Irish Brigade

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE glory of Ireland was all abroad in those years. Spurned from the portals of the constitution established by the conqueror, the Irish slave followed with eager gaze the meteor track of "the Brigade." Namur, Steenkirk, Staffardo, Cremona, Ramillies, Fontenoy—each in its turn, sent a thrill through the heart of Ireland. The trampled captive furtively lifted his head from the earth, and looked eastward, and his face was lighted up as by the beam of the morning sun.

For a hundred years that magnificent body—the Irish Brigade—(continuously recruited from home, though death was the penalty by English law)—made the Irish name synonymous with heroism and fidelity throughout Europe. Sarsfield was among the first to meet a soldier's death. But he fell in the arms of victory, and died, as the old annalists would say, with his mind and his heart turned to Ireland. In the bloody battle of Landen, fought July 29, 1693, he fell mortally wounded, while leading a victorious charge of the Brigade. The ball had entered near his heart, and while he lay on the field his corslet was removed in order that the wound might be examined. He himself, in a pang of pain, put his hand to his breast as if to stanch the wound. When he took away his hand it was full of blood. Gazing at it for a moment sorrowfully, he faintly grasped out: "Oh! that this were for Ireland!" He never spoke again!

His place was soon filled from the ranks of the exiled Irish nobles—those illustrious men whose names are emblazoned on the glory roll of France—and the Brigade went forward in its path of victory. At Cremona, 1702, an Irish regiment, most of the men fighting in their shirts—(the place had been surprised in the dead of night by treachery)—saved the town under most singular circumstances. Duke Villeroy, commanding the French army, including two Irish regiments under O'Mahony and Burke, held Cremona; his adversary, Prince Eugene, commanding the Germans, being encamped around Mantua. Treason was at work, however, to betray Cremona. One night a partisan of the Germans within the walls, traitorously opened one of the gates to the Austrian troops. Before the disaster was discovered, the French general, most of the officers, the military chests, etc., were taken, and the German horse and foot were in possession of the town, excepting one place only—the Po Gate, which was guarded by the two Irish regiments. In fact, Prince Eugene had already taken up his headquarters in the town hall, and Cremona was virtually in his hands. The Irish were called on to surrender the Po Gate. They answered with a volley.

The Austrian general, on learning they were Irish troops, desired to save brave men from utter sacrifice—for he had Irish in his own service, and held the men of Ireland in high estimation. He sent to expostulate with them, and show them the madness of sacrificing their lives where they could have no probability of relief, and to assure them that if they would enter into the imperial service, they should be directly and honorably promoted. "The first part of this proposal," says the authority I have been following, "they heard with impatience; the second, with disdain. 'Tell the prince,' said they, 'that we have hitherto preserved the honor of our country, and that we hope this day to convince him we are worthy of his esteem. "While one of us exists, the German eagles shall not be displayed upon these walls.' " The attack upon them was forthwith commenced by a large body of foot, supported by five thousand cuirassiers. As I have already noted, the Irish, having been aroused from their sleep, had barely time to clutch their arms and rush forth undressed. Davis, in his ballad of Cremona, informs us, indeed (very probably more for "rhyme" than with "reason") that

"—————the major is drest;"

adding, however, the undoubted fact:

"But muskets and shirts are the clothes of the rest."

A bloody scene of street fighting now ensued, and before the morning sun had risen high, the naked Irish had recovered nearly half the city.

"'In on them,' said Friedberg—'and Dillon is broke,
Like forest flowers crushed by the fall of the oak.'
Through the naked battalions the cuirassiers go;
But the man, not the dress, makes the soldier, I trow.
Upon them with grapple, with bay'net, and ball,
Like wolves upon gaze-hounds the Irishmen fall—
Black Friedberg is slain by O'Mahony's steel,
And back from the bullets the cuirassiers reel.

"Oh! hear you their shout in your quarters, Eugene?
In vain on Prince Vaudemont for succour you lean!
The bridge has been broken, and mark! how pell mell
Come riderless horses and volley and yell!
He's a veteran soldier—he clinches his hands,
He springs on his horse, disengages his bands—-
He rallies, he urges, till, hopeless of aid,
He is chased through the gates by the Irish Brigade."

It was even so. "Before evening," we are told, "the enemy were completely expelled the town, and the general and military chests recovered!" Well might the poet undertake to describe as here quoted the effects of the news in Austria, England, France, and Ireland:

"News, news in Vienna!—King Leopold's sad.
News, news in St. James'—King William is mad.
News, news in Versailles!—'Let the Irish Brigade
Be loyally honored, and royally paid.
News, news in old Ireland!—high rises her pride,
And loud sounds her wail for her children who died;
And deep is her prayer—'God send I may see
MacDonnell and Mahony fighting for me!'"