A tale of Irish-American rebellion receives the musical treatment by the Chieftains and Ry Cooder
With all due respect to our beloved neighbors on Tipp Hill, I’ve never been much for green beer. Ditto the green bagels that become ever more popular year by year, or the green scrambled eggs some diners like to serve. The color green, when it comes to beverages and foodstuffs, is too frequently associated with egress to be considered palatable for introduction into the gateway to that earthly temple, the stomach. I’ll take my broccoli green but my beer crisp and golden, thank you very much.
I can understand why dousing the food and drink with green dye has become such a popular ritual as spring rolls around. After four months of nearly continuous snow blanketing our landscape, the thought of anything green at all brings hope to the heart of the shoveling class.
St. Patricks’s Day brings out the deepest feelings of pride and the silliest of public behaviors among Irish-Americans and those who would join the Irish fraternity for this one day. St. Patrick, what little we know of him, is to Irish-Americans what Elvis is to African-Americans: a touchstone for an inner conflict over identity and assimilation. The cheery leprechauns and the silly caricatures of drunkenness that pop up every March can obscure the role Irish-American rebels have played in the history of the Americas.
The tale of the San Patricios is a legend most of us are never taught, but that remains a potent reminder of the Irish struggle to find a place on this continent. For the price of a couple of green beers you can pick up San Patricios (HEAR Music), the CD released last year by Ry Cooder and the Chieftains, which eloquently tells their story. (Manhattan’s Irish rockers Black 47 also have a tune called “San Patricio Brigade.”) And who were the San Patricios? This is one of those cases where the musicians have had to step in to fill a hole in history. The Cooder/Chieftains album is an inspired blend of Celtic and Mexican sounds, from whistles to bagpipes and banjos, trumpets and mariachis, backed up by vocals from a world-class crew that includes Linda Ronstadt and a 90-year-old Mexican ranchera singer, Chavela Vargas. Liam Neeson even shows up to narrate a poetic homage to the San Patricio battalion.
Long before John F. Kennedy, long before Riverdance, the Irish immigrants arriving in steerage were considered loyalists to the pope and not to be trusted by the Protestant ruling class. They could, it was incorrectly assumed, safely be used as cannon fodder in war. Back in the 1840s, when the United States went to war with Mexico, a group of mostly Irish immigrants, mostly from New York, were conscripted and sent to fight against the Mexican general, Santa Anna.
The Irish troops were kept in segregated brigades. Most of them had come over as indentured servants, and at the time they were conscripted there were more freemen of African descent living in New York City than there were free Irishmen.
As they forayed into northern Mexico, many of them came to believe that they had more in common with the Mexicans than they did with their commanding officers. Hundreds of Irish soldiers, tired of abuse by their commander, Zachary Taylor, abandoned their post and joined the Mexican side, fighting for months under General Santa Anna against the invaders.
When Taylor’s troops eventually caught up to them at the battle of Churubusco, most of the San Patricios were killed in combat; the survivors were court-martialed and hung.
You don’t hear this story in most history classes. The San Patricios placed themselves clearly on the side of the Mexican folks they resembled: poor, rural, landless, Catholic storytellers with large families. They resisted what many considered our first imperial war—a land grab opposed by both Thoreau and Lincoln.
The evolving legacy of the Irish in America has been a narrative of struggle ultimately leading to success and assimilation. But it doesn’t hurt to recall that, buried deep in Irish bones, is a strain that reminds us that there’s only so much we’ll take, and that when America doesn’t keep its promise, there are those willing to pay a price to remind her of what’s at stake.
So, whatever the color of your brew this St. Patrick’s Day, and whatever lands your people once called home, dial up the Chieftains and Ry Cooder, and raise a glass to the San Patricios: May they never be forgotten.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@twcny. rr.com.