The Galway Man who became a Mexican Military Hero
Our history with North America is well known but our connections and influences in South and Central American are generally over looked, which is shame given the legacy Irish people left on the continent. John Riley and the Batallon de San Patricio is just one of many remarkable stories of Irishmen and women in Latin America. Riley, who was a captain in the United States army and hailed from Clifden Co Galway, was one of hundreds of Irishmen who deserted the U.S. army as a result of anti-Catholic sentiment that existed within the higher ranks of the army at the time.
Their desertion wasn’t done on a whim and came about as a result of Mexican propaganda to lure them across the border with the offer of a better life, free of religious prejudice and to be treated as soldiers as opposed to mere cannon fodder as well as escaping poverty that would have awaited them in U.S. cities once the war was over. The war in question was the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the newly formed St Patrick’s Battalion, which at it’s height numbered 200 soldiers, fought with distinction under the leadership of their talented captain from the West of Ireland. The majority were Irish however there were also a large number of Mexicans of European descent.
With fervent religious zeal Riley called on fellow Irishmen to join the fight against the United States which “in the face of the whole world has trampled upon the holy alter of our religion.”
The battalion, after fighting in the battles of Buena Vista and Cerro Gordo, faced their final stand at the battle of Churubusco and it was here they cemented their place in Mexican history. They were stationed in a monastery to protect the retreating Mexican army, which had endured a chastening defeat a day earlier, as well as the entry to Mexico city.
On the morning of 19th August 1847 the U.S. army attacked the monastery and throughout the day the Irish defenders repelled attack after attack until they eventually ran out of ammunition before continuing to fight a gruesome hand-to-hand battle with bayonets and their now empty rifles. The surviving defenders surrendered and were taken prisoner meaning the route to Mexico city was open and the U.S. army duly occupied the city for eight months before a treaty was signed.