|Antonio Banderas as Zorro|
When I think Mexico, I picture women in beautiful white outfits wrapped in colourful shawls, men in boots and hats, white sandy beaches with turquoise waters, and ruins as far as the eye can see. I don’t imagine pints of Guinness, four-leaf clovers, or green rolling fields. Yet Mexico boasts a community of Irish immigrants who have shaped their country in many ways.
Back in the 1600s, Irishman William Lamport joined one of three Spanish-sponsored Irish regiments and eventually attracted the attention of the Duke of Olivares, the Prime Minister of Spain. Lamport allegedly had a scandalous affair with a noblewoman, so to get the trouble-maker out of the way, he was sent to Mexico to spy for the duke. There, Lamport met the local Indians and Africans, and began sympathising with their plight. Already known as a lady’s man, good Samaritan, and swashbuckler (he was a pirate for two years before living in Mexico), the tale of William Lamport and his adventurous life spread throughout the Spanish colonies. Although it all caught up with him after he wrote the first proclamation of independence in the New World. He was arrested and sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition, his life and escapades catapulting him into the status of a martyr. While it’s disputed by some historians, many people still believe William Lamport was the inspiration for Johnston McCulley’s Zorro.
Between 1846 to 1848, another Irishman, Jon Riley, led a group of several hundred immigrants during the Mexican-American War. Riley and his men fought alongside the Mexicans against the Americans, and his group became known as San Patricios, or Saint Patrick’s Battalion. Made up of deserters and defectors from the American Army, this band of soldiers were primarily Irish and German Catholic immigrants, along with Canadians, English, French, Italians, Poles, Scots, Spaniards, Swiss and native Mexicans, most of whom were Roman Catholics. Supported by the Mexican government, these soldiers were paid them to enlist in the Mexican army and received citizenship, generous land rights, and paid higher wages than the U.S. Army. North Americans who’d lived through this war viewed the San Patricios as traitors. But the Mexicans of that generation saw these men as heroes who helped fellow Catholics at a time when they needed it most. A hundred and fifty years after the war, the Mexicans paid tribute to the San Patricios with full military honours. Both the Mexican and Irish national anthems were played, and in 1993 the Irish started their own ceremony across the Atlantic in Galway.
In 1995, Carlos Monsivai, spokesman for the struggling people of Chiapas, held a political gathering and he spoke about the San Patricios and how they influenced Mexico’s history:
"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 compañeros and compañeras, 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 do. 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.
We like the Irish around here!"
We like the Irish around here!"
In more modern times, evidence of Irish ancestry can be seen in leaders such as Vicente Fox, president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006. Born to parents of Irish and Spanish descent, Fox’s term in office marked the end of 71 years of uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
And without a doubt, one of the most famous Mexican Irish descendants is the actor, writer and painter, Anthony Quinn. Born as Antonio Rodolfo Quinn-Oaxaca, his mother was of Aztec Indian ancestry and his father was born to an Irish immigrant from the County Cork. Well-known and loved for his movies such as Zorba the Greek, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Guns of Navarone, Quinn branched out into painting and writing. With both Irish and Mexican blood running through his veins, it’s no surprise that Quinn found a passion for storytelling.
So next time you’re in Mexico, have a good look around. Just about every city in Mexico has a street named O’Brian, and there’s even Ciudad Obregón (O’Brian City) as well as O’Brian City Airport. To be sure, the Irish have a long history with Mexico and without the men and women with the funny (but adorable!) accents, Mexico would most likely be a very different country.