San Patricio

03.17.10
Chieftains
The New York Times

On this day of all days in the Irish-American calendar, when ethnic pride swells, let’s raise a toast: 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.

What brings this juxtaposition to mind is “San Patricio,” a new album from Paddy Moloney of the great Irish traditionalist band the Chieftains. It commemorates a historical footnote: the San Patricio battalion of Irish-immigrant soldiers who deserted the United States Army and fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. They picked the losing side, were captured, executed or branded as traitors, and then forgotten, except by Mexicans.

Mr. Moloney, a musician of restless curiosity, saw it as a tale of tragedy and loss, but also a chance for creative collision. “If the Irish were there, there would most certainly have been music,” he says. The same goes for the Mexicans. He invited Irish, Mexican and American musicians to play and sing, to see what would happen.

What happened was not all dolorous lamentation, though there is some of that. The rest is joy, thoroughly Mexican yet utterly Irish, carried aloft by tin whistles, skin drums, pipes, harps, guitars and stomping feet. It’s a mix you’ve never heard, but eerily familiar. Listen to the classic “Canción Mixteca,” sung in Spanish by the Mexican supergroup Los Tigres del Norte, accompanied by accordion, bajo sexto, tin whistle and uilleann pipes.

“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.”

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.