SCULLY – THE IRISH FRENCH FOREIGN LEGIONNAIRE – 5/30/2020
The Irish, when their great wave of immigration crashed on American shores, were widely reviled. In the industrial north many businesses wouldn’t hire them – so the men often joined the army, for food, lodging and a small wage. But they were treated terribly in the army, as well – often for being Catholic, in this heavily Protestant country – beaten for small infractions, hanged for little more. Many eventually deserted and fled to Mexico, which was at least a predominantly Catholic country. And there they lived, worked, and raised families – producing the minority of blue-eyed Mexicans living there today.
When the Mexican-American War came, some of those Irish refugees fought on the side of Mexico, where they were known as the San Patricios – the St. Patrick’s Brigade. And they had no love for the America who had no love for them.
In Matamoros, the character of Scully came to Mexico a little later, having joined the French Foreign Legion, arriving in 1862 with the invasion force of Napoleon III, who meant to conquer Mexico. Previously unknown to me, the French Foreign Legion was composed entirely of Non-French volunteers, except for the Officers. The troops were rogues, scoundrels and fugitives from anywhere and everywhere else – fugitives who, once enlisting, were drilled to have allegiance to no country – to nothing except the French Foreign Legion. It’s where the term esprit de corps comes from.
That’s Scully’s backstory. Before we meet him in the novel, he was involved in the Battle of Camaron, a historical fight in which 62 Legionnaires were surrounded by two thousand Mexican troops. The Foreign Legion soldiers were all but wiped out – yet fought so valiantly that the Mexican general let the last six live, and had his men escort them back to the Legion base, as a tribute to their bravery. In Matamoros, Scully was one of those six survivors.
In the book, he’s been discharged, with injuries. He probably has what we’d now call PTSD, he’s become a local barfly in Matamoros, and that’s when we meet him.
I recount most of this in the song about him on the Matamoros CD – titled Scully’s Redemption. But much of the song is about the backstory, as well as some afterstory – with some deviations from the plot of the novel. So it’s a song about Scully’s interior life more than a precise recounting of the plotline. It’s a story he’s telling about himself.
The song has – aptly – an Irish lilt to it. It’s a bit about the sad life of the town drunk. In the playing of the song, I like the soft snare drum rolls, creating the military feel; and I like some of the wordplay, as in his self-deprecatory “She held me in middlin’ esteem.” But what I like most about it is, the listener doesn’t find out who he’s telling the story to until the last line of the song. In fact, the last word of the last line. (Hey, stop! No fair reading the bottom of the page first, now.)
Here are the lyrics. The link to hearing the song itself follows.
I was wanted by the Crown for mayhem and such
Sailed the Channel just to get away
Well I never did like those Frenchies much
But I joined their service on a strong fine day
become a French Foreign Legionnaire-i-ay
Well I fought for Napoleon Bonaparte
To conquer Old Mexico
But a tropical lady like to stole my heart
Oh, she asked me to stay, but I said No,
I’m a French Foreign Legionnaire-i-o.
We marched in regiment from Vera Cruz
To the Battle of Camaron
To arms! To arms! Did you hear the news?
They wiped us out but for me alone
In the French Foreign Leg-i-on
Well I wandered many a savage night, foul sleep gave me no rest,
Nor peace nor gardens of delight, ‘twas all a bitter jest,
and my heart an exiled guest
It took the wind right outta my esprit de corps
Winter of ‘63
So I drifted on over up to Matamor-(os)
lookin for my darlin senori-(ta)
French Foreign Legion no more for me (suh)
I knew every tosspot at every bar
Oh me spirit was in need of repair
Can no one love this sorry tar?
Could you spot me a drink, sir? Have a care
For this lately French Foreign Legionnaire
I passed out in the garden of a hacienda
My soul thirsty as a dry-bed stream
But their kitchen lass became a good friend o’
Mine – she held me in middlin’ esteem,
Now my Legionnaire days are but a dream
So I work with me darlin’ in the kitchen, sir,
Shoulda done this a long time ago
I’d be drunk or dead if it wasn’t for her
And I come pretty close when I soldiered-o
In a life I wouldn’t want a soul to know.
It’s a joy in the kitchen with me darlin’, sir,
Shoulda done this a long time gone,
I’d be dead inside but for knowin’ her
I was dead to life when I soldiered on
In a time before I knew you, my dear sweet son.
You can hear the song – Track 2 – at https://jameskahn.hearnow.com/matamoros