One is San Antonio in Texas, setting of the historic Alamo, which he has visited several times and written about frequently.
“I often mention that the Irish were a part of the story,” he told me, and his account here today takes a closer look at the two Londonderry men (city and county) and their role in the famous battle:
The ruin of an old Spanish mission in downtown San Antonio – the Alamo – is possibly the most revered building in America, usually referred to as ‘the Shrine to Texas liberty’.
There are 183 names carved on the cenotaph in front of the Alamo, the names of the men who died in an epic siege here, died trying to stop the advance of the Mexican army under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
The 183 self-styled ‘Texicans’, fighting for independence from Mexican rule, were holding out against something like 5,000 Mexican soldiers.
Many folk will know the story from films such as 1955’s Davy Crockett (starring Fess Parker) and John Wayne’s The Alamo in 1960.
The siege of the Alamo is burned deep in the American psyche, making such defenders as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie famous around the world.
But, Mitchell stresses, this is also an Irish story, for 11 of the 183 men named on the cenotaph (who all died in the battle that ended the siege), were native-born Irishmen, most of them from Ulster.
Men like Major Robert Evans from Londonderry and William B Ward from Limavady.
The hard-living, hard-drinking Ward was probably the first man to die when Santa Anna’s forces finally breached the front gate of the makeshift fortress on March 6th 1836 after a 13-day siege.
The Limavady man was guarding the gate at dawn that morning when Santa Anna’s buglers sounded the dreaded ‘Deguello’ – a bugle call that signalled total annihilation for the enemy.
Minutes later, the gate came crashing down, and Ward died of a dozen sabre wounds.
Behind him Davy Crockett (whose father John had come from Ulster) was swinging his long musket like a club, before he too went down.
In the little mission church, which had been turned into an armoury, the master of ordnance Robert Evans had drawn up a plan for when the walls were breached, as he knew they would.
The blue-eyed Londonderry fighter planned to blow up the magazine, and the Alamo itself, killing not only the defenders (who he knew were going to die anyway) but also hundreds of Mexican soldiers.
But he was wounded as the first soldiers battered down the door of the church, and he was shot dead as he crawled with a torch toward the barrels of gunpowder. He was 36.
(It’s ironic that if he had succeeded there wouldn’t be an Alamo for 2.5 million visitors to see every year.)
It was all over in 90 minutes.
An estimated 1,500 Mexicans – almost a third of the attacking force – are said to have perished.
As noted, all the defenders were killed, apart from a handful of women and children, and a slave named Joe who Santa Anna believed took no part in the battle.
Stephen Dennison, 24, from Galway, missed most of the siege. He had slipped through the Mexican lines into the Alamo just two days before the final assault.
Another Irishman, Thomas R Jackson, hometown unknown, also sneaked in on March 4.
Apart from Ward, Evans, Dennison and Jackson, the Irish defenders are named as Samuel E Burns, Andrew Duvalt, Joseph M Hawkins, James McGee, Robert McKinney, Jackson J Rusk, and Burke Trammel.
Ward was a Major; all the others are listed as Privates.
Why were they there? In two words – free land.
Sam Houston, the leader of the revolt against Mexican rule, didn’t have the cash for an army so volunteers were offered free tracts of the lush south-Texas land in lieu of wages.
The Alamo defenders were mostly in their 20s and 30s, young enough to be lured also by the adventure of war – a war that began in 1835 when Cork-born Patrick Usher issued the first call for independence.
Texas historian Turtle Bunberry observes: “The Alamo’s (Irish-born) defenders were mostly...Presbyterian Scots-Irish.”
The Scots-Irish (North America’s name for Ulster-Scots) were part of the first wave of immigrants from the north of Ireland who flocked to America from the 18th century.
The second wave of Irish immigrants, mostly Catholic and mostly from the south, began with the potato famine of the 1840s. John F Kennedy, the first Catholic president, came from this wave.
The Alamo was a victory for Santa Anna but, as every visitor to the shrine is told, it paved the way to independence for Texas. It galvanised the settlers, who flocked to Sam Houston’s army, and on April 21st 1836, shouting ‘Remember the Alamo’, they routed the Mexicans at San Jacinto. The Republic of Texas was born; nine years later it became the 28th state of the US
Mitchell Smyth adds a footnote: “The figure of 183 defenders, as listed on the cenotaph, is usually accepted, but revisionist historians have put the figure as high as 212. If that’s correct, maybe more than 11 Irishmen died.”