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Irish Brigades Abroad
From the Wild Geese to the Napoleonic Wars
By Stephen McGarry
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Stephen McGarry
All rights reserved.
THE RECRUITMENT OF THE IRISH REGIMENTS ABROAD
Eighteenth-century Ireland had harsh Penal Laws, which limited opportunities for Catholics at home and forced many to turn to military service abroad. The Penal Code prevented Catholics from carrying arms, then a matter of personal honour and protection. They also had to sell their horse to a Protestant for £5; a horse was a forerunner of the performance car today and was a status symbol at the time. Mixed marriages were forbidden. Catholics were deprived of the vote and were banned from the professions and from educating their children, although in many cases this was impossible to enforce, as Catholic hedge schools sprang up and children were sent to the Continent to further their studies.
The Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery 1704 was the most important single statute and was cleverly designed to break the power of Catholic families. The Act directed that when a landowner died, his land was to be divided equally (or gavelled) between all his sons to break up the estate. To ensure the eldest son inherited the estate intact, Catholics sent their younger sons abroad. Some entered the priesthood while others joined the Irish Brigade. The eldest son was also required to convert to Protestantism to inherit his family's estate, or would otherwise forfeit it. 'The estimated fall in Catholic landownership decreased from 14 per cent in 1700 to 5 per cent in 1780 but this was not due to more Catholics losing their lands to Protestants, but to Catholics becoming Protestants to retain their land.' In some families, to ensure estates remained in the family, a system existed for generations whereby the eldest son was brought up a Protestant and the other sons as Catholics. The younger sons were typically sent to France and joined the Irish Brigade. Far from suppressing Jacobitism, these laws assisted in pushing the sons of the gentry to France and into the army of James III, 'the Pretender'.
Ownership of land was the basis of wealth, social standing and power, as landlords received income through rent and gained respect in their community. Irish people have always had a special attachment to their land and passing it down to subsequent generations was always of paramount concern. The Wild Geese lost their ancestral estates by leaving and many cherished hopes of getting their estates back. Charles O'Brien, the 6th Lord Clare, Marshal of France and military governor of Languedoc, lost 80,000 acres but kept an exact rent roll, which he would find useful when his estates (he hoped) were restored. He also maintained close links with his native County Clare and 'knew all the private affairs of the local landed gentlemen as if he had lived among them'. The flamboyant Chevalier Charles Wogan from Kildare was governor of La Mancha province (outside Madrid), made famous by Cervante's early seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote. Walsh wanted to return home and claimed that even after achieving fame and fortune abroad he 'should have a better estate at home than ever his [Don Quixote's] fathers enjoyed and a tomb too where no man of honour may be ashamed to lie'. As late as 1786, the authorities in Ireland were alarmed when they learned that Chevalier Thomas O'Gorman, a captain in the French Irish Brigade, was collecting portfolios of confiscated Catholic estates dating from the time of Cromwell with a view to restoring them to their Catholic owners.
Chevalier Thomas O'Gorman (1732–1809) was a native Irish speaker who came from a prominent Gaelic aristocratic family from Castletown, Co. Clare. He was educated in the Irish College in Paris and joined the Irish Brigade and was knighted by Louis XVI. He married into the French aristocracy and inherited vast vineyards in Burgundy. The colourful O'Gorman was a noted antiquarian and genealogist. He produced pedigrees by studying medieval Gaelic genealogical manuscripts (such as the Great Book of Lecan and the Four Masters) for many Irish gentry officers on the Continent who needed proofs of their nobility for advancement in society or in the army. O'Gorman lost his estate in Burgundy in the turmoil of the French Revolution and returned to Ireland to retire. In 1785 he arranged for the transfer from the Irish College in Paris of the fourteenth-century Irish-language Book of Ballymote and the Book of Lecan to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin where they still remain.
In the eighteenth century, the economic power and prestige of many once prominent Catholic families had been virtually wiped out. In 1739, a pamphleteer declared that 'there are not twenty Papists in Ireland who possess each £1,000 a year in land'. Thirty years later in 1772, the Viceroy Lord Townsend noted that 'the laws against popery have so far operated that at this day there is no popish family remaining of any great weight from landed property.' Their decline was also highlighted in the 1770s by Arthur Young's Tour of Ireland: 'The lineal descendents of great families, men possessed of vast property are now to be found all over the kingdom, working as cottiers', although even with their land and wealth gone this 'underground gentry' were still held in high esteem by the local people. The wealth of the chief of the O'Connor clan from Roscommon (a direct descendent of the eleventh-century King of Connaught), Young stated, were 'formerly so great, are reduced to three or four hundred pounds a year, the family having fared in the revolutions of so many ages much worse than the O'Neils and O'Briens. The common people pay him the greatest respect, and send him presents of cattle ... they consider him as the prince of a people involved in one common ruin.' In 1790 the French consul to Ireland, Charles Coquebert de Montbret, mirrored Young's observations and 'was astonished to find on visiting Ireland that even French army families like Dillon and Lally were mere tenant farmers on Kirwan's estate at Cregg in Galway, while the Mullays were simply 'peasants'.
The ordinary Catholic farm labourer lived a precarious existence, being exposed to bad harvests which led to several Irish famines in the eighteenth century. A soldier's life could be an attractive (but dangerous) option as one could lose life or limb – or both. Migration was always a complex social issue; some joined yearning for adventure or to escape family pressures or the law. Others joined the French and Spanish army to help liberate Ireland from British rule. Recruits received a cash bounty on joining and were paid around the same rate as a labourer. In many cases, uncles or other family members brought other relatives over into the Irish regiments.
There were also limited opportunities for the sons of Catholic gentry families. They could enter the Catholic Church, become a medical doctor (one of the few professions open to Catholics), or join an Irish regiment on the Continent. All three options necessitated leaving Ireland and all were expensive. Catholics were prevented from entering Trinity College Dublin until 1793 and as there was no seminary (until 1795) students had to train on the Continent. By contrast, the choices of their Protestant counterparts were wider; they could take a degree in Trinity; be called to the Bar; purchase a commission in the British army or navy or buy a seat in Parliament.
For the Catholic gentry, an army career was attractive as entry into the officer class improved the family's social standing in their communities. The cash-strapped family, reduced to middlemen or tenants on their ancestral estates, could restore some of their former status, dignity and pride, by having a son serving as an officer on the Continent. Many were sent to France to acquire and cultivate the gentlemanly skills necessary for advancement in life: 'In terms of prestige, the finest career for the younger son of a Catholic landowner was that of a French officer.' The sole cavalry regiment of Fitzjames' horse was the most prestigious; Dillon's was also highly prized as it was known for speaking the best French.
The younger son who was training to be an officer still had to be supplemented with money sent from home. Officers could only afford to marry at the rank of captain, which yielded £100 a year but promotion was slow. Officer cadets sometimes served as common soldiers until a commission became available. The Liberator Daniel O'Connell's uncle, Captain Maurice O'Connell and Captain Richard Hennessy of Cognac fame, served in the ranks for several years before their promised cadetships were procured.
A career could be forged in the French Marine Royale for those with the right connections. A naval ensign or midshipman could rise in five years to lieutenant and then captain a small frigate. The more ambitious might even rise to the coveted rank of capitaine de vaisseau, commanding one of the three-deck battleships of the line. John MacNamara from Co. Clare rose to vice-admiral and commander of the port of Rochefort. His aggressive naval tactics helped to ensure one of the few French naval victories during the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1745, he commanded the Invincible and successfully engaged four British ships of the line in a sustained sea-fight and beat them off. Another kinsman, Count Henry MacNamara, commanded the French navy in the Indian Ocean. During the French Revolution, he was denounced as a foreign aristocrat and assassinated by revolutionary soldiers of the French garrison in the Ile de France, in modern-day Mauritius.
Service in the Spanish navy, the Armada Española, was not as highly regarded as the French navy although it provided good promotional prospects for those with ambition. Captain O'Donnell, a nephew of Hugh O'Donnell the Earl of Tyrone, captained a man-of-war in the Spanish Mediterranean Fleet before being killed at the Battle of Taragonna in 1642 during the Thirty Years War. In the 1750s, Daniel O'Kuoney from Co. Clare rose to the rank of admiral in the Spanish navy. Enrique MacDonnell captained a Spanish man-of-war at the Battle of Trafalgar and also rose to admiral.
The Irish even ventured into Catherine the Great's Imperial Russian navy, which had embarked on a series of expansion plans to rival its European neighbours in the 1800s and sought Irish acumen in building up her fleet. Several Irishmen became admirals and went on to enjoy illustrious careers there, such as Admirals Lacy, Kennedy, Tate and O'Dwyer, along with Commodore Cronin and Rear-Admiral O'Brien.
The Irish not only served within their own Irish regiments, as thousands of footloose Irish swordsmen were scattered in various regiments throughout the Continent. In 1813, after the French defeat at the Battle of Nivelle during the Peninsular War, an English officer walking among the wounded French soldiers came across a dying officer of an elite French light infantry Chasseur regiment, who called out to him in English. He discovered that the officer was an Irishman, who asked him to pass some papers:
If you are an English officer, you can give me comfort in my dying hour. Yesterday I had a son, we were in the same regiment, and fought side by side; twice he saved my life by turning aside the bayonet that had threatened it and when at last I fell, he tried to bear me to a place of safety, but at the moment, the enemy bore down upon our ranks, and I was separated in the mêlée from my gallant boy. Should he be a prisoner in your army, for the sake of humanity, endeavour to discover his destination, and convey to him these papers.
The English officer sought out the man's son among the French prisoners of war but found out that he had sadly died of his wounds the previous day.
Miles Byrne, who served in Napoleon's Irish Legion, also recalled the career of Dubliner Chevalier Murphy, who left his job as a clerk in Thomas Street, Dublin and emigrated to France. He joined a regular French regiment of the line and rose up through the officer ranks, was decorated with the Legion of Honour before rising to inspector general in the French army.
British trade policies maintained Ireland as an economic backwater, reliant on England, on the pretence she might break away and ally herself to either Catholic Spain or France. English Navigation Acts placed embargos on French and Spanish imports, which only boosted smuggling and made it more lucrative for the Irish. Many notable Catholic families, such as the O'Sullivans, Gooths and O'Connells of Co. Kerry sustained themselves through some of the leanest years of penal times through this contraband trade; one of the O'Connell's quipped that 'their faith, their education, their wine and their clothing were equally contraband.'
The well-established trading routes running from Galway and Limerick along the southern and western seaboards to the French centres of Bordeaux and La Rochelle had been brisk since the Middle Ages. Illicit trade resulted in French wines, silks and tobacco being smuggled into Ireland, and counterfeit money, pirated copies of books, untaxed wool, salted pork and beef, butter and Wild Geese recruits smuggled out. This cargo was carried by handy, especially fitted-out armed sloops and cutters, which plied the coasts of Rush in Co. Dublin, Kerry, Clare and Galway. Privately owned armed vessels (known as privateers) operated under licence by carrying lettres de marque, legitimising the taking of enemy ships as prizes in wartime. A former officer of Dillon's Regiment, Luke Ryan from Rush, the famous captain of the Black Prince, was commissioned as a privateer carrying French lettres de marque in the American War of Independence. Ryan was credited with the capture of 'more vessels belonging to Great Britain than any other single vessel during the war.' In many cases, smuggling was combined with wrecking as ships with unknown colours sailed along the Kerry coasts at their own peril as wreckers would tie a lantern to the neck of a horse and set the horse out to graze. From a distance the light rising and falling was similar to a light in a distant ship, which had the effect of steering the ship onto the rocks, and then wreckers would steal whatever booty was onboard.
The British were also concerned about the high number of priests training on the Continent, many of whom had strong Jacobite sympathies and were suspected of being implicated in recruitment. The clergy in Ireland were an influential force and they promoted service in the countries of France and Spain, advocating that by serving in Catholic armies they were remaining faithful to their Catholic faith. Nicholas Taaffe addressed a petition to Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis of Austria, claiming that he was forced to leave Ireland
Because he was afraid that his descendants pressed by the Penal Laws would not resist the temptation of becoming Protestants. He therefore took refuge to a Catholic country where his ancestors were well known by the military services they had rendered at different intervals to the House of Austria. He had abandoned his relations and his estate and the rank and liberty he had in his country to prevent his descendants from deserting a religion to which their Imperial Majesties so fervently adhered: he did not repent of having acted thus, but it would be a great grief to him if before his death he had not the consolation to see he had not ruined his family.
There were around thirty Irish Colleges on the Continent from the sixteenth century and the largest and most influential one was the Irish College in Paris. The colleges not only trained the clergy, they also acted as unofficial embassies by liaising with the authorities at home and also educated the Brigade's children. They lobbied foreign courts and provided genealogical pedigrees and certificates of marriage and baptisms. In return, the Irish regiments financially supported the colleges, through bursaries and gifts, and many soldiers submitted a portion of their wages to them. They also supported the Irish language by teaching priests Irish, as they were required to be proficient in the language when they returned to their Irish-speaking parishes. The presence of Irish clergy choosing to remain on the Continent and bringing extended family members over through the uncle–nephew axis further fortified links between Ireland and the Continent.
Ambitious Irish parents groomed their children for emigration to France from a young age. It was quite typical for a 12-year-old child to be sent to an Irish college abroad and from there he might enter the priesthood or join an Irish regiment as an officer cadet. After a few years' army service, an officer might venture into business. Irishmen could claim French nationality subject to ten years' satisfactory military service and they were given similar rights in Spain. Naturalisation was an important privilege as it gave the recipient licence to engage in the lucrative French and Spanish colonial trade. An officer's Irish background was deemed by some to be politically neutral and with his linguistic skills he was ideally positioned to trade with the British Empire and the continental powers, especially with the opportunities presented in the New World. Many Irish trading families became successful and established themselves in the trading ports of Cadiz, Dunkirk, La Rochelle and Ostende, and elsewhere. They channelled trade into Catholic hands back home in Ireland and also used their wealth for political purposes and funded Bonnie Prince Charlie's expedition to Scotland in the '45'.
Excerpted from Irish Brigades Abroad by Stephen McGarry. Copyright © 2013 Stephen McGarry. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Recruitment of the Irish Regiments Abroad,
2. The Character of the Brigade,
3. The Jacobite War (1689–91),
4. The Flight of the Wild Geese (1691),
5. The Day We Beat the Germans at Cremona,
6. The First Jacobite Rising (1715),
7. The Battle of Fontenoy (1745),
8. The Second Jacobite Rising (1745),
9. The Decline of Charles Edward Stuart,
10. The Waning Jacobite Cause,
11. Lieutenant General Thomas Lally's Expedition to India,
12. The War of American Independence (1775–83),
13. The French Revolution (1789),
14. The United Irishmen and France,
15. Napoleon's Irish Legion (1803–15),