After putting the corned beef in the Crock-Pot and digging out my silly leprechaun socks, I was in an Irish frame of mind this morning when I stopped in at my neighborhood Starbucks.
My eye caught on a new CD by the cash register — with artwork based on the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the title “San Patricio,” the Spanish name for St. Patrick. The latest album by The Chieftains, who have made Irish music popular around the world more than 40 years, is a tribute to the San Patricios, a small battalion of solders conscripted by the United States during the Mexican-American War, 1846-48.
Made up mostly of Irish immigrants, the soldiers abandoned their posts and ended up fighting alongside the Mexican army under Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. Ultimately they were defeated and the survivors tried for treason and hanged. The unit has become legendary among Mexicans and Irish, in part for the common bond of Catholicism the San Patricios shared with the Mexican people, at a time of anti-immigrant, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States.
A 1999 feature film about the San Patricios, “One Man’s Hero,” won several awards at the Sundance Film Festival and an ALMA award for its director, Lance Hool.
The Chieftains’ album is a blend of musical styles and performers: Irish tin whistles and uilleann pipes, Mexican guitar, accordion and mandolin; singers Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Lila Downs, Jorge Hernandez, Hugo Arroyo, Carlos Nunez and the Chieftain’s leader, Paddy Moloney. Irish actor Liam Neeson narrates one track: “March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande).”
The album’s lyrics, a combination of English and Spanish, tell of bravery and homesickness, of broken hearts and legends. In an editorial today, the New York Times riffed on the album to raise a toast for St. Patrick’s Day:
Here’s to the Irish, and here’s to the rest of us. May we never forget where we came from. Nearly all of us were Mexicans once. That is: the new immigrants, poor and reviled, propelled by hope and hunger into America’s prickly embrace.
It goes on to quote from one of the album’s classic songs, “Canción Mixteca,” sung in Spanish by the legendary Mexican band, Los Tigres del Norte:
How far I am from the land where I was born! Immense longing invades my thoughts, and when I see myself as alone and sad as a leaf in the wind, I want to cry. I want to die of sorrow.
The Times went on:
That old song, woven into the Mexican soul, is as Irish as it gets. And it’s an American song, too. We are all people who have lost our land in one sad way and found another. Whether we lament and celebrate in a pub or cantina, whether our tricolor flag has a cactus on it or not, we are closer to one another than we remember.
With Mexican folksongs in my headphones today, somehow I feel more Irish than the corned beef and the leprechaun socks could manage on their own.