[Editor’s note: This reminiscence was written in honor of TESC Faculty Member Dan Leahy who died in December of 2022. ]
During the years of 1846-1848, many Irish people were immigrating to the US due to extreme economic hardship and famine in Ireland. This coincided with the US invasion of Mexico, known as the Mexican-American War. Many new Irish-Catholic immigrants joined the US army to earn money and possible citizenship in the war against Mexico. At that time, the army was intolerant of Catholicism; many immigrant soldiers suffered severe abuse and discrimination from higher ranking officials. Realizing that they shared values and religion with the Mexican people, many immigrant soldiers questioned the expansionist war.
Roughly 265 Irish Catholics, along with almost 5,000 other immigrant and expatriate soldiers defected from the US army and created a unit in the Mexican Army. Under the leadership of John Riley, an elite unit was formed and named the Batallón de San Patricio or Saint Patrick’s Battalion. The soldiers carried a flag that read “Irish till the end of time.” The Batallón served as an artillery unit in many battles, including Buena Vista and Churubusco, where US forces suffered great damage. Ultimately most members of the Batallón were captured and hanged, yet the solidarity between Irish Americans and Mexicans is very much alive to this very day.
An Evergreen faculty member decided to revive the Batallón in a new form. Dan Leahy, Irish and raised Catholic, was working with UAW members building relations with Ford workers in a plant outside of Mexico City. One of the organizers told Dan there was a plaque honoring Irishmen who joined the Mexican Army and fought against the US.
At Evergreen, Dan and his students decided to research the history of the Batallón. This became the basis for a new iteration of the Batallón when Dan spent a sabbatical year in Zacatecas, Mexico. Thus was The Heroico Batallón de San Patricio born with “commandantes” and as well as new cadets from Dan’s classes.
During his 1995 sabbatical, Dan learned of a week-long celebration in the town of Melaque-San Patricio, honoring Saint Patrick on March 17. The Heroico Batallón established a relationship with the community, and joined forces with San Patricio to make structural and educational improvements driven by local educators and community leaders. Such improvements included the rehanging of a bell that had fallen from a bell tower. The Battalón was also an instrumental part of supplying funds and materials for a new preparatoria (high school). The Heroico Batallón helped rebuild the Plaza de Armas, and paid for a plaque that honored the original Batallón.
The Heroico Batallón also sponsored the final day of the St. Patrick’s day festivities, and participated in the town’s parade for over ten years. They created a contest to bring two students to the US, paying for their travel and accommodations. In addition, the HB invited students from TESC to learn about solidarity and history of the Mexican Nation State during two classes offered by Dan Leahy. As part of their study, students met historians, educators and local organizers and participated in inspirational cultural events. The program ended with a month-long stay with a local family in San Patricio, Jalisco.
Today, the Heroico Batallón de San Patricio survives mainly with Dan’s former students who are reconnecting with communities they met in Mexico. They will honor both John Riley, and their beloved Daniel Leahy, for seeing beyond US imperial agendas and teaching us the value of alignment and solidarity.
Chrysta Faye was a student at Evergreen and continues as a commandante in the Heroico Batallón de San Patricio. She lives in Arizona.