HISTORY OF MEXICO
An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture
THE IRISH PRESENCE IN MEXICO
By Rose Mary Salum
Throughout their history, Mexico and Ireland have experienced many similar events, in spite of their physical distance. Because these events have had such an impact on Mexico, it is often said that there is a real Irish presence in Mexican soil.
Another prominent Irishman who had a hand in Mexican politics was Dublin-born Hugh O'Connor, who moved to Nueva Espa ña to escape the harsh conditions that reigned in Ireland at that time. In his adopted homeland, he became one of the most notable bureaucrats, taking office as governor of the region of Texas and commander of the northern frontier. He was also the founder of the town now known as Tucson, Arizona. In the18th century, several bureaucrats and officers who represented Spain in Mexico were either Irish, or of Irish descent. O'Connor was one of the most important and distinguished.(2)
The Refugio and San Patricio were areas of south Texas colonized by the Irish. Heading this colonization were four Irish businessmen, James Power and James Heweston (in Refugio) and John McMullen and James McGloin (in San Patricio). These men made contracts to colonize the land with people who were "Irish, Catholic and of good moral character." Power and Hewetson contracted with the Mexican government to bring over oppressed Irish settlers to colonize the area. Power traveled to his hometown of Ballygarrett, and eventually organized some 600 people to emigrate.(3)
Many immigration stories were triggered by the potato famine of 1845, which brought devastation not only to Ireland, but also to the rest of Europe. For the Irish in particular, it was the beginning of mass evictions, starvation, sickness, and death for thousands. Some Irish were fortunate enough to afford the fare for an escape to the New World. Yet even while escaping, thousands died as a result of inhuman conditions aboard England's vessels.
The trouble did not end once the Irish arrived in America. By the middle of the 19th century, the enormous number of Irish-Catholic immigrants dwelling in the United States increased the sentiment of hatred towards the Irish. Names and phrases like, "that Yankee hates Paddy," were common. Because they were victims of prejudice, the Irish found themselves becoming sympathetic to Mexicans. Subsequently, many of them deviated from their original plans of settling in the United States and crossed into Mexico.
"Can you fight by the side of those who put fire to your temples in Boston and Philadelphia? Did you witness such dreadful crimes and sacrileges without making a solemn vow to our Lord? If you are Catholic, the same as we, if you follow the doctrines of Our Savior, why are you murdering your brethren? Why are you antagonistic to those who defend their country and your own God?"(4)The Irish division was known as Los San Patricios, or "Those of Saint Patrick." It participated in all the major battles of the war and was cited for bravery by General López de Santa Anna, the Mexican Commander in Chief and President. At the penultimate battle of the war, these Irishmen fought until their ammunition was exhausted, and even then tore down the white flag raised by their Mexican comrades, preferring to struggle on with bayonets. Despite their brave resistance, 85 of the Irish battalion were captured and sentenced to bizarre tortures and deaths at the hands of the Americans, resulting in what is considered even today as the "largest hanging affair in North America."(5) The event had a profound effect in Mexico. Since then, many authors have written novels and history books about the subject and monuments and statues honoring Los Patricios have been erected in major Mexican cities. Movies have been filmed and even special dates have been marked on the Mexican calendar, to commemorate Irish aid.
In almost every Mexican account of the war, Los San Patricios are considered heroes who fought for the noble ideals of religion and a just cause against a Protestant invader of a peaceful nation. In U.S. history, Los San Patricios are often portrayed as deserters, traitors, and malcontents who joined the other side for land or money. Now, thanks to the highly regarded research of Michael Hogan and his book, The Irish Soldiers of Mexico, there is a much more objective analysis of the "San Patricios'" phenomenon.
The battle influenced Mexico in such a way that it has become a critical development in the official version of Mexico's history. Every year, September 12 is remembered and celebrated. Recently, after 150 years, Mexico remembered the St. Patrick's Battalion with full military honors at the Plaza San Jacinto. A military band even performed the Mexican and Irish national anthems.(6) In 1993, the Irish began their own ceremony to honor the San Patricios in Clifden, Galway.
The Irish in Mexico have an honorable reputation and a respectable legacy. To this day, an Irishman will be told countless times about the famous "Irish martyrs" who defected from the U.S. Army and gave their lives trying to save Mexico from U.S. aggression.
The St. Patrick's Battalion impacted Mexico's social movements more than any one can imagine. Six years ago, almost 150 years after the historic event that marked Irish influence in Mexico, Marcos, the spokesman of the repressed and marginalized people of Chiapas, invoked the spirit of Los San Patricios in one of his famous speeches against the Mexican Government:
"When Mexico was fighting, in the last century, against the empire of the bars and crooked stars, there was a group of soldiers who fought on the side of the Mexicans and this group was called 'St. Patrick's Battalion'. And so I am writing you in the name of all of my compañeros and compañeras, because just as with the 'Saint Patrick's Battalion', we now see clearly that there are foreigners who love Mexico more than some natives who are now in the government do. And we hear that there were marches and songs and movies and other events so that there would not be war in Chiapas, which is the part of Mexico where we live and die.After the historic war against the United States, Irish and English miners continued to migrate to Mexico, replacing the former Spaniards. They mostly settled in mining areas such as Zacatecas and Guanajuato. Others invested in local and national business.
Today, Irish involvement in Mexico takes many forms. Although not a major trading partner, Mexico is a profitable venture for Ireland: the European country exports far more than they import.(8) Irish-based multinational companies also operate in Mexico.(9) As Mexican wages are lower than many countries in southeast Asia, where labor rights are severely restricted, economic and social instability may not stop firms from "relocating" or expanding to Mexico.(10)
On the diplomatic front, Mexico recently opened an Embassy in Dublin, while Ireland has an Honorary Consul, Romulo O'Farrill Jr. Owner of several newspapers and a member of one of Mexico's most powerful families, O'Farrill is a good example of Irish names in prominent places. Only a few towns in Mexico lack a street named O'Brien, which, later on, became the Spanish "Obregón." There's also an "O'Brien City," better known as Ciudad Obregón, in the northern state of Sonora.
In the realm of Mexican art and literature, Ireland is also a presence. Artist Juan O'Gorman was a painter and an architect who was born in Mexico City in 1905. The oldest son of an Irish father and Mexican mother, he adhered to a philosophy of "progressive socialism," which ultimately affected both his writings and buildings. Influenced by Irish and European modernists, O'Gorman produced some of the first examples of functionalist architecture in Mexico. "In his works, he integrated vernacular forms and detailing with modern structural and spatial arrangements to achieve a culturally, socially, and environmentally significant architecture."(11) He also practiced mural painting. Some of his works include Autoretrato, De unas ruinas nacen otras ruinas, Monumento fúnebre del capitalismo industrial and UNAM's library. His buildings can be found throughout Mexico City.
In literature, the Irish writer James Joyce had a huge influence in Mexico. His innovative monologue style and his linear writing structure greatly impacted the way in which the best Mexican writers approached literature. Salvador Elizondo was obsessed with his writings. He dedicated a complete book about Joyce called: Invocación y evocación de la infancy. Joyce is also present in his short stories and novels. Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is overflowing with the interior monologue that characterized Joyce's work.
Ireland has had an historical impact on Mexico's culture, as evidenced by figures like William Lamport, Marcos or Juan O'Gorman. But even more important, Ireland has served as an example of international camaraderie that extends beyond culture and religion. Hopefully, in the years to come, this relationship will influence many of us, as we discover that violence is not the most powerful human resource.
Copyright © 2005 by Rose Mary Salum. All Rights Reserved.
4. Davis, Graham. Irish pioneers in Mexican and revolutionary Texas. 1st ed. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, c.2002.
5. Hogan, http://www.fff.org/freedom/fd0407f.asp.
7. EZLN, Documentos y Comunicados. Cronic by Carlos Monsivais. Era, Mexico DF, 1995.
8. In 1994 £61.5m worth of food, drink and other goods - the bulk being chemicals - were exported to Mexico, and only £8m imported.
9. One of them is Smurfit.
10. Strikes must be declared 'legal' by the government - the majority are not.
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