Rachel Gaffney’s Letter From Texas - Unlikely Heroes

Priorities have changed this month for the famous foodie who’s flying the tricolour for us in Texas. Excitement about bringing visitors to Ireland will return, but events in Europe are making her reflect on the history of the state that she now calls home - and some unlikely heroes.  

A few days ago, I saw an image of two dead children lying beside the corpse of their mother in Ukraine. Somehow, writing about beautiful seaside towns and luxurious new hotels in Ireland seems inappropriate now. I know the wheels of industry must continue to turn and we can only do so much, but over the last week I feel rather numb and useless. I simply could not bring myself to write my original article about a picturesque Irish town.

I spent the first weekend of March in Austin, Texas. On the Sunday morning around 8.30am, all was quiet and there were no queues for coffee as there had been the previous day. Hardly surprising, in this young college town. Before leaving for Dallas, I wanted to stop and look at the capitol building, something I always like to do. I walked up Congress Avenue with my coffee, the humidity hinting at a looming storm. One or two eager joggers passed me but, for the most part, I was alone with my thoughts in front of this spectacular building made of Texas sunset granite. Monuments and bronze sculptures are scattered throughout the grounds. I stopped to take another sip of my coffee and, as I did so, looked up at the monument in front of me. I had stopped at the Heroes of the Alamo Monument. The Battle of the Alamo was fought on March 6, 1836.

I was standing here, 186 years later, exactly to the day. March 6, 2022. A bronze statue of a Texan holding a rifle stands atop this monument. Inscribed beneath are the names of defenders of the Alamo (Alamo is located in San Antonio). This was a short battle, 13 days in all and not the winning battle (that was the Battle of San Jacinto) but all in all a pivotal battle. Almost 200 men died and, of the 200, 12 were Irish born and another 14 had Irish surnames.

I tell this little story as the numbers and names may seem small and insignificant but thinking about what Ukraine is going through, we are reminded again of the importance of heart and determination. So, back to the Battle of the Alamo. On this fateful day, in March 1836, General Santa Anna had recaptured the Alamo.

Yet only a month later, on April 21, the Commander of the Texas army, Sam Houston led his troops in a surprise attack on the Mexican troops. Oh and it is important to note the Mexican army outnumbered Texas, by two to one. I mentioned the Irish who died at the Alamo, indeed another 100 (who made up a seventh of the Texas army) died at the Battle of San Jacinto. As they charged they shouted the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo!” The battle lasted 18 minutes. Their independence was secured for another 10 years, before becoming a state in 1845.

For years leading up to these battles, another little known Irish man played a very important role in the formation of Texas. His name was Fr Michael Muldoon. He was born in the Diocese of Kilmore in County Cavan in 1780. He moved to Spain and studied in the Irish College in Seville, where he learned to speak Spanish. By 1812 he had moved to Monterey, Mexico. In the 1820’s Stephen F Austin was a key figure in the colonization of Texas. If it wasn’t for the relationship between these two men there might not have been an Austin, Texas as we know it today.

In 1833, Austin was imprisoned for a year and a half in a Mexican jail for inciting insurrection against Mexico. Articles and history books mention his release from prison in 1835, but rarely do you hear the vital information relating to the time prior to his release. During this time, he was in solitary confinement and the only person permitted to visit him was his old friend Fr Michael Muldoon, who had first met Austin in Mexico city in 1822 and taught him Spanish. Later, in April 1831, Fr Muldoon moved to Texas at Austin’s request and insistence. Catholicism was Mexico’s religion and therefore colonists were required to be baptised Catholic in order to own land. Fr Muldoon lived in Texas for a while, carrying out many baptismal ceremonies and weddings. He was known for his love of food and drink and was considered a liberal priest. Muldoon was back in Mexico when Austin was imprisoned. He took money, food and writing materials to his friend. Fr Muldoon also had a good relationship with General Santa Anna and campaigned tirelessly for his friend’s release.

Stephen F Austin was released from prison on Christmas Day 1834. But Fr Muldoon was also imprisoned, as he was seen by Mexico to be Pro-Texas. To this day, no-one knows how he died. There is a grave marked in honour of Fr Michael Muldoon, in Hostyn Texas, a 4-hour drive south of Dallas. Most people will probably pass through or pass by and not notice or know, but one thing is certain, this man from Cavan made a difference and, in his own way, helped secure Texas independence.

Today the world watches as another unlikely man in Ukraine, a former actor and comedian, stands up for what is right and good and inspires us all.


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