Mexico connection date back thousands of years, even before the St. Patrick’s Battalion, if you want to think of it in a metaphorical way. But there is a more substantial and real connection vouched by history in more recent times.

The Famine and the Irish diaspora

It was during the time of the Great Irish famine, in the 19th century. Millions of Irish men women and children died and millions more left their country in what is known as the Irish diaspora, a byproduct of the Great Famine and social unrest in Europe.

St. Patrick's Battalion of 1847 1
Suggested migration during the Potato Famine

Irish nationals migrated mainly to England, Canada, Australia, and to a young and very complex America.

John Riley, a Clifden man in the U.S. Army

It was in the midst of these events than a young Connemara man arrived in America, his name was John Riley from Clifden, County Galway

Like many of these Irish men, John Riley ended up enlisting in the US Army, in a time where Catholics and Protestants were very divided in a mainly Protestant army.

Riley and other Catholic members of the K Company in the 5th US infantry regiment were treated as second class citizens, these actions motivated them to look for more Catholic friendly neighbors in Mexico to attend mass, so they did.

John Riley and the St. Patrick’s Battalion

When the Mexican-American war started in 1846, Riley and other Catholic members of the K Company had already deserted the US Army, crossed the border, and joined the Mexican Army forming what was later known as “El Batallon de San Patricio” or St. Patrick’s Battalion

Commemoration medal of the St. Patricks Battalion
Commemoration medal of the St. Patricks Battalion

Riley and his men of The St. Patrick’s Battalion fought with bravery some of the most important and decisive battles of the war, but despite their efforts, the American army prevailed.

At the end of this war, Mexico at the losing end, John Riley and his men were treated as traitors, many hung to the dead but not John Riley.

Riley was captured, branded with “D” for deserter with red hot irons in both of his cheeks and served time in prison until the American occupation ended in 1850. Upon his release, he rejoined the Mexican Army.

The end of Riley’s life is still in controversy to this day, but one thing is for sure, Captain John Rely and the St. Patrick’s Battalion are some of the many reasons why Ireland and Mexico are so connected.

John Riley is Famous

The life of john Riley was a life of adventures fueled by misfortune and adversity, he was born with the name of Seán Ó Raghailligh, in a time and place of chaos. He was forced to emigrate first to England, then to Canada, the United States and finally Mexico.

A military man since his young years in England and up to his death in Mexico, John Riley’s life is still inspiring musicians, writers, and moviemakers, in Ireland, the US, and Mexico.

Riley is featured in James Carlos Blake‘s historical fiction novel “In the Rogue Blood“. Written in 1999

In that same year in the film “One Man’s Hero“, Riley was brought to life by actor Tom Berenger.

One Man's Hero is a 1999 historical war drama film directed by Lance Hool and starring Tom Berenger,

Folk, bluegrass and country songwriter Tim O’Brien‘s song “John Riley”, features in his album “The Crossing“. 

Independent musician and anarchist David Rovics also sing of Riley in the song “Saint Patrick’s Battalion”.

The American Punk-Rock band Street Dogs sing about the Battalion and Riley in “San Patricios ” on their 2008 album State of Grace.

In colonial and western historical-fiction, Riley features in James Alexander Thom‘s novel “St Patrick’s Battalion: A Novel of the Mexican-American War“, written in 2008.

Several documentaries have been made about the life of John Rely, amongst them, a half-hour documentary called “Saol John Riley” (The Life of John Riley) it was broadcasted on the Irish language television channel, TG4 in the year 2011.

In this documentary, the Irish director Kieran Concannon follows the also Irish singer and songwriter Charlie O’Brien as he traced the path of Riley’s journey from Clifden in Co. Galway to Veracruz, Mexico.

John Rely on the Bellybutton of the Moon, our film

In 2018 we made a film about the Mexican and Ireland connection, an attempt to explain to ourselves, and anyone who asked,  these similarities between these two apparently so different countries.

This same year we participated in the Clifden Arts Festival with what in essence was a photography exhibition of Lorna’s travels through Mexico.

Our film intention was to give a context behind photography. But the film rapidly gained its own weight and was loved by many attendants to the festival.

We were privileged with the presence of the Mexican Ambassador in Ireland Miguel Malfavon who also loved the film and showed it in the Mexican Embassy in Ireland where it is still shown on their website.

The film features Mexican artists Juan Pablo Villa and Mexican folklore band, “Tlenhucani”

Who was John Moriarty? Watch and read a small film we made about this amazing Irish author here

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