1691 was a fateful year. When the Irish exiles, under the command of Patrick Sarsfield, left Ireland they did so in the pursuit of freedom. The took the name ‘The Wild Geese’ in the hope and belief that they would one day return to Ireland.
Many ‘Wild Geese’ have since journeyed abroad and played vital roles in their host communities. One such Wild Geese was Jon Riley.
John Riley travelled from his native Co. Galway in Ireland, to Canada and served in the US army. This offered the chance of adventure and a fight for freedom. However, when the US army started to arrange an invasion of Mexico, like Patrick Sarsfield before him, Jon Riley faced a stark choice.
Empathising with the Mexican struggle for freedom, he risked death by deserting the US army to stand with Mexico.
Riley was already an experienced private and he was welcomed into the Mexican army. He fought with a company of 48 Irishmen at the Siege of Fort Texas, where he manned artillery.
His skill and determination shone through on the battlefield, and the Mexican army soon saw his potential as a great leader. Riley formed the Battalon de San Patricio (which translated as ‘St Patrick’s Battalion’), made up of mostly Irish and German exiles. They first fought in the Battle of Monterrey as an artillery battery. Although the battle was ultimately lost, the battalion proved itself as an effective unit and would contribute to vital future battles.
Toward the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), many in the Battalon de San Patricios were tried and executed. As Jon Riley had deserted the US army before it declared war on Mexico, he was not executed. Instead, he was imprisoned and branded with a ‘D’ on each cheek to symbolise his desertion.
However, Riley’s actions have been honoured in both Ireland and Mexico. Mexico produced a bronze statue commemorating the Battalon de San Patricio, which it gave to Ireland as a gift. This has been laced in Cliften, Co. Galway, the birthplace of Jon Riley.
The actions of The Wild Geese have never been forgotten.