Juan Dies and Seán Cleland join their traditional Mexican and Irish music together. (WTTW News)Juan Dies and Seán Cleland join their traditional Mexican and Irish music together. (WTTW News)
By any measure, the story of St. Patrick’s Battalion is extraordinary.
During the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, a group of Irish immigrants deserted the U.S. Army to fight alongside Mexican soldiers. However remarkable the story might be, it’s a chapter of history that’s not especially well known in the U.S.
Juan Dies, executive director of the Sones de México Ensemble, offers a short primer on the events leading to the unlikely alliance.
“The U.S. was expanding westward, had declared a war against Mexico, and the newly arrived Irishmen had signed up for the U.S. Army,” he recounted. “They sent them on the front lines to shoot at Mexicans, but when [the Irish soldiers] realized they were shooting at Catholics, they had a change of heart, and switched armies.”
Seán Cleland, Kilgubbin Ensemble fiddler and executive director of the Irish Music School of Chicago, said the Irish soldiers were not only disenchanted with the reception they received as immigrants to the U.S., they also felt strongly that the U.S.-incited war was unjust.
“There was a sense of righteous anger with these guys when they deserted. Plus, the Mexicans said, ‘Hey, if you come over here we’ll make you citizens.’ Americans never said they’ll make [them] citizens,” Cleland said. “They said, ‘Well, maybe someday you’ll be a citizen, but you won’t really amount to much.’”
The Irishmen were eventually subject to court martial and were shot or hung for treason and never spoken about much again in U.S. history, Díes said.
“But in Mexico, there are streets named after them. There’s a museum. They’re heroes in Mexico,” he added.
Díes and Cleland have made it their mission to bring the ballad of El Batallón de San Patricio to the masses. In two performances this month, Díes, Cleland and their respective ensembles are joining forces to tell the story of Los San Patricios through music, poetry, and dance. The production is titled “Los San Patricios: The Irish Soldiers of Mexico.”
Their collaboration began when they worked together about 20 years ago to create a performance about Michael Hogan’s book “The Irish Soldiers of Mexico.”
“We both had bands and we were teaching at the Old Town School,” recalled Cleland. “At some point we were put together to do a gig and we said, what are we going to do? We’re like, well, we both do things in 6/8 jig rhythms … We thought, we’ll just start with that.”
Díes says the pair continues to mine their repertoires for commonalities to expand upon.
“We have a lot of instruments in common. We have fiddles, we have percussive dance, we have harps, we have similar rhythms that we use. So that was easy to find those common denominators,” Díes said.
Díes and Cleland have restaged the performance a few times since then, adding new elements with each production. They say that Chicago is the perfect place to sing this ultimately tragic tale of brothers in arms.
“I think that that this is possible because of the historic connections of our two ethnic groups, the trials and tribulations and successes that both have had,” Cleland said. “It’s the particular energy that we get from being immigrants to the city of Chicago and being connected to the energy of this place. This is a great city. It’s a great city for getting things done.”
“I hope people reflect on the similarities with the present day, that maybe history repeats itself in some ways,” Díes said. “That it’s good to reach across ethnic boundaries and collaborate, because that is the wellspring of creativity and innovation, when you do this type of collaboration.”
“Los San Patricios: The Irish Soldiers of Mexico” will be performed at the Irish-American Heritage Center on Friday, Nov. 11 and at the Beverly Arts Center on Wednesday, Nov. 16. 
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