Sketch of the Irish Brigades in Foreign Countries

Sketch[1] of the Irish Brigades in Foreign Countries.

The foreign military achievements of the Irish began on their own account; at an early period they conquered and colonized Scotland; frequently overran England, during and after the Roman dominion in that country; and more than once penetrated into Gaul.

During the time of the Danish invasion they had enough to do at home; but the progress of the English settlement in Ireland, brought our countrymen again to battle on foreign ground.

In the Brigades wherewith Edward I. ravaged Scotland there were many Irish soldiers. Yet Scotland may be content; the Scotch soldiers in their turn have helped to ravage Ireland.

The lords of the “Pale” took an active and prominent part in the “Wars of the Roses” in England; and their vassals shared the victories, the defeats, and the carnage of the time.

In the continental wars of Edward III. and Henry V., their Norman-Irish soldiers served with much distinction; and the invaluable services during the short war in France, and especially at the siege of Boulogne, of the Irish soldiers whom Henry VIII. demanded of the Irish government, are well known.

At the submission of Ireland to England in 1603, O’Sullivan Bearra, and others excepted from the amnesty, took service and obtained high rank in Spain: and after the “Flight of the Earls” (O’Neill and O’Donnell) in 1607, many Irishmen entered into the Continental services.

From Strafford’s Letters we discover the estimation in which the Irish were held as soldiers in foreign services during the early part of the seventeenth century: we find them holding commissions in Spain, France, Austria and Italy. The Spanish government in particular seems to have been extremely desirous of enlisting in Ireland: their own troops, especially their infantry, being at that time equal, if not superior, to any in the world.

Nor were the Irish troops less active for the King of England: Strafford had increased the Irish Army; these he paid regularly, clothed well, and frequently “drew out in large bodies.” He meant to oppress; but, during the wars which followed 1641, some of these disbanded troops which Strafford had raised, being well disciplined, served Ireland.

In 1639, when the first row with the Scotch took place, Wentworth was able to send, with other forces, a garrison of 500 Irish to Carlisle, to assist King Charles the First. And the victories of Montrose were owing to the valour and discipline of the Irish auxiliaries under Sir Alexander (“Coll-Kittagh”) MacDonnell.

Many of the Irish who had lost their fortunes by the Cromwellian wars also served on the Continent.

The Duke of Tyrconnell increased the Irish Army in the reign of James II.; but numbers of his regiments, when real work began in 1689, were disbanded, as having neither arms nor discipline. His sending of the Irish troops to England hastened the Revolution, by exciting jealousy, and they were merely a handful to resist; they were forced to enter the service of German princes, especially the Prussian.

After the Treaty of Limerick, the Garrison of that city landed in France, and the second Irish Brigade was formed.

It is not our purpose to here mention all the battles in which the Irish Brigades in foreign countries were engaged.

The Peace of Utrecht put an end to the war in Flanders; but still many of the Irish continued to serve in Italy and Germany, and thus fought at Parma, Guastalla and Philipsburg.

In the next war the great and peculiar achievement was at the Battle of Fontenoy, which (see note, p. 168, Vol. I.) was almost lost to the French, when Marshal Saxe, who commanded on the occasion, ordered up his last reserve—the Irish Brigade:

“And Fontenoy, famed Fontenoy, had been a Waterloo,

Were not these exiles ready then, fresh, vehement and true.”

On that day it consisted of the Regiments of O’Brien (Lord Viscount Clare), Lally, Dillon, Berwick, Roth, and Buckley, with Fitzjames’s Horse.

Aided by the French Regiments of Normandy and Vaisseany, the Irish Brigade was ordered to charge with fixed bayonets upon the flank of the English, without firing; they were led by Lord Clare to immediate action, and the stimulating cry of Cuimhnigidh ar Luimneach agus ar Fheile na Sacsanaigh (“Remember Limerick and Saxon Faith”) was re-echoed from man to man in the Brigade.

At that battle victory the most decisive crowned the French arms. It is recorded that Louis, King of France, who was present on the occasion, rode down to the Irish bivouac, and personally thanked them; and George II., King of England, on hearing of his defeat at Fontenoy, uttered the memorable imprecation on the Penal Code in Ireland:

“Cursed be the laws which deprive me of such subjects.”

The one English volley, and the short struggle on the crest of the hill, cost the Irish dearly: one-fourth of their officers, including Colonel Dillon, were killed; and one-third of the men.

The history of the Irish Brigade after Fontenoy may be easily given: in 1747, they carried the village of Laufeldt, after three attacks, in which another Colonel Dillon, 130 other officers, and 1,600 men were killed; and in 1751 they were at Maestricht.

Lally’s Regiment served in India; and the other Regiments in Germany, during the war from 1756 to 1762.

During the American Revolutionary War the Irish fought in the French West India Islands. By that time they were greatly reduced; and, at the French Revolution, the Irish Regiments in the service of France were completely broken up.


[1] Sketch: For further information on this subject see O’Callaghan’s “Irish Brigades in the service of France;” “National and Historical Ballads, Songs, and Poems,” by Thomas Davis (Dublin: James Duffy & Sons. 1874); and the Paper “The Irish American Brigades,” in this Appendix.