There was a short discussion in class this past Thursday over this image. The question was asked, “What does this flag have to do with Black history?” The answer of course, is that this flag was flown by the St. Patrick Battalion, or los San Patricios as these soldiers were called in Mexico. The St. Patrick Battalion formed during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) by Irish immigrants who originally fought on the American side. They were troubled by the fact that they were part of an occupying army that had invaded a predominantly Catholic country. Their own history of domination from British occupiers taught these soldiers that perhaps they were on the wrong side of the war. They switched sides in an act that some called treason, but others called bravery.
Although it was mostly Irish immigrants that formed the ranks of St. Patrick Battalion, many other European immigrants did as well, along with Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, and indigenous people. And this is the connection with Black history: a number of escaped slaves were welcomed into the battalion with open arms and fought alongside their Irish brothers.
The US military won the war against Mexico and claimed a significant portion of the country as its own. Many of the states that are in the Rocky Mountains, Southwest, and California were stolen from Mexico during the war. Los San Patricios paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives – some in the heat of battle; others on the gallows, accused of treason by the US.
A student at the Freedom School was intrigued by the story and decided to march in today’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Utica with the flag. This “people’s history,” as the late historian and activist Howard Zinn would call it, tells us a story about national identity, loyalty, war, and occupation. Sometimes, people will fight for a nation-state or for empire. And sometimes, people will fight for an idea.
Let this St. Patrick’s Day be a time to remember los San Patricios, the history of Irish social justice movements and rebellion, and of any people willing to stand up against foreign occupation.
-Brendan Maslauskas Dunn
Here is a song about St. Patrick’s Battalion by folk singer and activist David Rovics: