Tuesday, March 29, 2011

To Cross the Rio Grande

166 years ago this April, John Riley, leader of the subsequent "San Patricio Battalion" crossed the Rio Grande. He crossed those waters just before the outbreak of war between Mexico and the U.S.A.
Riley was deserting the U.S. army and joining up with the Mexican. It's amazing to wonder what led him to that decision. Was it the rumblings of fellow Irish soldiers fed up of ill-treatment and discrimination in the ranks of Uncle Sam? Was it the sound of the church bells over the river in Matamoros, calling the faithful to the same Latin mass he would have heard at home in Clifden, Ireland? Or was it the sight of some senorita washing her hair by the banks of the river? Were her flowing locks the final straw, sending him racing down to river and over to Mexico? Was he alone? Did he wade into the flowing river and swim across? Or had he the luxury of a boat?
What we do know is that he became a leading figure in the conflict that was to come, that being the U.S. - Mexican War of 1847. It is known in Mexico as "el guerra del 47." The Mexican nation lost this war and half of their territory. As the U.S. army flooded through Mexico City, many Irishmen stood waiting at gallows outside the city. They had been waiting there since early morning, they waited for the American flag to go up over Chapultapec Castle--the sign for the cart to be literally pulled from under them. This was part of a series of hangings which saw the deaths of 49 men of the San Patricio Battalion, marking the biggest public execution in U.S. military history. The San Patricio's ranks, although distinctly and predominantly Irish, contained men of other ethnicities, including many Germans. The soldiers' common Catholic religion galvanised their brotherhood. Most, but not all, of the San Patricios had defected from the U.S. army--an army to whom they felt they owed no allegiance. They fought in Mexican Ranks 'til the bitter end.

I took this photo at the commemoration last year in San Ángel, Mexico City. San Ángel is where some of the hangings took place. The plaque in the background lists the names of the San Patricios who died for Mexico. The eagle is a symbol of Mexico.

I was in Mexico City last September as part of a documentary by Kieran Concannon, for Tg4 (the Irish language T.V. Station). The documentary traces the story of John Riley from Ireland to Mexico. It is interwoven with songs inspired by John Riley and the San Patricios, one of which is my own song, "Pa' Los Del San Patricio." Our visit to Mexico coincided with the commemoration at San Ángel. 18 of the San Patricios were hung in the square where the commemoration takes place. The documentary is narrated and presented by myself and will be broadcast in September to coincide with the commemoration in Mexico City. A ceremony also takes place in Clifden, Ireland, the place of Riley's birth.

Above is the track "Pa' Los Del San Patricio" from my first CD "Songs From an Outpost."

It was really heartening to see the respect and honour with which the San Patricios are held in Mexico. The last battle of the San Patricios took place by the convent of Churubusco. All around that area the Mexican government pays homage to "the Irish Martyrs."  Both the photos to the left were taken in the Vicinity of San Patricio Plaza. The first is "Irish Martyr's Street." The second is a plaque to John Riley, untouched by the mad graffiti surrounding it.

In the center of the Plaza of San Ángel, there are park benches with this inscription: "Alvaro Obregon," which is the name of a former president of Mexico, that name is now a city municipality. Many people don't realise that Irish names were "hispanicized" in Spanish speaking countries just like the Anglicisation of Irish surnames in Britain and America. So "Ó Brian" became "Obregon." Funnily enough I used this ruse myself while buying a train ticket for Vera Cruz, in Mexico City. Instead of calling myself Charlie O' Brien (and looking on at the tellers inevitable doleful expression as she tried to write it down), I told them my name was Carlito Obregon, and lo and behold no need for a lengthy spelling lesson. She had it in one and I was on my way to Vera Cruz!

                                              This is the "Obregon" seat in the Plaza of San Ángel, Mexico City.     


Above is a picture of the cathedral in Vera Cruz. They are currently renovating the church--note the little man on the dome on the left.
Vera Cruz is where John Riley was eventually released from the service of the Mexican Army. We visited the cathedral there, where we waited patiently for the Padre, who was the only person authorised to show us the cathedral's death records. It has long been speculated where and how John Riley died. There are many theories, one of which was that he died in Vera Cruz, not long after being discharged from the army. The records in Vera Cruz seem to confirm this.
The Padre's secretary, Miriam, is shown above with the records which contain John Riley's death cert. She is pointing his name out to me on the page. Kieran, the director of the documentary is in the foreground. The photo was taken by Cliona Maher, an Irishwoman who is living in Vera Cruz for years. She was extremely helpful to us in our travels!

The records taken down by the priest in 1850, and shown by Miriam in the photo above, record: "In the H. [Heroic] city of Veracruz, on the thirty first of August of eighteen hundred and fifty, I, Don Ignacio Jose Jimenez, curate of the parish church of the Assumption of Our Lady, buried in the general cemetery the body of Juan Reley, of forty five years of age, a native of Ireland, unmarried, parents unknown; died as a result of drunkenness, without sacraments, and I signed it."

While in Vera Cruz, we visited a beautiful Spanish Fortress called San Juan de Ulua. It dates to 1565. Wandering around the ruins we met this fisherman who had just netted this mighty fish.

When we think of history, we think of dates, actions defined, outcomes, not the slow passage of time. I think of John Riley in the weeks leading up to his death, lounging pensively in some bar in Vera Cruz, gazing out at the sea. I imagine his long hair covering his face and the two D letters that were seared into it by the Yankees, as punishment for desertion. Perhaps, to clear his head, he took a walk down by the dockside? I see him meeting with some fisherman, having a chat, maybe his dark mood lifting for a moment. Did he imagine his future in Ireland as he gazed out at the horizon? Was he planning for a never reached shore in Galway?


  1. Thanks for this history, previously unknown to me.

  2. Hello. I enjoyed reading your blog and of you adventures in Mexico. I have also visited the square at San Ángel. A very hallowed place. Can you tell me how I can view the Docu on John Riley? I would be very interested. I am actually 1/2 Irish and 1/2 Mexican, so the story is especially fitting for me. Also, any other interesting books, movies or related information would be greatly appreciated. For instance, is there an image of any of the San Patricios that has survived? Are there any artifacts? Weapons? uniforms? Flags that survived?

    Thank you for you time. Much appreciated.

    Tom Gilmartin