Fightin’ Expats – The Colourful History of Irish Brigades Abroad

Irish units in the French Army handed the British a stinging defeat at the Battle of Fontenoy. Here the Irish commander presents Louis XV with a British flag taken in battle.

Irish units in the French Army handed the British a stinging defeat at the Battle of Fontenoy. Here an Irish commander presents Louis XV with a British standard taken in battle.

By Stephen McGarry

WHEN THE PROTESTANT William III chased James II from the throne of England in 1688, Ireland’s Catholics rallied to the cause of the deposed Stuart monarch. After two years of bitter fighting, William’s forces had vanquished the so-called Jacobites and James withdrew into exile in France. More than 14,000 Irish veterans of the war followed their beloved sovereign in what became known romantically as the ‘the Flight of the Wild Geese’.

Both France and Spain harboured the refugees and formed them into a series of ”Irish Brigades”. The regiments wore red uniforms – the colors of the deposed Stuart kings – symbolizing their allegiance to the Jacobite cause and the dream of a Catholic Stuart restoration. For the the next century, more Irishmen joined the brigades. Many of these were forced to seek fame and fortune overseas after failed rebellions and discriminatory penal laws that left few opportunities for Catholics at home. There were also Irish units in Austria, Bavaria, in Imperial Russia and beyond.

Here are some of these regiments’ more famous battles.

The Irish Brigade’s highest battle honor occurred at the Battle of Fontenoy (1745) where six ex-pat regiments in the French army famously broke a British infantry advance and secured a resounding victory for King Louis XVNOTE: While researching my book Irish Brigades Abroad, I discovered the British flag taken at Fontenoy by the Irish Brigade in the main research library in Paris. The standard came from Sempill’s Regiment of Foot (forerunner of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers) and not from the Coldstream Guards as had been thought.

Irish soldiers fought for the French at the 1779 Siege of Savanna.

Irish soldiers fought for the French at the 1779 Siege of Savanna.

France supported the American rebels in the Revolutionary War and three Irish regiments in the French army — Dillon’s, Walsh’s and Berwick’s – became marines. The units also fought bravely in the Siege of Savannah (1779) and alongside Washington at Yorktown (1781). Meanwhile, Hibernia’s Irish Regiment of Spain served in Cuba playing a leading role in the capture of the British West Florida capital of Pensacola in the months before Yorktown, helping to prevent the British from evacuating their forces there.

A lesser-known Irish Brigade campaign also played out in French Canada. During the Seven Year’s War (1756-63), France sent an expeditionary force under an Irish admiral by the name of MacNamara accompanied by officers of the Irish Brigade to protect her colonial interest in New France from the British. An Irish battalion also served under General Montcalm in Nova Scotia and Quebec. In fact, the last French stronghold in the region, Fort de Chartres in Illinois, was commanded by an Irish governor. He was forced to surrender the outpost to the British following the fall of Canada in 1759.

France’s Irish Brigade proved itself an elite unit in the French army for one-hundred years before they were disbanded during the French Revolution. But in 1803, Napoleon formed a new unit of ex-pats to spearhead his planned invasion of Ireland. They were called Napoleon’s Irish Legion and were made up of revolutionaries who had fled to France following the 1798 and 1803 Irish Rebellions.

Two hundred years ago, this 500-strong Irish Legion fought in the Low Countries. The force was stationed in the Belgian city of Antwerp when it was besieged by a British army as part of the Allied invasion against Bonaparte. The unit held out for three months and only gave up the struggle when Napoleon abdicated in May of 1814. It was the Irish Brigade’s last major action in the service of France ending a 125-year-old tradition.

All told, well over 50,000 Irishmen served in the armies of France, Spain and Austria. Some of the volunteers became great military reformers who helped modernize the Continent’s antiquated armies. The battle-scarred Lt. General Alexander O’Reilly from County Meath played a major role modernizing the Spanish army, while Field Marshal Frank deLacy led Austria against its rival Prussia. There were around a dozen Irish generals in Napoleon’s Army. Henry Clarke was Napoleon’s Minister of War and was central to the creation of the ‘Grand Armée’. In fact, he was on horseback beside the emperor at Waterloo. General Charles Kilmaine, a Dubliner, was one of the few senior officers in which Napoleon had complete confidence. He even commanded the left wing of the Armée d’Angleterre (the army for invasion of the British Isles).

After successful military careers, many ventured into business and established the so-called ‘wine geese’ vineyards, some of which are still operating today. Richard Hennessy famously began sending brandy kegs back home to friends and relatives. The demand continued and he later founded his legendary Cognac distillery. Marie O’Murphy was a renowned beauty and briefly replaced Madame de Pompadour as King Louis of France’s favourite mistress. After she gave birth to the king’s illegitimate daughter, Agathe Louise, she was quickly married off to a young officer before being later imprisoned as a foreign aristocrat during the French Revolution.

Wild Geese descendants were prominent on the Continent right up to the last century. The most famous president of France-and perhaps the most well-known Frenchman of modern times — General Charles DeGaulle — was descended from the powerful MacCartan clan that ruled part of County Down from the 11th century before they were unseated during the English Conquest. DeGaulle’s ancestor was Anthony MacCartan who went to France with the Jacobites and served as a captain in the Irish Brigade of France.

The Irish legacy could be felt even more recently however. For example, Fidel Castro’s most famous lieutenant, Che Guevara, had Irish ancestry. His father was a direct descendent of Patrick Lynch from County Galway who immigrated to Spain and then Argentina. The future South American guerrilla leader was instrumental in bringing Soviet missiles to Cuba in 1962. For two weeks, the world held its breath as America blockaded the island nation in an effort to get Moscow to withdraw the weapons. The crisis was eventually averted, thanks in part to the efforts of an other Irish descendent: President John F. Kennedy.

Irish Brigades Abroad sept13Stephen McGarry is the author of Irish Brigades Abroad (2013) and has spent many years in Belgium where he discovered its links to Irish history, particularly to the Irish Brigades. He has written widely on the Irish military diaspora in Europe in the period and has been researching the subject over many years both in Ireland and across Europe.

5 comments for “Fightin’ Expats – The Colourful History of Irish Brigades Abroad

  1. 1 October, 2014 at 4:02 am

    What a great article… so much information that I never knew. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you, Stephen McGarry. I’ll share this.

  2. 1 October, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Good article, but you forgot to include the St. Patrick’s Battalion (San Patricios) which fought on the side of Mexico in the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-48. Readers who are interested might check out The Irish Soldiers of Mexico by Michael Hogan which documents this battalion very thoroughly as well as the religious and political conflicts of the era.

  3. 8 February, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    In the film GODS AND GENERALS (2003), during the battle of Fredericksburg (1862), at St. Marye’s Heights, there is a scene where the Irish Brigade from New York attacks the Irish Brigade from Georgia.

    Just curious: is Stephan McGarry related to any McGarrys from County Roscommon in Ireland? My great grandmother Mary McGarry married George Cruise (1872?) and then settled in the United States. Their son, Eugene Cruise, was awarded a battlefield commission in fighting near Sedan in November 1918.

  4. 8 February, 2017 at 11:05 pm

    This is from Wikipedia (Battle of Fredericksburg):

    “Next was his Irish Brigade under Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher. By coincidence, they attacked the area defended by fellow Irishmen of Col. Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry. One Confederate who spotted the green regimental flags approaching cried out, ‘Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows.’ But McMillan exhorted his troops: ‘Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!'”

    St. Marye’s Heights, December 13

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