LIANE HANSEN, host:

With St. Patrick's Day just ahead, we have an unusual musical mash-up for you today. Paddy Moloney and his legendary Irish group The Chieftains, have joined Ry Cooder and artists from south of the American border. They tell a musical story on their new CD, called "San Patricio" - Spanish for St. Patrick.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The recording comes out Tuesday and commemorates a little-known connection between Mexico and Ireland. During the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, a group of disaffected Irish-American conscripts, led by Captain John Riley, crossed the border to fight with the Mexicans.

Here to tell us about that and the project are Ry Cooder, who joins us from NPR West.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RY COODER (Member, The Chieftains): Thank you so much.

HANSEN: And Paddy Moloney, who joins us from Voxnow Studios in Naples, Florida.

Hi, Paddy.

Mr. PADDY MOLONEY (Member, The Chieftains): How are you? I'm delighted to be here, and talk and chatting with you all.

HANSEN: Well, I'm delighted to have you. And I'm going to start with you because I want you to tell us the story of the Irish and their role in the Mexican-American War.

Mr. MOLONEY: The story itself is just fascinating. And when I saw the name John Riley, a man from Connemara in the west of Ireland, and he was enlisted against his wishes, I would believe he was given a rifle to go down there and shoot Mexicans - and that didn't go down too well at all.

One reason, of course, they were Catholics, but also the injustice that was taking place. And he was very familiar with what was happening back in Ireland for many hundreds of years. So he put together this great battalion, the San Patricio. They deserted the American Army, went on to fight with the Mexicans. And they fought five very heroic, wonderful battles. And I'm afraid the last one was at Churubusco, which was the finisher-upper, as they say.

(Soundbite of CD, "San Patricio")

Mr. LIAM NEESON (Actor): We are the San Patricios, a brave and gallant band. They'll be no white flag flying within this green command. We are the San Patricios. We have but one demand: to see the Yankees safely home across the Rio Grande.

HANSEN: You have Liam Neeson narrating a poem in tribute to the San Patricios, on the CD. And they're a lot of other artists who are participating: Linda Ronstadt, Los Tigres del Norte, Lila Downs.

Ry Cooder, let me ask you, what surprised you about the connections between Mexican and Irish music? Did you make some discoveries here?

Mr. COODER: Well, these Irish soldiers and then civilians - Mexican civilians -would have known their country's songs and their Irish dances and things and melodies. And I imagine that they found that they joined, like joinery like wood joinery, you know, together with what the Mexican folks liked to dance to as well, and - is very compatible, you know.

(Soundbite of CD, "San Patricio")

Mr. COODER: So as a musician, I have to say, when you start to hear these things and the tunes interlocking, at this point in my life, I'm not so surprised anymore. But...

HANSEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COODER: But it is as Paddy's saying, it's a great story and one that certainly is going - I think is going to interest people. I was never taught this in Los Angeles public schools, I'm going to tell you.

By the way, I want to add, my own great-grandfather, whom I never knew, Jack O'Leary, was one of these conscripted Irish guys. He was a farmer. Stepped off the boat in the - Ellis Island there. This is the family story. And as soon as he got down the gangplank, there were two officers, Army officers, waiting for him: Here's your uniform, and here's your gun.

HANSEN: Wow. Paddy Moloney, how about for you? Were there some surprising musical connections that you found doing this project?

Mr. MOLONEY: Yes. As you know, I started at about what, a year and a half ago. And right from the word go, Lila Downs came into the studio in New York. And the fusion that started there, it sort of inspired - totally inspired me like there was two harps going one against one another.

(Soundbite of CD, "San Patricio")

Mr. MOLONEY: And it was like a little battle of the harps, you know, and this was something I didn't have planned. But you know, I slotted in 16 bars of it there. I gave them the go ahead, you know, to do what they wanted. And then at the end of the whole day, you know, they - Lila was up doing her little dance routine to the songs, to the "La Iguana," and I had my Irish dancers just happen to be there. And they joined in. And so there was a big huli, as we call it back in Ireland, like a big party - and maybe a little drop of tequila thrown in for good measure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: There's one song - you write on this, Ry, correct?

Mr. COODER: Mm-hmm. That's quite right.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. COODER: Yes.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit more about it.

Mr. COODER: Well, I liked the idea of the soldier soldier's riding home. Everybody's interested in this. The last words perhaps, the last communication, the last thought, you know, to the loved ones at home - and what's his last thoughts going to be?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COODER: (Singing) Take a message to my Mary. She's the one that's true, I know. When you saw me, I had fallen on the sands of Mexico.

They never had seen this kind of climate. They never had four-day dust storms that caused them to get lost from their regiment, or their pack mules who ran off with the food. I mean, they had a terrible time down there. A hundred and twenty degrees, 110 degrees out there with a full pack, wool uniforms - can you imagine? - no water. What's he thinking of? This is what it seems, to me, to be about. So that's how, you know, it's...

Mr. MOLONEY: You did a great job, Ry.

Mr. COODER: Thank you.

Mr. MOLONEY: It's a great song.

Mr. COODER: Thank you, sir.

HANSEN: Yeah. Talking about some of the artists that you have on this project, one of the most distinctive voices on this CD is Chavela Vargas. And it's interesting because she was picked as one of NPR's 50 great voices - series. But tell us a little bit about her.

Mr. MOLONEY: Well, when I went down to Mexico last year, she was rather ill at the time, and she couldn't come up for the recording. So I was kicking myself. I did get some other - great other artists. But Chavela, unfortunately, wasn't too well, and I thought I'd lost her and - because she's into her 90s now. And she's young and 90, lady. But she got in touch about six months later and she says, I'm back in form. And she sent me four wonderful songs, and I picked this particular one.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHAVELA VARGAS (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

HANSEN: Paddy, was this kind of an impetus for you? I mean, you really want us to learn a little bit about this history, I mean, and what kind of impression do you want to leave...

Mr. MOLONEY: Yeah.

HANSEN: ...on us after we hear this?

Mr. MOLONEY: Well, you know, without getting in there and pointing fingers and blaming this one and that, this is a part of history that happened. I mean, it's not right that such an event took place and it's not in the history books. I mean, that nobody knows about it over here, and very few people know about it back home.

I would say that the Mexican government and the Irish government, they did release two postage stamps to commemorate; that was in 1997. One came out in Ireland, and one came out in Mexico...

HANSEN: Huh.

Mr. MOLONEY: ...just to commemorate the San Patricio. And I think that was, you know, at least something being said, at long last. And so I think the story, it's a great piece of material for people to know about.

HANSEN: "San Patricio" is the new CD coming out Tuesday by the Chieftains, featuring Ry Cooder. Ry Cooder joined us from NPR West.

Thanks so much.

Mr. COODER: Thank you.

HANSEN: Paddy Moloney, from the Chieftains, joined us from Voxnow Studios in Naples, Florida.

Thank you very much, and Happy San Patricio Day.

Mr. MOLONEY: Oh, thank you. (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: Gracias.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can hear "San Patricio" in its entirety on our Web site, NPRMusic.org.

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