The Wild Geese – A Brief History of Ireland’s ‘Foreign Armies’

While the U.S. won the 1847 Battle of Buena Vista, one Mexican army regiment put up fierce resistance. It was an all-Irish outfit known as the St. Patrick's Battalion. For centuries, armies from Ireland have been fighting in other people's wars.

While the U.S. won the 1847 Battle of Buena Vista, one Mexican army regiment put up particularly fierce resistance. It was an all-Irish outfit known as the St. Patrick’s Battalion. For centuries, armies from Ireland have been fighting in other people’s wars. Let’s meet some of them.

“The St. Patrick’s were actually just one of a long list of Gaelic regiments to serve in other countries’ armies over the centuries.”

ON SEPT. 21, 1846, a column of more than 6,000 U.S. troops under the command of General Zachery Taylor attacked the Mexican town of Monterrey.

Among the thousands of local soldiers repelling the American advance were 175 men that seemed strangely out of place on the town’s ramparts. Unlike the national army regulars who were decked out in dark tunics and tall shakos, these men wore powder blue and yellow jackets with soft caps. They spoke English with a thick brogue. Most of their number were fair-skinned; many with ginger hair. While their comrades called them Los Colorados or “the red ones”, they were officially known as El Batallón de San Patricio or the St. Patrick’s Battalion.

The outfit was made up of mainly of Irish immigrants to the New World, many of whom had previously enlisted to fight in the U.S. Army. As their adopted homeland prepared for war with the overwhelmingly Catholic Mexican Republic, they deserted in droves to lend a hand. The St. Patrick’s Battalion, which included both infantry and artillerymen, was also home to volunteers straight from the old country, Irish immigrants from Canada and even a number of runaway American slaves.

Although Monterrey eventually fell to the Americans, the battalion fought tenaciously, pouring a heavy fire into the advancing enemy while withstanding a series of bayonet charges.

A Galway-born, 29-year old deserter from the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment named Jon Riley commanded the group. He later claimed that anti-Irish bigotry compelled him to abandon the American army. Once in Mexico, Riley was offered an officer’s commission and given command of a detachment of his countrymen.

Members of the San Patricios are hanged en masse by the US Army. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Members of the San Patricios are hanged en masse by the US Army. (Image source: WikiCommons)

After their solid performance at Monterrey, the St. Pats went on to fight in the battles of Buena Vista, where they supposedly acquitted themselves admirably, and later Churubusco. The unit was eventually routed at the gates of the capital along with the rest of the Mexican army. Eventually, 72 Irish deserters (including Riley) were captured by the Americans and tried for treason. While Jon and several of his compatriots were spared the noose because they joined the Mexican army before the war broke out, more than 50 defectors were put to death. Thirty of them were hanged in one mass execution on Sept. 10, 1847 at Chapultepec. One of those condemned had lost both of his legs in the fighting but despite his crippling woulds was pulled from his hospital bed and carried to the gallows.

Riley was briefly imprisoned and later died in Veracruz of alcoholism, (although that claim is disputed). Largely forgotten by American history, the St. Pats commander is celebrated in both Ireland and Mexico to this day. Statues of him stand in his birthplace of Clifden as well as the Mexican capital.

While an army of Irishmen fighting on the dusty plains of the Rio Grande seems like one of history’s quirky aberrations, the St. Patrick’s were actually just one of a long list of Gaelic regiments to serve in other countries’ armies over the centuries. In fact, instances of men from the Emerald Isle travelling abroad to take part in foreign wars was so common between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Irish had a name for these émigré soldiers. They called them the Wild Geese.

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day this year, MHN is taking a look at some other of these ‘ex-Pat’ soldiers.

Spain’s Irish Armies

Spain's Regiment of Hibernia. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Spain’s Regiment of Hibernia. (Image source: WikiCommons)

One of the first Irish foreign legions left home in the early 1580s as part of an English effort to support the Dutch in its 80-year rebellion against Spain. The Crown was keen to keep Ireland’s best warriors busy in Europe, lest they foment rebellion at home. Somehow en route, the predominately Catholic force pledged its allegiance to the Spanish king and spent the next four years fighting against both the English and the Dutch. For the next 200 years, Spain would employ Irish volunteers for wars in both Europe and the Americas. These included the Irlanda Regiment (est. 1698), the Ultonia Regiment (est. 1709), the Hibernia Regiment, and the Dublin Dragoons (1701). Irish units would even fight for Spain during the Napoleonic Wars.

Charles O'Brien of France's Irish Brigade commander presents a captured British flag to King Louis XV. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Charles O’Brien of France’s Irish Brigade commander presents a captured British flag to King Louis XV. (Image source: WikiCommons)

King Louis’ Irish Brigade

For pledging support to the Jacobite cause in 1690, France’s King Louis XIV demanded Ireland send volunteers to help bolster his own massive army. Five regiments were raised under the command of Justin McCarthy (aka Viscount Mountcashel). The unit became known as the Irish Brigade and would serve in the French army for the next hundred years. The regiments saw action in the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War as well as the French intervention in the American War of Independence. Later, an army of exiles would form Napoleon’s Irish Legion for the abortive 1803 invasion and liberation of the Emerald Isle. That army would end up fighting for Bonaparte in Spain in 1808, the Netherlands in 1809, the 1813 German campaign, and the Siege of Antwerp in 1814. It was disbanded after the emperor’s abdication.

Irish soldiers took part in a number of wars in Eastern Europe, including the campaigns of Peter the Great. (image source: WikiCommons)

Irish soldiers took part in a number of wars in Eastern Europe, including the campaigns of Peter the Great. (image source: WikiCommons)

Italy, Poland, Russia and Others

Irish volunteers would fight for an array of other military powers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Consider Peter Lacy of Limerick who served as a general for Peter the Great and took part in 31 military campaigns before his death in 1751. Andreas O’Reilly, born in 1742 in Ballinlough, eventually rose to the rank of General of the Cavalry in the Austrian army and would do battle for the Habsburg Monarchy in five wars spanning half a century. Then there were 1,300 Irish soldiers sent by the English to help Sweden fight the Poles in 1609. The force defected en masse to Catholic Poland where they would continue to serve until the end of the Muscovite War (1609 to 1618). Speaking of Ireland’s Catholic holy warriors, let’s not forget Myles William Patrick O’Reilly and his 900-man Irish contingent to the army of the Papal States in the 1859 Second Italian War of Independence. Lesser known are the men of the 1st Venezuelan Rifles, an all-Irish outfit that took part in that country’s 1811 to 1823 war with Spain. 

The New York 69th Regiment was a mostly-Irish Union army outfit.

The New York 69th Regiment was a mostly-Irish Union army outfit.

Irish-American Armies

The green and orange would also figure prominently in the wars for the Red, White and Blue. Irish immigrants were major contributors to the American War of Independence. There was Edward Stack of County Kerry, the commander of marines attached to John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War. Also James McHenry, an Irish-born surgeon with the Continental Army. He would later sign the U.S. Constitution and become President Washington’s war secretary. Fort McHenry in Baltimore was named in his honour. America’s original navy was established in part thanks to the efforts of Commodore John Barry, a sailor from Wexford.

Not all Irishmen in America were Patriots. At least two units of loyalist volunteers served the Tory cause: The 105th Regiment of Foot (also known as the Volunteers of Ireland) and the Roman Catholic Volunteers.

The Irish were also front and center in the American Civil War. As this very site reported in 2013, More than 150,000 troops in the Union army hailed from Ireland. Units such as the 37th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 90th Illinois Volunteers were comprised of recent arrivals from the Emerald Isle, as were the troops and officers of the famous 69th Infantry Regiment of New York, also known as the Irish Brigade. Interestingly enough, this outfit was almost entirely wiped out at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862 when it went up against a Confederate unit made up of Irish-born southerners. In fact, immediately after the war, Irish regiments from both the North and the South joined forces to invade Canada as part of a movement to topple the British Empire. It was known as the Fenian Raids. 

Britain's 27th "Inniskilling" Regiment of Foot, which fought with distinction in Wellington's Army, was raised in Ireland. (Image source: National Army Museum)

Britain’s 27th “Inniskilling” Regiment of Foot, which fought with distinction in Wellington’s Army, was raised in Ireland. (Image source: National Army Museum)

POST SCRIPT: In the Service of Great Britain

Whole volumes have been written about Irish contributions to British military history. And while space and time prevent us from further exploring the subject here (we’ll save that for another St. Patrick’s Day), suffice it to say, during the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s estimated that as many as a third of the soldiers and sailors in the service of the Crown hailed from Ireland. And while many of the rank-and-file were forced into uniform by the press gang or their own desperation, others were proud to take up the sword for Great Britain. In fact, many would become some of the U.K.’s most illustrious military heroes. Consider: Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington who was born in Dublin or Field Marshall Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener who came from County Kerry. 

SOURCES
http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/Mexican-AmericanWar/p/Biography-Of-John-Riley.htm
http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/Mexican-AmericanWar/p/Biography-Of-John-Riley.htm
http://www.irishineurope.com/about/research/irish-military-spain
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_regiment
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Brigade_(US)
http://www.aohflorida.org/irish-role-in-american-independence/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_military_diaspora
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_of_the_Wild_Geese
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Battalion
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Legion
http://www.sligoheritage.com/archirishsoldiersamericanwarhistory.htm

3 comments for “The Wild Geese – A Brief History of Ireland’s ‘Foreign Armies’

  1. 13 February, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    A few comments: The San Patricios were mainly Irish, but not “all-Irish,” as you claim. There were some other non-Irish deserters from the US army in the unit, including many German Catholics. The graphic with the caption “France’s Irish armies typically fought in red jackets,” actually shows two soldiers from Spain’s Hibernia regiment, as can be seen from the Spanish flag with “Hibernia” on its bottom edge between them.

    The 69th New York of the American Civl War was not “known as the Irish Brigde.” It was one of the regiments that helped make up that Brigade, along with the 63rd and 88th NY, the 116th PA and the 28th MA regiments (with the non-Irish 29th also belonging to it briefly in 1862).

  2. 10 April, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Guys, I have my doubts about the battle of Fredericksburg was 1962. Bit of a typo there.

    • admin
      10 April, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      Eeesh! Thanks for that!

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