GEMMA GRANT remembers the Irish soldiers of Mexico and their leader John Riley from Connemara

The great Hunger of 1845 decimated Ireland’s population by some two million through starvation and immigration. Thousands of Irish boarded the ‘coffin ships’ for North America; many never to return to their native land. For those able bodied men who survived the crossing, many would meet their end on American battlefields fighting in wars they little understood.

From these ranks of a displaced people, came John Riley, a native Irish speaker from Connemara, and son of a tenant farmer. Making his way through the ranks of the British and American army, John Riley would have been lost to history were it not for the fact that he deserted from the American army in April 1846, prior to its war with Mexico, over disputed territory along the Rio Grande.

Speculation has been offered for these army desertions, recorded as the highest in any American war. Drunkenness has been cited along with mercenary reasons – Mexico was offering a better remuneration package. Others suggested Riley was a malcontent deserter from the American ranks.

However, according to records of the period, Sgt Riley was in line for promotion to lieutenant within the army, not an easy promotion to achieve at that time.

Perhaps a more plausible theory for the mass desertions was religious intolerance against Catholics, especially the Irish variety who were referred to as ‘Potato Heads’.

In his memoirs, Christopher Zeh, a German immigrant, spoke of anti-Catholic prejudice and floggings within the US army and how the Irish were singled out for rough treatment.

This combined with Mexico’s recruitment drive for deserters may have been the catalyst that drove the Irish and others to switch sides.

Zeh, himself a serving US soldier, mentioned Mexican pamphlets printed in German, English and French. The pamphlets, aimed at the immigrant soldiers spoke of Mexico’s peaceful relations with their countries. They went on to outline that Mexico was fighting a foreign foe who threatened their religious way of life – many Churches in Texas had been desecrated before the outbreak of the Mexican/American war.
Zeh, believed that the call for religious freedom resonated strongly among the Irish who deserted in their hundreds thanks to the pamphlets. No doubt memories of a ravished homeland ran deep within the Irish psyche. Many Irish believed they had more in common with Catholic Mexico than the WASP elements within the American establishment.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own