September 1997, in Aras an Uachtaran, the Irish President's official
residence, then President of Ireland Mary Robinson looked on during
the presentation of a reproduction military flag by the Clifden
and Connemara Heritage Group. The flag, with its gold harp on a
green field-the traditional flag of the United Irishmen and of 1798-signified
the remarkable story of the San Patricio Battalion not through any
cultural iconography, but only through the words "San Patricio,"
written in a vaguely Hibernicized script. The presentation ceremony
honored Los San Patricios, also known as the Saint Patrick's Battalion,
a group of mostly Irish soldiers who deserted from the United States
army during the Mexican-American War to fight with their Catholic
co-religionists in Mexico. Literal border-crossers, they most likely
transferred their loyalty to Mexico after suffering anti-Catholic
and anti-Irish abuse from their nativist officers in the American
army; perhaps they were also influenced by the promise of free land
in a Catholic country. The "Battalon de San Patricio,"
renowned for their bravery in the face of certain defeat, was led
by the Irish-born John Riley. After the defeat of Mexico and the
executions by the U.S. army of fifty of the "traitors"
who comprised his battalion, Riley, who escaped the same death on
a technicality, wrote to a friend in 1847, "In all my letter,
I forgot to tell you under what banner we fought so bravely. It
was that glorious Emblem of native rights, that being the banner
which should have floated over our native Soil many years ago, it
was St. Patrick, the Harp of Erin, the Shamrock upon a green field"
(qtd. in Stevens 285).
The various icons of Irishness that Riley describes, not all of which survive in the Heritage Group's "replica," appear to represent the centuries-long struggle for Irish independence from British colonial rule, but not the Mexican cause the San Patricios were fighting for in a very literal sense. In all likelihood, however, both the flag Riley describes and the one presented by the Heritage Group give us an incomplete picture. George Kendall, an American journalist covering the war with Mexico, describes a more complex constellation of images:
banner is of green silk, and on one side is a harp, surmounted by
the Mexican coat of arms, with a scroll on which is painted "Libertad
por la Republica Mexicana." Under the harp is the motto of
"Erin go Bragh!" On the other side is a painting of a
badly executed figure, made to represent St. Patrick, in his left
hand a key and in his right a crook or staff resting upon a serpent.
Underneath is painted "San Patricio."
The Mexican elements described by Kendall have been excluded from both Riley's and the Heritage Group's versions of the flag, and over the course of this paper I will consider the ways in which images associated with the flag are reproduced, revised, and discarded. The larger question that motivates me, though, is this: Does the solidarity that exceeded national borders in nineteenth-century Mexico get overwritten here by an Irish nationalist iconography that aesthetically writes out that very encounter, and reverts to its most sectarian and narrow?
It is worth pausing here to think specifically about the Heritage Group flag. Kendall's account contains another detail that may have been unappealing to the organizers of the state ceremony that took place in 1997: "Under the harp is the motto of "Erin go Bragh!" If "Ireland forever!" seems a curious slogan for a group of mostly Irish soldiers who in 1847, the very year before Young Ireland's abortive rebellion, were flying their green flag not over "our native soil" but rather in Churubusco, Mexico, it was also perhaps easier for the Irish government in 1997, the year before the Good Friday Agreement, to leave off what could have been interpreted as radical rhetoric. In the midst of a season of famine memorials, such types of presentations were surely easily recognized for the politicized events they were.1 Other questions also arise in respect to this reproduction version of the battalion flag. If the Heritage Group is taking Riley's account as a model, why leave off Saint Patrick, whom he lists first among all of the images of "native rights"? If the Heritage Group leaves off Erin go Bragh as too political, perhaps Saint Patrick is not political enough-or more accurately, has too distinctly participated in what David Lloyd calls the "inevitable declension of the icons of authentic national culture into kitsch" (Ireland After History 89). Or, is Saint Patrick, like "Libertad por La Republica," too Mexican? Too closely linked to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who also graced national banners of liberation? Too evocative of Mexican folk traditions of votive painting? Furthermore, if "Erin go Bragh!" is traded out for "San Patricio," written in that script so familiar that the two phrases could almost be mistaken for each other, then the Heritage Society has managed to honor the San Patricio Battalion with an almost exact replica of the unofficial nationalist "green flag" of Ireland; in fact, this flag is less "hybrid" than even the tricolor that would, inspired by the tricolor of revolutionary France, eventually be adopted by Young Ireland, and then later by the Irish Republic.2
If we find in Kendall's version of the San Patricio flag a "hybrid"3 moment worthy of celebration, nevertheless the narrowly Irish interpretation by the Clifden and Connemara Heritage Group tells us that the celebration is premature. So then, how should the San Patricios be memorialized, and how can they be theorized? It is important to start with the simple observation that the cultural exchange articulated in the multiple iconographies of the flag is peculiar in that it takes place in an unusual "contact zone"-defined not by the meeting of colonizer and colonized, but in the space of solidarity between distant struggles for national independence: the resistance to British rule in Ireland, and Mexico's struggle against neo-colonialism in the form of American Manifest Destiny. What is most uncanny about the San Patricio Battalion flag is precisely that the translation of the two slogans occluded in the 1997 reproduction seems to coexist so unproblematically in the orginal: "Erin go Bragh!" and "Libertad por la Republica Mexicana" are expressive of same kind of nationalist gusto, and at least in Kendall's account, the Irish and Mexican images equitably share the space of representation. If, as David Lloyd argues in Ireland After History, cultural nationalism opposes all forms of cultural mixing between colonizer and colonized,4 then the question at stake in looking at the San Patricio flag is whether that same nationalism is equally resistant to mixing across horizontal, global boundaries-cultural mixing not in a context of hierarchy, but rather one of solidarity. Does the geographically displaced banner of rebellion and potential liberation from colonial authority translate as easily from Ireland, where it failed in 1798, to a hopeful second attempt at anti-imperialism of another sort, on another continent, with another people and in another language?
Two positions have been articulated in regard to the question above: on the one hand, academics who are interested in de-essentializing cultural identities offer a resounding "yes!," while on the other hand, some historians reject the very possibility of solidarity. I would like to offer an alternative, middle position, one that values the encounter of national struggles while also keeping in mind the problems that nationalism itself poses to the imagining of such allegiances, both as they are happening and as they are re-imagined later. A brief survey of some San Patricio historiography is useful here, particularly as academic interest in the story has been so limited.5 Whereas most recent scholarly and cultural accounts have recuperated the San Patricios as part of the nationalist struggle for Irish independence from Britain, the earliest histories of the battalion de-emphasized the group's Irishness, so as to refute any claim that Irish-Americans were traitors to their newly adopted country. This was, perhaps, a factor motivating Richard McCornack's unequivocal stand against solidarity in a 1951 article:
As a whole, the San Patricios appear to have been a group of bewildered and ignorant men, for the most part incapable of realizing, until faced with the prospect of expiating their crime with their lives, the enormity of the crime they committed when they donned enemy uniforms and took up arms against the forces from which they had deserted. That they fought under a shamrock banner and carried the name of St. Patrick was due to their commanding officer, Riley, and not to either the national origins or religious persuasion of more than a few of them. (255)
The first full-length scholarly book on the subject, written by Robert Ryal Miller in 1989, reproduces (in some places word for word) this de-politicizing of the San Patricios: "Based on testimony of the San Patricios, there seemed to be no basis of fraternal feeling with Mexicans, nor sympathy for their being invaded by a northern neighbor with a dominant Anglo-Saxon and Protestant culture. Except for John Riley, the Irish-Catholic connection was emphasized more by Mexicans than by the San Patricios themselves"6 (33-4). Miller's comparatively recent book seems to have validated McCornack, who, confident that his would be the last word on the subject, wrote that the story of the Saint Patrick's Battalion would "cease to be a subject of further controversy among Catholic and Protestant writers, and be relegated to its proper position as a footnote to American history" (255).7
The story can, I think, be read most productively not as a footnote, but rather as a case study in the history of transnational subaltern struggle (and here I position myself more or less in the contemporary critical camp). Meanwhile, at the far end of the spectrum from McCornack, David Lloyd describes the solidarity between the San Patricios and the Mexicans in terms that are, like McCornack's and Miller's, unambiguous. He writes of the San Patricios that, "their understanding of the links between English domination of Ireland and Yankee domination of Mexico was immediate" (IAH 104). For Lloyd, who uses the story in the epilogue of his book Ireland After History as a sort of model for future academic work, the value of retrieving occluded stories like that of the San Patricios is to "form a repertoire for what I would call the history of possibilities, thinking, once again, of the ways in which even the defeated struggles and gestures of the oppressed remain in memory to re-emerge as the impulse to form new forms of solidarity" (105). Indeed, the current theoretical trend in Irish Studies (and in postcolonial studies more generally) is to explore transnational intersections of colonial or otherwise oppressed cultures. Luke Gibbons has also motioned towards analysis that "[negotiates] identity through an exchange with the other. . . to make provision, not just for vertical mobility from the periphery to the centre, but for 'lateral' journeys along the margins which short-circuit the colonial divide" (180).8 I begin with this same gesture, but take caution from Lloyd's own warning about cultural nationalism's jealous hold on "purification and refinement. . . originality and authenticity" (IAH 89). In other words, I will also look at where the translation into contemporary solidarity fails or falls short.9 For example, the 1997 reproduction flag presented at Aras an Uachtaran surely failed as an aesthetic call for contemporary solidarity, an attempt to create awareness of struggles beyond Irish borders. Such projects, even well-meaning ones, also threaten to reinscribe the troubling discourses of essentialist nationalism. Other less well-intentioned contemporary "memorials" seem to revolve mundanely around the disingenuously posed question of whether the San Patricios were traitors or heroes (the feature film "One Man's Hero" starring Tom Berenger-and for good reason not available at most video rental stores-rather unsubtly points this out), but this gesture, even if mundane, is dangerous. The film, for example, is primarily a vehicle for every ethnic and national stereotype about both Irish and Mexican people.
Although the pictorial images on the San Patricio Battalion flag are my primary concern here, the textual rhetoric that formed a base for the solidarity between the San Patricios and the Mexicans is worth rehearsing as well. Perhaps the most remarkable articulations of solidarity are the pamphlets written by Mexican generals. An early one written by General Ampudia begins, "To the English and Irish under the Orders of the American General Taylor" and is dated April 2 1846:
Know ye: That the Government of the United States is committing repeated acts of barbarous aggression against the magnanimous Mexican Nation; that the Government which exists under "the flag of stars" is unworthy of the designation of Christian....
Recollect that you were born in Great Britain; that the American Government looks with coldness upon the powerful flag of St. George, and is provoking to a rupture the warlike people to whom it belongs" (qtd. in Miller 17)
Perhaps this early appeal missed the mark in casting too wide a net: the British flag of St. George wasn't likely to inspire feelings of solidarity in the badly treated Irish soldiers who were most likely to desert from the American army. Nevertheless, just days later, on April 12th, 1846, John Riley of County Galway, Ireland set out from Fort Texas to a Catholic Mass near Matamoros, Mexico; he did not return to his camp on that particular Sunday, but some weeks later was promoted from the rank of private to that of Lieutenant, his new commission from the Mexican army. Perhaps with Riley's help, by the next year the Mexican pamphleteers had focused their audience and mastered their history, as evidenced by this 1847 pamphlet, later reprinted in a New York newspaper:
to the words of your brothers, hear the accents of a Catholic people.
The historical focus on Riley, specifically, and the later appropriation of the San Patricios and their flag as participating in a distinctly Irish nationalist project, suggest that the gesture of solidarity worked mainly in one direction, that of Irish solidarity with an embattled Mexico. However, as the passage above reveals, the pamphlets distributed by Mexican generals perform a transnational awareness that works equally in the opposite direction, revealing a sense of Irish colonial history and the realities of the anti-Catholic prejudice encountered by immigrants to the United States that is in itself a gesture of solidarity. "Irishmen-You were expected to be just, because you are the countrymen of that truly great and eloquent man, O'Connell, who had devoted his whole life to defend your rights, and finally, because you are said to be good and sincere Catholics" (qtd. in Stevens 221). These Mexican pamphlets, crossing the border into the American encampments, had begun to inundate American barracks even before war was officially declared, and continued throughout its duration. Meanwhile, many Irish, mostly Catholic, soldiers followed Riley's path in the other direction across the Rio Grande, crossing a border that would render them traitors in the eyes of the nation they left behind. But in the eyes of contemporary literary critics, these border-crossers seem to embody the site of the border itself.
Guillermo Gomez-Pena writes, "symbols, aesthetic gestures,
and metaphors are contextual, and when they cross a cultural border
they either crack open, or metamorphosize into something else"
(238). But have the Irish images of liberation in fact crossed a
border, or opened a frontier, by sharing their "green field"
with the Mexican coat of arms-and, perhaps more to the point, does
this last image appear on the flag at all? It should be noted that
the images depicted on the flag of the San Patricio Battalion are
in no way established as "fact," since the accounts all
vary substantially. The entry for the San Patricios in the Diccionario
Porrúa de historia, biografía y geografía de
México offers an alternative flag, one that does not even
share the green field: "Tenian una insignia blanca, en la que
se encontraban lost escudos de Irlanda y Mexico, y el nombre de
su capitan, John O'Reilly bordado en verde." [They had a white
flag, on which were found the shields of Ireland and Mexico, and
the name of their captain, John O'Reilly embroidered in green] (3:3146).
Perhaps the aesthetic balancing of two national coats of arms, and
even more conspicuously the absence of the green field-that most
potent signifier of Irish struggle as the struggle for land-allows
this Mexican flag to bring the struggle back to the site, and the
literal field, by all accounts more brown than green, on which it
took place. Green, in Ireland, had become the color of rebellion,
and was outlawed as a marker of political insurgency in 1797, inspiring
the famous (and banned) song, "The Wearing of the Green"
(McCartney and Bryson 36). We can only speculate as to whether the
green field of the San Patricio flag represents an attempt to imaginatively
substitute, and aesthetically replace, the Mexican struggle for
the Irish one at home. Or, whether this truly represents an instance
of subaltern solidarity. The sticking point is nationalism, and
the question is this: Can nationalist struggles that encounter each
other across a lateral divide support each other without participating
in the troubling exclusions that seem always to surround nationalist
discourses, whether iconographic, literary, or military? Why, in
writing to his fellow expatriated Irishman, does Riley neglect to
describe the Mexican symbols on the flag? If we are to take George
Kendall, who offers what seems to be a more complete description
of the flag, at his word-and he does seem to have been detail-oriented,
trustworthy in fact if ugly in interpretation-then perhaps even
more conspicuous an absence in Riley's description is the failure
to note the Spanish phrase "Libertad por la Republica Mexicana."
In 1848, when a destitute John Riley was pressed to appeal to the
president of Mexico for wages owed him, he wrote "Since...
I separated from the North American forces... I have served constantly
under the Mexican flag" (qtd. in Miller 32). Is the hybrid
flag of the San Patricios, described in yet another account as "a
beautiful green silk banner... [on which] glittered a silver cross
and a golden harp, embroidered by the hands of the fair nuns of
San Luis Potosi" (Chamberlain 161), an Irish flag or a Mexican
flag? Can two national struggles share a glorious Emblem of native
The hydra became a means of exploring multiplicity, movement, and connection, the long waves and planetary currents of humanity....The power of numbers was expanded by movement, as the hydra journeyed and voyaged or was banished or dispersed in diaspora, carried by the winds and the waves beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. Sailors, pilots, felons, lovers, translators, musicians, mobile workers of all kinds made new and unexpected connections, which variously appeared to be accidental, contingent, transient, even miraculous. (6)
According to Linebaugh and Rediker, the pirates of the "revolutionary Atlantic" agreed with governments who told them that "they [had] no country": "when they hailed other vessels at sea, they emphasized their own rejection of nationality by announcing that they came 'From the Seas'" (165). Although it may be tempting to read the San Patricios as unanchored, nation-less pirates, this was not the case; they were engaged in a war of nations, not a mutiny. If the rejection of nationality itself is in evidence with the motley crew cited by Linebaugh and Rediker, the San Patricios must be excluded from their paradigm; and if nationality and place-even displaced place-were central to the iconography and rhetoric of their struggle, where do they fit in with current academic projects?10 To help answer this question, it is worth looking at the long tradition of Irish soldiering as nationalist activity in a field of global struggle, for these figures-not quite mercenaries, but fighting the battles of other nations nonetheless-have inspired a powerful cultural and literary tradition in Ireland.
From the seventeenth century through the twentieth, the figure of the Irish soldier in a foreign army has been inflected with political meaning, and the tradition of the "Wild Geese," as these soldiers were known, was from the start rhetorically linked to the politics of Irish struggle at home. The battlefield was figured as a place where, at least rhetorically, more than one conflict could be articulated at once. Other nations seemed aware of this powerful trope: just as Santa Anna and General Ampudia appealed in their pamphlets to the "countrymen of that truly great and eloquent man, O'Connell," a name sure to elicit the memory of the Irish struggle at home, a few years later military recruiters for the Union during the American Civil War exploited Irish nationalist sentiment in a poster exhorting potential Irish volunteers,
The battle of Fontenoy took place in 1745 in France, where a renowned Irish regiment of the French army routed the English forces. Perhaps the event is best known from Thomas Davis's eponymous ballad, in which the Irish soldiers take revenge against the British for their failure to honor the Treaty of Limerick: "Like lions leaping at a fold, when mad with hunger's pang, / Right up against the English line the Irish exiles sprang" (Hoagland 478). The poem closes in an exclamatory gesture of victory, perhaps overdoing the amount of glory that could be palatably consumed by Davis's still very much oppressed reading public at home: "On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, like eagles in the sun, / With bloody plumes the Irish stand-the field is fought and won!" The fields of Ireland were far from won, though, in the 1840s when Davis's ballad of displaced Irish victory was published in The Nation. Perhaps it was only timing-specifically, the contemporaneity with the worst year of the famine-that prevented the San Patricios from inhabiting a similar literary memorial. Peter Stevens suggests that the Young Irelanders "would probably have seized upon the executions of Irish soldiers in Mexico as yet another Anglo-Saxon atrocity. But the fate of the St. Patrick's Battalion, an ocean and a continent away, never reached the ears of Young Ireland"(279).
The linking of twentieth-century "Wild Geese" with the Irish struggle for independence is made possible through the literary revival's most potent imaginative figure: the old woman who stands as the embodiment of Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan. In an anecdote published in the military journal The Irish Sword, Joyce Kilmer wrote:
It is a matter of no military importance but of deep interest to everyone who sympathizes with the 69th Regiment and knows its history and traditions, that when the raiding party marched up past Regimental Headquarters on their way to the trenches, there fluttered from the bayonet of one of the men a flag-a green flag marked in gold with the harp that has for centuries been Ireland's emblem-the harp without the crown-and inscribed 'Erin Go Bragh!' This flag had been given... by a stranger-an old woman who burst through the great crowd that lined the streets.... Who the woman was who gave the Regiment this appropriate tribute is unknown. Perhaps it was Kathleen Ni Houlihan herself. (3:202)
The narrative describes Irish troops in an American army marching to battle in France during the Great War. And yet, the flag, "Ireland's emblem," and its provenance with Kathleen, who is Ireland itself, mark an alternative meaning to the struggle. So that even in World War I, Irish participation in battle-a battle in which Irish-Americans fought in an American army, and alongside Britain-can be coded to signify Irish anti-colonial struggle. Again, we have the familiar iconography: a green flag, a gold harp, and "Erin go Bragh."
one might suspect, however, the "Wild Geese" would not
always be read as displaced Irish nationalist warriors. At a certain
point Irish soldiers began to fight in British armies (as a result
of anti-clericalism during the French Revolution and a consequent
disdain for the French, and later as a function of Irish famine
and poverty, and a lack of other alternatives for subsistence).
And particularly, the Irish participation in British colonial ventures
(Irish soldiers making up nearly half of colonial forces in India,
for example) could hardly be articulated as anti-colonial work on
behalf of Irish independence. The unsentimental words of James Connolly
dismantle the romanticized version of "Wild Geese" who
supposedly fight Ireland's struggle elsewhere:
Connolly mocks the disingenuous rhetoric that would allow a nationalistic piety about liberation to coexist alongside Irish participation in colonial horrors. Such irony is also at play in the construction of Irish regiments in Rudyard Kipling's fiction: if the Irish colonial enforcers seem to contain the potential of subversive solidarity with their Indian co-colonial subjects by virtue of their own oppression at home, in fact they are rendered as ridiculous, drunk, and battle-hungry.11 In Kipling's 1901 novel Kim, the Irish regiment raucously toasts their banner, "the great Red Bull on a background of Irish green," (132) but the "Irish" flag in which their communal identity supposedly inheres is completely divorced from the politics of Ireland.
Unlike Kipling's Irish regiments, the San Patricios were clearly fighting for a cause they believed in, even if that cause cannot be precisely defined as "Irish" or "Mexican." In 1847, one year before Young Ireland reproduced the tragic defeat of 1798, the embattled San Patricios refused surrender at Churubusco: according to one account, "These men fought most desperately, and are said not only to have shot down several of our officers whom they knew, but to have pulled down the white flag of surrender no less than three times." (The Mexican War and its Heroes 2:45). This often-repeated anecdote of the Irish soldiers refusing surrender even when the Mexicans concede victory contains within it a much darker version: according to one Private Ballantine, "two or three attempts of the Mexicans to hoist a white flag have been frustrated by some of [the San Patricios], who killed the Mexicans attempting to display it" (Meltzer 197). The white flag of surrender is subsumed by the banner of the San Patricios; the Mexicans fighting for their homeland are displaced by the Irish Battalion; everything, in this narrative, is subsumed by the aura of that banner. It is at this point that it becomes important to step back from the celebration of the San Patricios as a model for solidarity; in other words, the recuperation of the San Patricios in the name of a sympathetic, multicultural, transnational nationalism doesn't always work as we hope it will.
Many theorists of postcolonialism have concurred that celebrating hybridity when it comes in the context of the colonial encounter is dangerous; hierarchies inevitably problematize the encounter of cultures and peoples. The lateral model of cultural meeting across, rather than within, the hierarchies of colonialism presents a potentially less vexed model for looking at history. However, the San Patricios, or at least the traditions of history and memory that have told their story, suggest that even these solidarities must be approached responsibly. But even as their part in the Mexican-American War has been recuperated within a narrative of strategic (if geographically displaced) Irish nationalism that often works to diminish the very field of cooperation on which the battles of their struggle actually took place, the story of the San Patricios still offers a model of solidarity that can speak to contemporary struggles. If the Clifden and Connemmara Heritage Society version of memorial, in which the traditional marker of national identity-the flag-occludes Mexico from the field of images, then perhaps a better place to look at the San Patricios today is at the unfixable site that perhaps most threatens all nationalism: the internet. On a recent March 17th-Saint Patrick's Day-Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico wrote an open letter in which he remarks on the contemporary impact of the San Patricio Battalion:
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 companeros and companeras, 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. 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. When you are old, then you will be able to say to the children and young people of your country that, 'I struggled for Mexico at the end of the 20th century, and from over here I was there with them and I only know that they wanted what all human beings want, for it not to be forgotten that they are human beings and for it to be remembered what democracy, liberty and justice are, and I did not know their faces but I did know their hearts and they were the same as ours.' Good-bye.. Health and a promised flower: a green stem, a white flower, red leaves, and don't worry about the serpent, that flapping of wings is an eagle which will take care of it , you will see...12
If this "pamphlet" comes via the internet, it nonetheless repeats Santa Anna's 1847 call for solidarity: "May Mexicans and Irishmen, united by the sacred tie of religion and benevolence, form only one people" (qtd. in Stevens 222). If the image of the San Patricio flag can create possibilities for solidarity on a global scale, then surely it is here, in Marcos's Saint Patrick's Day communiqué, that such globalization begins.
Samuel E. My Confession : Recollections of a Rogue. Unexpurgated
and Annotated. Ed. William H. Goetzmann. Austin: Texas State Historical