The self-image and motives of Irish soldiers in French service changed in accordance with the circumstances of their employment. In the case of the Irish Brigade, two particular motives can be identified. One is the hope of a Stuart restoration, which itself ties in with a number of other issues including religious toleration. The other, an ambition shared with the Highlanders, was the pursuit of a military career, whether on its own merits or to escape poverty. It is easy to be cynical about dynastic loyalty from a modern perspective, but the differing attitudes of the period must be borne in mind, along with the more personal motives that are generally involved. Despite the unfortunate and rather violent history of Anglo-Irish relations, the Stuart dynasty was able to attract loyalty from the Irish to a degree that seems remarkable today. This loyalty was initially dynastic, though given more substance by his relative tolerance of Catholicism. That the Irish should have followed James II to France in the numbers described earlier shows that such loyalties were far from marginal, even if the Irish Jacobites were as disappointed in James as his nickname of Séamus a Chaca implies. Even the redoubtable Patrick Sarsfield is reputed to have quipped to some English officers during the negotiations at Limerick, ‘As low as we now are, change but kings with us, and we will fight it over again with you.’0
If the Irish were particularly drawn to military careers as a means of subsistence or advancement, then this would tie them in to the Highland Scots, with whom they had so much in common culturally and socially. On this basis, it follows that the Irish should have cared as apparently little as the Highlanders for modern notions of national independence. The differences between the Irish and the Highlanders, with regard to their political situations, tend to confuse the issue. For one, whereas the Irish Gaels remained relatively homogenous in terms of culture, the Highland Gaels were part of a highly heterogeneous Scotland. Also, and more obvious to modern eyes, most of Ireland became independent from Britain, whereas the Highlands did not. Yet Irish Catholics were as likely to see themselves as part of a wider British polity as to reject it. The first city in the British Isles to erect a Nelson memorial was Dublin in 1809. The Irish element which this represented was not merely Anglo-Irish Protestantism, but an Irish Catholic elite. J E Cookson notes the willingness of the latter to identify with the British imperial project, much as the Scots did. A cynic might argue, not unreasonably, that this was because both had done most of the work. Cookson, for his own part, argues that while Irish Catholicism may have been generally loyal, it wanted full religious emancipation and its fair share of the profits.0 In this respect, the Catholic Irish were little different from the Highlanders. While the 1798 uprising means that anti-British sentiment cannot be ruled out, the reality of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Ireland was of a society divided between those who saw potential benefit in being part of Britain and those for whom the disadvantages outweighed the benefits.
The men of the Irish Legion, as is becoming apparent, had at least some motives in common with those of the Irish Brigade. The cause of the United Irishmen , at least at the leadership level, was the establishment of a secular Irish republic, breaking with past religious conflicts in favour of national unity. In that respect, the original Irish Legionnaires were a new kind of ‘political’ soldier, committed to an ideology that did not focus on a specific individual, though the fact that there were so few of them suggests that they were a small minority among military emigrants. The same could be said on the other side. The fact that so many Irish Catholics were willing to serve in the British army, and that Irish service in European armies declined over the same period, shows that the bulk of military emigrants were simply a natural flow of labour following the path of least resistance.0 Similarly, while the various Poles, Germans, and others who made up the Legion’s numbers did not raise any particular objection to the Legion being ‘Irish’ in its name and appearance, this does not translate into any particular interest in Irish independence. Despite this, the Irish minority within the Legion retained their ideological commitment, as described by Miles Byrne’s widow:
He felt a devotedness of attachment to Ireland, which perhaps only an exile can comprehend. He saw that nature had done much for Ireland and her people, and that with wise and energetic and benevolent exertions on the part of the influential classes, the peasantry might be comfortable and happy, and the land of his birth and his affections “great, glorious, and free.”
On reading these Memoirs, it is impossible not to feel indignant at the injustice and persecution Ireland has suffered from England, and by which such a man as Miles Byrne was forced to throw himself into all the miseries of civil war. That was not raised to support the claims of a pretender to the throne, or to aid one sect or faction against another, but it was the honest effort of virtuous, patriotic, high-minded men, having a deep stake in the country, to better its condition, and to throw off an oppressive government which has ever regarded Irishmen as aliens.0
It becomes apparent from this state of affairs that, regardless of personal interests, Irish soldiers in French service were both willing to fight alongside non-Irish, even within the same units, and to serve another’s interests, especially if said interests could be interpreted as coinciding with their own. Even Patrick Sarsfield, who as legend has it died regretting that he could not die for his country, was ultimately willing to serve the crown of France as a soldier, and in wars that bore little apparent relevance to Irish independence. The same can be said of Irish soldiers in British service, who as often as not found themselves fighting alongside English or Scottish soldiers in the same units. The memoirs of Captain Peter Drake, an Irish mercenary of some repute, add useful detail to this story. Drake describes the dismay of many Irish recruits upon discovering that they were earmarked for the Irish Brigade. They disliked serving under penniless Jacobite officers, who were wont to cheat them of their salaries, preferring French aristocrats who possessed their own funds.0