Joe’s Blog: Saint Patrick’s Day and the Importance of the Irish in New Mexico
March 11, 2014
Saint Patrick is the pre-eminent patron saint of Ireland whom we recognize annually every March 17th. This annual day of celebration in remembrance of Saint Patrick is an important spring festival in its own right, except when Easter falls on this date which won’t happen again until 2060.
Born an Englishman in the 6th century, Patrick (or Padrig or Padraig as he would have been called) was kidnapped from England at the age of 14 by the Irish. After six years of slavery, he walked to the coast and escaped back to England. Later when he had become a Catholic Bishop, he had a revelation that he should return to the land of his captors to bring the teachings of Christ to the polytheistic Irish. Though a historical figure, many myths concerning Patrick were established such as his expelling the snakes or the usage of the prevalent Irish three leafed clover or shamrock as a way to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity. Though Rome sent subsequent missionaries to Ireland, St. Patrick has always been the most recognizable and important evangelical missionary of Christianity in Ireland.
In the mid-1800’s, Ireland suffered a devastating famine that all but decimated the population. During this period, many Irish left for the New World and came to America. While some settled into existing Irish immigrant communities in cities like Boston and New York City, others headed west to find a more Catholic tolerant populace and the opportunity of owning land, something rarely achieved in Ireland. Since Mexico controlled the Southwest, Irish immigrants gravitated to this part of the New World. This region was filled with Catholics who had been established for centuries, in stark contrast to their contemporary Protestant neighbors in the United States. As with the original British and Dutch colonists in America, the Irish sought their right for religious freedom which led them west, away from the cultural and religious tensions found in the larger cities of the East Coast.
In 1846, on the verge of the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, the Irish-American General Stephen Watts Kearney led an expedition of American forces into Santa Fe where he declared New Mexico a U.S. possession. Many of Kearney’s soldiers were Irish due to the practice of when Irish and other immigrants arrived to the US, the army greeted them at the boats and immediately enlisted them with the promise of free land and good pay. However, as US soldiers in the Southwest, the Irish were denied Mass and again felt the sting of anti-Catholic sentiment. As a direct rebellion from the US military, a soldier named John Riley formed the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, whose Irish and other European soldiers deserted and joined forces with the Mexicans.
The Batallion de San Patricio remains a fascinating chapter in history. Several hundred Catholic immigrants, primarily Irish but including Germans, Poles and Italians that were motivated by religious fervor, fought for the Mexican army thus deserting with United States equipment, artillery and knowledge. Later those “deserters” were captured, tried as traitors, and many were hung after the War. However, on a brighter note, just 64 years later when New Mexico became a state in 1912, the first governor was an Irishman named William G. McDonald. Later, one of New Mexico’s most popular governors, David Cargo was Irish and among many other accomplishments, started the New Mexico State Film Commission.
The expansion of the West provided an opportunity for the Irish to find employment in the construction of the railroads, where they were the largest ethnic group of workers for the Eastern Pacific railway. At Santa Fe’s Bishop Lamy’s request, Irish Sister Catherine Mellon and the Sisters of Charity relocated from Cincinnati to Santa Fe in 1865 to act as nurses for the Irish workers. The Sisters’s successful missions included the establishment of St. Vincent’s Hospital and Orphanage and the Saint Elizabeth’s Shelter for the Homeless, both still in existence today in Santa Fe.
Of course, no New Mexican Irish tale can leave out Billy the Kid, himself an Irishman born William Henry McCarty. Orphaned at an early age in Silver City, over time he became known for his “neat” clothing attire and friendly nature, and of course his legendary murderous behavior. A little like Robin Hood, “The Kid” was regarded as both an outlaw and folk-hero. Shot in the back by Sheriff Pat Garret after the Governor put a price on the Kid’s head, his legacy is still known throughout the State and many parts of the country.
How could anyone leave out Georgia O’Keeffe in a blog about St. Patrick’s Day in New Mexico? This most talented of women was herself the daughter of an Irishman. She was later drawn in the second half of her life to Abiquiu, NM, north of Santa Fe. There she found a quiet life to develop her painting style and to experience an artistic life that was not centered around the East Coast and its big cities. Georgia O’Keeffe is arguably the most successful and famous female artist of the 20th and 21th Centuries, and Santa Fe is fortunate to have the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the only museum solely dedicated to her work in the world.
There is no doubt that New Mexico should always celebrate this day in gratitude and recognition of the Irish. So on March 17th, remember General Stephen Watts Kearney, Sister Catherine Mallon and the Sisters of Charity, Irish Governors McDonald and Cargo, Billy the Kid, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Keep the Irish in your thoughts and something green on your person as a salute to the Shamrock and the many contributions made by the Irish to our country.
From the entire staff at Inn on the Alameda, Mike and I, we give you a little luck o’ the Irish!
–Joe and Michael Schepps