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St. Patrick’s Battalion

By Peter F. Stevens
Brassey’s, 345 pages, $27.50


I first heard of St. Patrick’s Battalion in 1974. It was in Tucson, Ariz. People all over the country were then planning commemorations of the upcoming second centenary of the republic. Even the U.S. bishops were in on the act. They were organizing a series of hearings to involve everyone in a program of action for the next century. I had just contributed to the first meeting at Catholic University.

In Tucson some street players, who wrote and acted bilingual skits, had their own bicentennial project. From the viewpoint of those who had been there when the Yankees set their sights on the Pacific, they wanted to tell How the West Was Lost. Their creation, titled “El vasil de ’76,” consisted of five vignettes.

Few Anglos ever learned what vasil means. A word of the counterculture, it is a corruption of the English vessel. It means a pisspot.

I was enlisted because my help was needed for one of the vignettes, “Los Patricios,” the story of St. Patrick’s Battalion as enshrined in local myth. In the opening scene, a field in County Tipperary in the mid-1800s, an Irish-speaking woman and her 10-year-old son are planting potatoes. English soldiers appear and tell them to get off the land. They don’t understand the orders given in English, but prods of bayonets clarify the meaning. The mother calls to her son to run and save himself.

Ten years later, the son, enlisted in the federal army and sent by President Polk of Manifest Destiny, finds himself reenacting the role of the English soldiers in driving the Mexican peasants from their plots of land. Again, the language confusion: The soldiers speak a language the peasants don’t understand. “What am I doing,” he asks himself. “All they want is what we wanted, our own bit of earth.” He deserts and joins the Mexican army.

That in capsule form is the story of St. Patrick’s Battalion, as it lives in Chicano folklore. The plot, turning as it does on language, needed a few sentences in Irish in the opening scene. I recorded them on tape, and the actors memorized them.

The folk version is faithful to history, as far as it goes. In the Mexican-American War (1846-48), many thousands of federal troops deserted, 13 percent of the regulars, far higher than in any other U.S. war. Most were Irish Catholics, fugitives from the Great Famine. Many were German, also Catholic and new immigrants. The Mexicans welcomed them as good soldiers, organizing some of them into an artillery battalion led by John Riley who rose to the rank of major. Fighting under a green silk banner with a gold image of St. Patrick, a harp and a shamrock, they won the praise of both friend and enemy in major battles.

Several historians have recorded their story, including the final tragic scene in which 30 were publicly hanged simultaneously as the Mexican flag was lowered on Chapultepec Castle in the final battle of the war, September 1848. None, however, has told it as well as Peter Stevens. Particularly valuable is his analysis of the motives that led to the mass desertions of men who were not running away from battle.

In the mid-1840s, the anti-foreigner -- especially anti-Catholic -- movement known as Nativism was at its height. A decade earlier, influential New York businessmen formed the Protestant Association to preserve America from “Popery in this land of ours.” It published a newspaper, pamphlets and such books as Awful Disclosures and The Secrets of Nunneries Disclosed describing orgies and ritual sacrifice of infants by crazed clerics. A rumor that Ursuline nuns were molesting Protestant pupils in Charlestown, Mass., instigated a riot in which the convent was burned to the ground. In Philadelphia, in May 1845, a mob of several thousand armed with clubs, knives, pistols and torches in one night burned down three Catholic churches, two rectories, two convents and 200 Irish homes.

As Irish youths poured off the coffin ships into Boston and New York, Army recruiters met them with promises of a chance for a new blow at England along the Canadian border. Instead they were sent south. As Stevens demonstrates conclusively from eyewitness accounts and contemporary writings, the officers singled out the Catholics for cruel and unusual punishment. Petty infractions that for others brought a mild correction resulted in lashes until the victim collapsed, being secured by the thumbs to a tree branch, tied astride a wooden horse in blazing heat all day long, or tossed bound into a pond. Add to this being forced to attend Protestant services.

Informed by deserters of these conditions, the Mexican generals showered the camps with leaflets offering good pay and the promise of land after the war. For many the offer was irresistible. It is this combination of stick and carrot that shows why so many deserted and why they then fought so bravely on the other side.

A footnote. El Vasil de ’76, a script that creatively intertwined Spanish and English so that one who understood either language could follow, was a great hit, playing not only in the street but in Catholic and Protestant church halls. Irish-born priests, of whom there are many in Tucson as elsewhere in the Southwest, blessed themselves in astonishment when they heard the Chicano actors speak their native tongue.

Gary MacEoin may be reached at gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000