Like the Highlanders, the Irish in the eighteenth century had acquired a reputation for warriorhood, based on a perception of regular Irish involvement in wars, whether in their own country or abroad. This can be superficially ascribed to common ancestry and culture, the Highland Gaels having originally migrated from Ireland. While such a connection would be difficult to prove convincingly in the context of a study such as this, there are more relevant elements to the Hiberno-Scottish relationship. As shown in the previous chapter, Highland Scots regularly became involved in conflicts within Ireland, suggesting a political and social if not a deeper cultural connection. Also, the Irish themselves had a similarly long pedigree of mercenary service.
As well as acquiring their own version of the Highland gallowglasses by adoption and imitation, the Irish evolved their own distinct mercenary formation known as the Kern, a term which referred to a group of armed men, but came to refer to individual soldiers also. Unlike the armoured gallowglasses, the kerns tended to be lightly-armed, suggesting a division of labour between the two. Both might also be known as buannadha if they were maintained by buannacht, that is to say billeted on their chief’s tenants in much the same manner as the Highland buannachan. Irish gallowglasses, inspired by their Highland counterparts, were fighting as mercenaries as early as 1413, though the Irish tended to limit their services to fellow Irish until the latter half of the sixteenth century.0 Irish troops made their mark in Spanish service, especially after the failed Kinsale Mission of 1601-2, and would continue to do so throughout the seventeenth century. Around twenty thousand Irish were recruited for Spanish service in the 1640’s alone, though even then many found French service more to their liking.0
To an eighteenth and nineteenth-century perspective, the cementing of the Irish image as a martial race took place towards the end of the seventeenth century, with the appearance of the Irish brigade. The significance of this particular formation lies in the fact that, as Andrew Mackillop points out in More Fruitful than the Soil, there was no distinct Irish presence within the British army before the latter half of the eighteenth century. While plenty of Irishmen found their way into the British army, it was as individuals being sent where they were most needed.0 There also existed an entire semi-distinct Irish army, known as the ‘Irish Establishment.’ Though it numbered around fifteen thousand in 1770, only four thousand were made available for service overseas. So determined was the Irish Parliament not to send its troops abroad that it actually refused an offer of Hessian mercenaries in 1775.0 If the Irish managed to establish a distinct presence in British regular service, it was not until 1789 and afterwards. One important consequence of the ascendancy’s fixation with military security was the upsurge in volunteering that resulted from Irish troops being sent to North America.0 The Irish volunteers would go on to play a significant role in the 1798 rebellion, on both sides.
The Irish brigade’s founding members were five thousand Irish soldiers sent to France in April of 1690 by James II in return for the services of six thousand French infantry, whose support he would need if he was to regain the throne from William and Mary. The Irish contribution consisted of three regiments named after their colonels in the fashion of the time; Mountcashel’s, Dillon’s, and Clare’s.0 It is unclear how the soldiers of these regiments felt about being transferred to French service, an arrangement in which they are unlikely to have had much say. Nor is it clear that the exchange was intended as permanent, as James II did not at that point display any intention other than to regain his throne. The fact that the Irish soldiers received higher pay than their regular French counterparts, an addition sol per day, suggests that they were being treated with a degree of consideration. That the Brigade was sent to Savoy almost immediately after their arrival further implies that they were trusted enough to be sent into combat, while their performance in that area, and later in Piedmont, suggests that whatever their misgivings, their performance in combat was not much affected.0
In an age where military careers could last anything from weeks to decades, it begs the question of how the Irish Brigade could have survived for so long as an ‘Irish’ unit. It should be borne in mind that even the Highland regiments were not made up entirely of Highland Scots, despite a near-constant supply of recruits. By 1785 the rank-and-file were essentially French, the supply of Irishmen having dried up.0 Yet the Irish Brigade was able to maintain itself as a fighting unit, while for a time at least claiming to maintain an Irish character and identity. There are only two possible answers to this conundrum. One is that the shrinking Irish regiments were filled with non-Irish of varying provenance, yet continued to profess an Irish identity of one sort or another. The other is that the Irish Brigade somehow found new Irish recruits to fill the vacancies. Both of these answers are true at various points in the Brigade’s history, with the latter approach applying to the events at the turn of the century. Under the Treaty of Limerick, signed on October 3rd 1691, Jacobite troops were given the option of joining James in France, joining William’s army, or facing dispersal. While around one thousand of them chose to serve William, and twice that number chose to return home, around fourteen thousand elected to join their erstwhile King in France. The Treaty, or rather the failure of William’s government in Ireland to honour it, proved a focus of Irish discontent.
Of the Jacobite landed gentry, only those few who had taken the prescribed oath to William, along with their descendants, were protected from the harsh penal laws enacted by the Irish parliament from 1695 onwards. These emigrations would become known to history and folklore as the Flight of the Wild Geese, and included the much-famed Patrick Sarsfield, who would go on to serve Louis XIV as a maréchal de camp, or lieutenant-general, before dying at the Battle of Neerwinden in 1693. The upshot was that from 1692 to 1698 France was playing host to an entire army of primarily Irish Jacobite exiles, bound by name and oath to James II, but paid for and effectively at the disposal of Louis XIV. This army, representing the single largest concentration of Irish soldiers in French service, consisted of ten regiments of line infantry, three independent companies, two regiments of horse, and two troops of horse guards, for the King and Queen respectively. This made for over twelve thousand infantry and over nine-hundred cavalry, compared to just over six thousand in the three regiments of the Irish Brigade.0 James’ army would have needed only artillery to be a field army in its own right. The signing of the Treaty of Ryswick, in which Louis recognized William III as the legitimate sovereign, in September of 1679 resulted in the disbanding of James’ army. Between 1698 and 1698 the number of Irish units was reduced to four regiments of infantry, not counting the Irish Brigade, and one of cavalry.0
The inevitable result of these reductions would have been a substantial number of unemployed Irish soldiers. The fate of most of these unfortunates was destitution, though some found employment in other European armies. Many Irish would serve the Austrian Empire, where they acquired a reputation for competence and courage. Emperor Francis I of Austria, before his death in 1765, described the reputation Irish soldiers had gained for themselves:
The more Irish officers in the Austrian service the better; our troops will always be disciplined; an Irish coward is an uncommon character; and what the natives of Ireland even dislike from principle, they generally perform through a desire of glory.0
The disbanding of James II’s army also provides a convenient explanation for the maintenance of an Irish character in the Irish Brigade, as soldiers from the disbanded units were folded into the Brigade to bring it up to full strength. On top of this the army-in-exile was actually revived in 1701, using a thirteen-year-old James III as its figurehead, with a strength equivalent to five regiments.0 Further recruits were acquired through desertion in the case of serving soldiers and emigration in the case of civilians. It became common practice for would-be emigrants to join the British army as Protestants, wait until they were on the continent, then desert at the first opportunity. Doctor Boulter, the Protestant Lord Primate for Ireland, described this tendency in a letter to the Duke of Newcastle in 1730:
All recruits, raised here for France or Spain, are generally considered as persons, that may, some time or other, pay a visit to this country, as enemies. That all who are listed here, in those services, hope and wish to do so, there is no doubt.
Obviously this method would have been most effective when Britain was actually involved in European conflicts. As for civilian emigration, there was little the British authorities could do to prevent Catholic landowners, possessed of their own funds and connections, from leaving. Ordinary Irish could also travel to France via what amounted to smuggling. French ships smuggling contraband to Ireland would carry recruiting officers and Irish-speaking friars, and return carrying recruits. According to French War Office estimates, over four hundred and fifty thousand would-be soldiers travelled to France between October of 1691 and May of 1745, the Treaty of Limerick and the Battle of Fontenoy respectively, for an average of over eight thousand per year.0