Chapter 6: National Identities: the Irish
The role of the Highland regiments in British service has been widely discussed and analysed. The role of the Irish, in British service, is also well documented. Ireland, with a growing population and little employment besides subsistence farming, was a major source of recruits. Often spoken of, but not so well documented, is the role of Irish soldiers in the service of European powers other than England or Britain. Just as many Irish found employment in the British army and navy, so did a great many seek the same in European armies. Irish units, both ceremonial and combat, were found in the armies of many European powers, both Catholic and Protestant. The most famous of them by far is the Irish Brigade of the French Royal Army, best known for its service in the wars of Louis XIV. The exploits of Bourbon France’s Irish soldiers would create a legend, and spawn a multitude of copycat formations seeking to emulate their fame. Napoleon would go so far as to create his own version, the Irish Legion, though for very different purposes, under very different circumstances, and with a very different performance. The Irish Brigade proved a hard act to follow, thought it helped cement the idea of the Irishman as a wandering warrior, involving himself in whatever cause took his fancy. This idea would find expression in the many Irish formations serving on both sides of the American Civil War, and Irish volunteer units could be found in British service as late as the First World War.
The purpose of this chapter is primarily to stand in comparison with the previous chapter covering the Scottish Highlanders. A major aspect of this comparison is the issue of how Irish troops in French service were regarded by their French counterparts and employers, and of course how they regarded themselves. The former aspect is difficult to ascertain, as the French seemed to have had relatively little to say about Irish soldiers in their service, meaning that their attitudes must be ascertained from discernible actions and behaviours. As for the Irish themselves, to understand why so many of them entered French service it is necessary to examine their place in the British polity. Much has been made of the heavily-intertwined religious and economic oppression imposed on the Catholic Irish by Protestant landowners, to the point where this alone is generally held up as sufficient explanation. Though compelling, the fact that the Scottish Highlanders and many English also endured considerable poverty means that this can only be one explanation among many. Other ‘push’ factors deserving of consideration are the distrust in which the Catholic Irish were held by the British state after 1691, the period most relevant to this study. Ironically, an unwillingness by the British army to draw to heavily on the Irish as a source of manpower was one of the main factors in the employment of the Highlanders. This factor also affected the deployment and concentration of Irish soldiers, affecting in turn their visibility and therefore their place in popular imagination.
The ‘pull’ factors of Irish overseas recruitment must also be considered. These include the draw of Catholic or religiously tolerant European employers, the possibility of material enrichment in their service, and the equally important factor of ideology. In the golden age of Irish overseas recruitment, young Irishmen went abroad not simply in search of a better life, but also in pursuit of the cause of the House of Stuart, though the latter may have been with a view to the former. After 1798, Irish exiles could be found in the services of Republican and later Imperial France with very different motives, namely the establishment of a separate Irish Republic. The latter cause would not be achieved for another century, and brought Irishmen to France in far smaller numbers than at the beginning of the century. Also, the Irish Legion that fought for Napoleon was far smaller than the Irish Brigade that served Louis XIV, lasted nothing like as long, and failed to acquire the same reputation for military success. Following the theme of military and political pragmatism, this chapter aims to show that the creation of ‘political’ units from minorities, as Bourbon and Imperial France did with the Irish, was carried out on the basis of practical needs and in conducive circumstances.
That the French army would see fit to include units of non-French soldiers was nothing unusual in the eighteenth century. It contained eight German regiments, three Irish regiments, eleven Swiss regiments, and one Liégeois regiment.0 The vast majority of the ‘foreign’ troops were actually French subjects, only about seven to eight percent coming from outside of France’s borders. Of the German troops, around half came from Alsace and Lorraine, the rest coming from smaller German states in France’s sphere of influence, while a small minority hailed from Switzerland. In the Irish regiments, three quarters of the personnel were foreign-born, many of these being Germans, along with a small number of exiles from the British Isles. The same proportion existed in the light infantry, the foreigners being primarily Italians, concentrated in the Chasseurs Royaux-Corses and the Chasseurs Corses battalions, Corsicans providing the same proportions. Foreigners made up only three percent of the cavalry, again mostly Germans from Alsace-Lorraine, and generally concentrated in specific regiments, notably the Royal Allemande Cavalry and the Hussar Regiments.0 These regiments were labelled ‘foreign,’ even if most of the ‘foreigners’ in question were technically French.
During the Revolution, the foreign regiments were treated little differently to other French regiments. The main exception was the Swiss, whose service was based on an exclusive arrangement, formalized in a series of ‘Capitulations,’ between the French crown and the Swiss Confederation. Their lack of any other connection to France naturally made them objects of suspicion, with many no doubt wondering how they would react. Many of the troops taking part in the 1790 mutiny at Nancy, and subsequently massacred by General Bouillé, were Swiss. Despite this, and the massacre of the Swiss Guards on August 10th of 1792, there is little evidence of large-scale mistreatment of the Swiss troops. The eleven Swiss regiments were discharged and sent back to Switzerland late in 1792.0 While the Revolution saw a brief rejection of ‘foreign’ recruitment, it would not be long before regiments étrangers would be found in French service once again, a policy driven by a simple need for manpower. The wheel had turned full circle for the Swiss, and it would for the Italians with a multiplicity of legions. It would do the same for the Irish.