If a single event made the Irish Brigade politically relevant in Britain, it was their involvement in the Battle of Fontenoy. Fought on May 11th 1745, Fontenoy was a battle every bit as significant as Blenheim and every bit as neglected, though this should not overshadow its importance at the time. The commander on the allied side was William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, best remembered for his part in the Battle of Culloden. His British contingent included battalions from several Scottish regiments, including the 43rd Highlanders, whose performance would wipe away the stain of mutiny and mark the start of a glittering career. The Irish Brigade is best remembered for its part in the final French counter-attack, in which it captured many guns and forced the Coldstream Guards to withdraw. Their involvement brought the Irish Brigade to wider attention in Britain, and caused a great deal of soul-searching. The Irish Protestant politician and orator Henry Grattan, arguing for Catholic emancipation many decades later, summed up the feelings of many British moderates in this matter:
We met our own laws at Fontenoy. The victorious troops of England
were stopped, in their career of triumph, by the Irish Brigade, which
the folly of the Penal Laws had shut out from the ranks of the British
This is an example of the complexity of British attitudes, towards both Catholicism and the Irish. George II is said to have remarked, ‘cursed be the laws, which deprive me of such subjects!’ upon hearing of the Irish brigade’s role in the battle.0 That it took the British army another twelve years to start recruiting Irish Catholics shows the political clout of anti-Catholic ideology at the time. A more telling factor is how little attention the Irish brigade attracted in the British press at the time when compared to the battle itself. While the brigade’s presence at Fontenoy did not immediately shake anti-Catholic attitudes, at the same time there is little evidence of popular or political outrage against its existence, at least until the Bourbon restoration. Byrne blamed the disbandment of the Irish regiment after Waterloo on the desire of the newly-restored Louis XVIII to avoid offending the British government.0 This rhetoric of abandonment stands at odds with the treatment the Irish brigade received from Louis when it was recreated as part of the émigré forces. While many thousands of officers joined Condé’s army, the Irish regiment of Berwick was one of few to provide rank and file troops, even though its members can only liberally be called Irish.0 Louis expressed his apparent feelings for these men with a famous address in 1792, and with a banner;
GENTLEMEN,- We acknowledge the inappreciable services that France has received from the Irish Brigade, in the course of the last 100 years; services that we shall never forget, though under an impossibility of requiting them. Receive this standard, as a pledge of our remembrance, a monument of our admiration, and of our respect;- and in future, generous Irishmen, this shall be the motto of your spotless flag-
Semper et Ubique Fidelis
O’Callaghan, for his own part, blames the apparent volte-face on extreme pressure from the British government under Castlereagh.0 The loyalty of the Irish regiment to Napoleon and the shift in attitudes that it represented may also have played a part.
Despite the British government’s apparent wish that France should not maintain all-Irish military formations, there is no evidence that Irish soldiers in French service, whether in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, were regarded as anything but legitimate combatants. One particular occasion in which this tendency was put to a particularly hard test was the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, in which soldiers of the Irish Brigade took part. Out of a substantial contingent, only four hundred infantry and seventy-five cavalry of the Brigade, under the command of Brigadier Walter Stapleton, actually succeeded in making landfall in Scotland. During the battle, they succeeded in holding off Cumberland’s troops long enough for the rest of the Jacobite army to retreat, then surrendered. Cumberland accepted the surrender of a mortally-wounded Stapleton, promising honourable treatment in return. Having signed their paroles, written promises not to attempt escape, the Irish officers were permitted free-run of Inverness. The enlisted men were treated as prisoners of war, and even received the subscription money sent to them by the French government without deduction.
This is not to say that this approach was uncontroversial, as it was not until 1747 that the Irish prisoners were returned to France. Nonetheless, the Cartel of Frankfurt required all signatories to treat prisoners in accordance with the usual rules regardless of their original nationality.0 Whatever issues the British government might have had with the Irish Brigade, they were not willing to break international law to pursue them. This willingness to treat Franco-Irish troops as soldiers was extended even to the Irish Legion over a half century later. Byrne claims that Irish officers taken prisoner at Flushing were treated as if they were French officers, though he puts such scrupulousness down to fear of reprisals against British prisoners.0 All the same, the implication is that at the very least, the British were more concerned with maintaining humanitarian norms, and ensuring the wellbeing of their own prisoners of war, than with satisfying some atavistic need to punish Irish emigrants.
The relationship between Irish emigrants and Napoleon was a complex one, combining hope and admiration with sour disappointment and stoic pragmatism. This relationship began in the run-up to the Irish uprising of 1798, when the United Irishmen sent representatives to meet with Napoleon in Paris. Among the representatives arriving in September of 1797 was Theobald Wolfe Tone, easily the most famous of the Society’s leaders. Tone the younger’s stated opinion of Napoleon was at best nuanced, at worst deeply ambivalent, torn between admiration for Napoleon’s undoubted talents, and disapproval of the uses to which the former were put. Far worse in the younger Tone’s eyes was a perceived lack of interest in attaining Irish independence:
To the enterprise against Ireland, the favourite object of Hoche, and, to prosecute which, he was ostensibly recalled, he felt a secret but strong repugnance. Though the liberation of that country might prostrate, forever, the power of England, and raise the Republic to the pinnacle of fortunate (a circumstance for which he did not yet wish, as it would render his services needless,) it offered no prospects of aggrandizement to him; it strengthened the Republican cause which he disliked, and the principles of the Irish leaders, when he investigated the business, appeared to him too closely allied to those of the Jacobins.0
This description has an air of ideological disappointment and hindsight to it, especially when Tone goes on to ascribe Napoleon’s defeat to a failure to establish Ireland and Poland as independent states. It is hard to believe that Napoleon would miss an opportunity to bring Britain, already a consistent and frustrating enemy thanks to its considerable naval power, to heel. On top of this, the British government had actively supported counter-Revolutionary elements throughout France. This was generally in the form of money and arms, but on occasion the support was overt, notably the Quiberon expedition of 1795. In a letter written in October of 1797 to Talleyrand, by then Foreign Minister, Napoleon made his opinion plain:
Our Government must destroy the English monarchy, or expect
itself to be destroyed by those intriguing and enterprising islanders.
The present moment offers a capital opportunity.0
If Napoleon turned his attentions elsewhere, it was almost certainly because he regarded an expedition to Ireland as infeasible. The fact of the founding of the Irish Legion in 1803 shows that he had not completely written off the prospect of an expedition even then.
Napoleon was ultimately a pragmatist in search of military manpower, an attitude from which he spared none, least of all the Irish. By his own admission, non-French soldiers were recruited in order to reduce pressure on French manpower and to spare them from the most unpleasant duties, such as guarding the fever-ridden island of Walcheren.0 But if Napoleon was a pragmatist, the officers of the Irish Legion was equally so, as was shown in 1804, when Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French. On June 3rd of that year, when the Legionnaires were called-upon to swear allegiance to the Emperor and the new constitution, a certain Captain John Sweeney wondered aloud if men committed to an Irish republic ought to be swearing such oaths. Adjutant Commander Bernard Macsheehy retorted that he ought to be grateful for Napoleon’s support. He reminded all present that the Emperor was their best hope of achieving their goal, and called upon anyone who felt unable to take the oath to leave. In the end Sweeney signed the oath, but he nevertheless represented an attitude within the legion that Napoleon’s motives were not to be trusted, an attitude that would linger for some time.0
One of the great ironies of Irish service to France, and proof of their ideological pragmatism, is the experience of the Irish Regiment’s 2nd battalion in Spain. The battalion would spend much of the period from May of 1809 to March 1810 engaging in escort and patrol work, bringing them into conflict with Spanish guerrillas. The soldiers who served a foreign government in the hope of liberating their country found themselves fighting men and women who, at least in theory, sought the same for their own country. The motives of the Spanish partisans were as multifarious as in any such organization, but the connection could not be denied. The Irish themselves did not deny it, the idea of fighting fellow freedom-fighters being deeply uncomfortable to many of them, as well as to their French comrades. Byrne, however, describes his discussions with a Spanish clergyman in which he justified French policy towards Spain, and his own and the regiment’s part in it:
I answered there could be no comparison, as in his country, at the moment the inhabitants were not persecuted and deprived of their civic rights on account of the religion they professed. I allowed however that the Spaniards had suffered in their disastrous wars on account of the monarchs imposed on them: one time from an Austrian branch, another from the house of the Bourbons of France, and then from the Buonaparte family: whilst in poor Ireland the millions of unemancipated catholics (SIC) serfs were kept in bondage by a protestant ascendancy of a few hundred thousand individuals, acting there the part of the cruel task masters of England. That in changing the spanish dynasties, no religious persecutions took place in Spain. I perfectly agreed with him that the Spaniards had a right to govern themselves and to choose the form of government they wished; whilst on the other hand I maintained that no matter who the chief of the French government was, he became responsible to the nation to take the best means to secure the friendship of the neighbouring states, and their perfect neutrality in time of war’ that it could never be forgotten, that after the Revolution of 1789 when hostilities began, protestant Prussia and catholic Spain were the first powers to attack and invade France.0
If this account is anything to go by, then the men of the Irish regiment were not swayed by any scruples about their benefactor’s foreign policy. Considering how Byrne would end his career, as a chef de bataillon in the service of King Louis-Philippe, his ideological pragmatism is not so surprising. It was also not so rare, as United Irishmen were becoming a rare breed in the Irish regiment. By 1810, only twenty-one out of twenty-seven officers in the second and third battalions were Irish, along with eleven out of seventeen attached to the fourth battalion, the first battalion having been destroyed at Flushing. Of these, only twelve original United Irishmen remained. Marianne Elliott argues that this marked a return to older patterns of service, tying in those who chose to serve France as career soldiers with those who did the same in the Irish brigade. As Elliott points out, and if Miles Byrne typifies anything, it would be going too far to argue that the ideals of the United Irishmen had been entirely abandoned.0