“While the Norman, Viking and English conquests of Ireland are well remembered, a host of other would-be invaders have tired (and failed) to make Ireland theirs. Consider these.”
ON ST. PATRICK’S DAY, just about everyone enjoys a little taste of Ireland. But over the centuries, some world leaders have sought much more than just a pint of Guinness from the Emerald Isle – a number have wanted to conquer the whole country for themselves. While the Norman, Viking and English conquests of Ireland are well remembered, a host of other would-be invaders have tired (and failed) to make Ireland theirs. Consider these:
According to the historian Tacitus, one Roman governor or Britain, Agricola, considered lending military support to a deposed Irish prince by the name of Tuathal sometime between the years 78 and 84 CE. Agricola reportedly boasted that he could overthrow all of Ireland, or Hibernia as the Romans called, with just one legion of 5,000 men.  Contemporary accounts record that, Agricola “crossed the water” and fought against an army of barbarians, although some speculate that in that particular instance, it was the inhabitants of Scotland to which the ancients were referring. In any case, the Romans reportedly had explored Ireland and were in possession of detailed maps of the island, its coastline and even its rivers. In 1995, archeological evidence even showed signs of a Roman fortification or trading post being established on the east coast of Ireland just north of Dublin. Despite this, Ireland never fully fell under the emperors’ sway.
Centuries after the Romans, survivors from King Phillip II of Spain’s 130-ship Armada launched their own invasion (of sorts) of Ireland. In 1588, two-dozen Spanish warships made landfall on the west coast of Ireland while circumnavigating the British Isles after their famous defeat at the hands of Elizabeth I’s navy. Unfortunately, the Spanish fleet sailed into autumn storms blowing in from the Atlantic. Twenty four galleons were dashed on the rocks all along the rugged west coast of the island. As the survivors made their way ashore, British authorities ordered them rounded up and killed. More than 5,000 died at the hands of locals and English troops. Spain’s next foray in Ireland was equally catastrophic.
Thirteen years later, 4,000 Spanish troops landed at Cork to support the Catholic rebellion known as the Nine Years War. On Oct. 2, 1601, the Spaniards grabbed the town of Kinsale and fortified their position only to be surrounded by 12,000 English soldiers. A force of 6,000 Irish rebels marched to the aid of the Spaniards, but a failure to coordinate with the besieged garrison enabled the English to defeat both armies piecemeal. By Jan. 2, 1602, the Spanish commander sought terms of surrender and left the Irish to face the English alone. The rebellion was subsequently crushed without mercy.
The French made several attempts to pry control of Ireland from Great Britain as well.
In 1796, an army of 20,000 soldiers was assembled by the First French Republic to help the United Irishmen evict the British from the island. The revolutionary leadership in France hoped the so-called Expédition d’Irlande would weaken England and provide France with a springboard from which to invade the United Kingdom in the coming years. Sadly, the fleet was detected by the Royal Navy almost as soon as it left Brest in December. But it wasn’t the King’s navy that thwarted the French expedition, it was Mother Nature. Stormy seas (the worst in years) broke up the French formations and the handful of vessels that did reach the coast of Ireland were unable to land troops due to the rough waters. Other ships were intercepted by a squadron of British vessels and sunk, captured or driven onto the rocky coast of France.
Two years later, the French Republic managed to successfully put a force of 1,000 troops ashore at Kilcummin on the northwest coast of Ireland to help support an army of 5,000 rebels there. Although the combined army managed to humiliate the British at what is now known as the Castlebar Races on Aug. 27, 1798, ultimately, the force was far too small to make a lasting difference. More than 3,000 reinforcements were sent from France in October to further bolster the Irish uprising, but the ships transporting them were intercepted by the Royal Navy long before reaching the Irish coast.
Nearly a decade later, Napoleon envisioned an Irish front in his planned conquest of the British Isles. But the 200,000 strong Armée de l’Angleterre was eventually disbanded and sent to fight elsewhere on the continent.
Amazingly, Napoleon wasn’t the last military leader of France with plans for an invasion of Ireland. According to author and historian Jerome aan de Wiel, as late as 1902, France toyed with the idea of invading Ireland, while the bulk of the British army was abroad fighting the Boers in South Africa. The plan was never mounted, but the French did send spies to Ireland to scout landing zones along the southern coast and to consult with republican leaders to measure their support for an invasion.  Within two years Britain and France would ink the Entente Cordiale – a treaty that would see both powers unite to check the growing influence of Germany in Europe and abroad.
Speaking of Germany, both Kaiser Wilhelm II and later Hitler himself would also weigh the pros and cons of their own Irish gambits.
In late 1914, the German emperor hosted one-time British diplomat turned Irish revolutionary Roger Casement. After all, with the Great War well underway, any enemy of London was a friend of Berlin’s. During the negotiations, the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman offered to arm an Irish uprising as well as equip and train a brigade of Irish republicans plucked from the ranks of captured British soldiers for an upcoming invasion. The agreement called for the formation of a 3,000-man unit outfitted and trained by Germany — fewer than 60 POWs agreed to join up. The volunteers were attached to the 203rd Regiment of the German army, stationed near Berlin. Casement grew frustrated with what he perceived to be a lack of commitment to the project on the part of Berlin. He returned to Ireland shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising where he was arrested by the British and hanged for treason. Worse, Germany’s promised consignment of 20,000 rifles for the Irish rebels was intercepted en route.
Twenty-five years later, the Nazis would hatch an even more ambitious scheme — not to liberate the Emerald Isle (it had already achieved its independence from Britain in 1921), but to add it to Hitler’s widening lists of conquests. In the spring of 1940, the German leader directed his high command to draw up detailed plans for an invasion of Ireland later that year. The operation became known as Case Green. A side show of the larger Operation Sea Lion (the invasion of Great Britain), Green called for 50,000 troops from Army Group B to be disembarked at several points along the southeastern coast of Ireland from Wexford westward for 85 miles. The German invaders fully expected to roll over the smaller Irish army without much bother.
Many have speculated that the Case Green was actually little more than a diversion aimed at drawing off British troops slated to defend the south of England. The fact that the Germans devised little if any plans administer Ireland post-invasion speaks to the belief that the Berlin never actually intended to land armies on the Irish coast.
Nevertheless, copies of the Case Green survived the war and are indeed quite thorough. One was auctioned off as recently as 2012. Feint or not, the plans were scrubbed right along with Sea Lion after the Luftwaffe failed to secure control of the skies over Britain from the RAF.
Two years later, Nazi intelligence devised yet another mission for the Emerald Isle. Operation Osprey was planned in response to the 1942 landing of 5,000 American troops and engineers in British-controlled Northern Ireland. Despite Dublin’s official policy of neutrality, Berlin prepared to respond to any Allied occupation of the Irish Republic. Osprey called for the insertion of hundreds of English-speaking German commandos, specially trained to use British weaponry. The units would link up with elements of the IRA and any locals eager to resist the Allied occupiers. More than 100 volunteers from the SS were brought together and trained just outside of the German capital for the mission. It was expected be joined by Irish-born British POWs. The entire force would be dropped by German Fw-200 Condor transports. Osprey never became operational; the Allies never did occupy Ireland.
If German troops ever set foot on Irish soil, Britain was ready to respond – whether the government in Dublin wanted help or not.
In 1940, Prime Minister Churchill directed the army to make preparations to storm the Republic of Ireland from the north to repel any Nazi assault along the southern coast of the island. Under terms of the plan, codenamed “W”, the British 53rd and 61st infantry divisions would be stationed near Belfast. If called into action, the former would move to secure Dublin and then race to the coast to attack any German beachheads, while the latter would move south down the west side of Ireland, securing port facilities before linking up with the 53rd. A brigade of Royal Marines waited in Wales with orders to cross over to Ireland and hold strategic bridges near Wexford in the southwest. In addition, three Hurricane squadrons and Anson bomber wings would be rushed to airfields near Dublin to pummel the invaders from the skies. London was explicit that the invasion would only be initiated if the Irish government asked for help, however British commanders didn’t expect the whole of the population of the republic to welcome the occupation. To that end, Plan W called for the British to crush resistance, commandeer infrastructure and to shut down the telephone system if necessary, without the consent of local authorities.
Since independence, Ireland had spent years organizing its small national army to meet a British invasion. Most of its troops were stationed along the northern border. However with the Nazi threat looming, Dublin drafted all new strategies based around Anglo-Irish cooperation. The national air corps equipped itself with British aircraft like Gloster Gladiators and Avro Ansons, while the army discarded its grey uniforms and German Stahlhelm-style helmets in favour of olive drab and British Mk II Brodie helmets (to avoid confusion on the battlefields).
Ultimately, all such plans proved unnecessary – Ireland remained largely untouched by World War Two.