A casual observer could be forgiven for regarding Irish soldiers in the eighteenth century as little more than mercenaries. Irish soldiers, whether in French or in British service, were fighting for a country other than their own, a situation that allows for no other description. The Irish themselves might not have taken offence at the label, which at the time did not carry the same negative connotation as it does today. Also, the line between a mercenary and a ‘citizen-soldier’ was not as clear-cut in the eighteenth century. The professional armies maintained by eighteenth century European states had two main roots, in the personal guard units of monarchs and in the contingents of mercenaries they had been accustomed to hiring. As late as the eighteenth century it was not in practice a crime for a subject of one state to serve in the army of another, specific legislation notwithstanding. During the Thirty Years War, Irish aristocrats recruited soldiers for French service with the blessing of the Irish government in Dublin.0
All the same, the idea of treason held great psychological power. So powerful indeed, that the American Revolutionaries specifically called their war a ‘Revolution’ to avoid the idea that it was a rebellion, countering the accusation of treason with the ideology that they were punishing Britain for its sins.0 As the Treaty of Limerick allowed James II’s Irish soldiers to accompany him to Ireland, it could be interpreted as allowing any Irishman who so desired to do likewise. For those Irish emigrants who sought only a military career, this provided a convenient counter to any accusation of illegality or treason. For those with ideological motivations, the government in London was not their rightful government in any case. But even if the Irish emigrants were committing treason by fighting for France, there is evidence that even British observers did not regard them as having done so, at least in terms of their attitudes and behaviour.
The complicated issue of loyalty is reflected in the experience of two Irish aristocrats. Charles Jennings, Baron Kilmaine, and Peter Jennings, both entered French service as young men. Peter was on the face of it the more conventional of the two, entering the Irish Brigade in 1788. Charles took a different path, joining the 5th Dragoon Regiment in 1775. Their paths also diverged with the coming of the French Revolution. Peter was one of those who defected in 1791, while Charles was a dedicated and famous Revolutionary. Peter served in the reconstituted Irish Brigade until its disbandment in 1798. Charles fought for France at both Valmy and Jemappes as a Chef d’Escadron, rising to command the Armée du Nord from July to August of 1793, replacing Custine. It is at these points that both Irishmen find themselves faced with the need for ideological compromise. Peter chose to join the 28th Regiment, a British unit, out of an apparent desire to remain active in the war effort. Charles found himself in trouble with the National Convention for retreating in the face of the enemy, his situation made all the worse by the suspicion his foreign and aristocratic background attracted. His reward was several months in prison, though after his release he went on to serve in Italy alongside Napoleon, and in 1798 was put in charge of the newly-formed Armée d’Angleterre.
Both these characters are emblematic of the complex and sometimes contradictory loyalties between which Irish soldiers might have to choose. Both were aristocrats, from two branches of the same family, both were Catholic, and both served in the French army before the Revolution. Yet their choices would take them down very different paths. Peter defected to Britain out of loyalty to the House of Bourbon, and seems to have squared his entering the British army in that context. He identified with the Catholic, aristocratic world of which he was a part, and fought for Britain in order to defend it from the French Revolution. But years of service in the British army caused him to start identifying with Britain and its imperial project. An example of his new attitude was his reaction to the failure of the South American expedition, which he bemoaned both for the loss of territory and the disgrace upon the British army. By contrast Charles identified himself with the Revolution, seeking both to serve France and to bring about the liberation of Ireland. But if anything he was an even more glaring anomaly than Peter; a Catholic Irish aristocrat in the service of a secular French Revolution. According to Catriona Kennedy even Wolfe Tone, whom he worked alongside as head of the Armée d’Angleterre, was uncertain of his true loyalty.0
As for the Irish Legion, the experiences of the majority of its Irish membership were defined by the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the politics that surrounded it. This conflict marked not only what today might be called ‘radicalization’ on their part, but arguably dictated the direction of Irish military involvement in Napoleonic France. Marianne Elliott has written extensively on the Irish rebellions and the United Irishmen movement. One of her first arguments in Partners in Revolution is to dismiss the idea that the rebellions were motivated by sectarian conflict of the sort recognizable in the twentieth century. What set the United Irishmen apart from similar groups both before and later was that it was both urban and non-sectarian. Elliott claims that the United Irishmen wanted French military help not just to defeat British forces, but out of fear of the Catholic peasantry.0
Fear of Catholics and Catholicism was deep-rooted in Irish protestant identity, manifesting primarily as a determination to keep the Catholics under control, but also as resentment towards domination by a government in London that neither understood nor sympathised with such fears. For the Catholic peasants themselves, the main cause of resentment was not so much religion as land access and ownership. Elliott draws attention to the gradual collapse of the ‘Brehon’ system, under which clans held all land in common and elected their chiefs, and its replacement with more overtly feudal and capitalist patterns of landholding. The villains of this narrative were the Irish clan chiefs, who took advantage of the English presence in Ireland to take direct ownership of as much land as possible.0 An unfortunate irony identified by Elliott is that the non-sectarian United Irishmen sought to ally themselves with the primarily Catholic ‘Defenders’ movement, with which rural Catholics were closely if not entirely accurately identified. This connection, according to Elliott, was what provoked an outbreak of Protestant repression which in turn radicalised the United Irishmen and sparked off the events of 1798.
If repression did not radicalise the United Irishmen, the events of 1798 certainly did. One obvious source of this hardening of attitudes was the violence of the conflict, which is well-documented. Miles Byrne makes numerous mentions of the atrocities committed on both sides, though he considered the loyalists to have done far worse than the United Irishmen. He makes his feelings plain in an account of the deeds of the Irish loyalist Hunter Gowan;
The infamous Hunter Gowan now sighed for an opportunity to vent his
ferocious propensity of murdering his catholic neighbours in cold blood.
When the yeomanry corps were first formed, he was not considered sufficiently respectable to be charged with the command of one; but in consequence of the proclamation of martial law, he soon obtained a commission of the peace and was created a captain and was commissioned to raise a cavalry corps…
This corps went by the name of the black mob; their first campaign was, to arrest all the Catholic blacksmiths and to burn their houses. Poor William Butter, James Haydon, and Dalton, smiths whom we employed to shoe our horses And do other work, for many years before, were condemned to be transported…But the monster Hunter Gowan, thinking this kind of punishment too slight, wished to give his young men an opportunity to prove they were staunch blood-hounds.0
It is worth noting that there was not one single uprising, but rather a series of disjointed local uprisings originally intended to be components of a wider plan. The intended signal for the full-scale rising had been the landing of French troops and supplies, which almost took place at Bantry Bay in December of 1796. Many within the United Irishmen, most famously Wolfe Tone, blamed the failure of the uprising on the failure of the landing and on French disinterest in general. The French, by contrast, blamed the failure on the United Irishmen’s leaders, whom they regarded as hopeless idealists.0 While Byrne had many good things to say about the rebel leadership, he found fault with their apparent lack of planning and leadership qualities:
…and it is grievous to think that our generals did not seem to have any
preconcerted plan of action in the event of such disasters as we were now experiencing. This was the critical moment, when leaders should have shewn (SIC)
that energy of character which would inspire their followers with enthusiasm
and confidence. They should have rallied and harangued their men; swear anew never to separate from them until the great end for which they took up arms was accomplished;0
That so many lower-ranking rebels would echo this criticism ties into the wider disconnect between the movement’s leadership and its rank and file, a development that would have consequences for the Irish Legion.