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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 23 July, 2014

Hidden History: The ‘forgotten’ Irish Brigades abroad

A new book looks at the history of the Irish Brigades from the Wild Geese to the Napoleonic Wars.

The Fusilier's Arch at the Grafton Street corner which commemorates the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in Second Boer War.
The Fusilier's Arch at the Grafton Street corner which commemorates the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in Second Boer War.
Image: Infomatique via Flickr/Creative Commons

AN AMATEUR HISTORIAN has written a book shedding light on an area of Irish history that he says has been neglected – the story of the Irish Brigades.

Stephen McGarry, author of Irish Brigades Abroad, told TheJournal.ie that he was inspired to pen the history book after reading John O’Callaghan’s History of the Irish Brigades in the Service of France, from 1870.

And while he was researching the book, he made what he calls his ‘eureka moment’ when he discovered a flag whose identity was in dispute.

Updating the story

“[O'Callaghan's] book fascinated me and I was surprised to learn that little else was written about the subject before or since,” he recalled.

The Irish brigades were Catholic Ireland’s army overseas and McGarry estimates that 50,000 joined the brigades in France and Spain.

He wanted to update O’Callaghan’s book, and began work on what he thought would be a one or two year project, but instead “became a long work of love which took me five years to complete, in between working full-time and raising a young family”.

The book has become the first stand-alone history written in nearly 150 years on the subject, and looks at the complete history of the Irish regiments in France, Spain, Austria and beyond.

The period of time it covers spans from King James II’s reign of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1685 until the disbandment of the Irish Brigades in France and Spain.

According to McGarry:

what emerges is a picture of the old-fashioned virtues of honour, chivalry, integrity and loyalty, of adventure and sacrifice in the name of a greater cause.

He believes that the Irish military diaspora in France and Spain “have more often than not, been too easily dismissed by historians as simply mercenaries lacking a political ideology”.

In his book, he sets out to prove this isn’t the case, noting that they “supported the deposed King James II as the Jacobite army-in-waiting in the hope that his Restoration would finally return Catholic rights and land.”

During his research, he looked at the regiments’ colours and flags, which he said were a prime target on the battlefield. The capture of these colours by the enemy “was often a major disgrace to a regiment”.

During his research he discovered and identified the British flag taken by the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fontenoy:

There has always been controversy about this flag as it was never correctly identified. But I came across a reference to it in a French newspaper from 1745 and was finally able to track it down in an illustrated hand-painted manuscript in the research library in Paris. If I ever was to have a ‘eureka’ moment – it was now.

Why men joined the Irish Brigades

McGarry said that during the 18th century many Irishmen turned to military service abroad due to the lack of opportunities for Catholics under the Penal Laws.

He said that “for an officer, service in the Irish regiments [was] a precursor to a career in business”.

They also engaged in the French and Spanish colonial trade, where their fluency in English enabled them to trade with the emerging British Empire, he explained. Many Irish families established themselves in the ports of LaRochelle, in Cadiz and Nantes, Ostend and Dunkirk and channelled trade into Catholic hands back home in Ireland.

They also used their success for political purposes as Irish traders financed Bonnie Prince Charlies’s campaign to reclaim the Stuart crown in the Scottish Rising of 1745.

They established the ‘wine geese’ vineyards, while former Irish Brigade member Richard Hennessy established his distillery in Cognac.

Meanwhile, Irish women worked in fashionable boutiques on the Champs Elysee, said McGarry, and were ladies-in-waiting to the French queen, Marie Antoinette.

McGarry lived in Leuven in Belgium in the early 1990s, where he discovered its links to Irish history, in particular the Irish brigades.

The book looks at subjects including the first Jacobite Rising, the Flight of the Wild Geese, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s Irish Legion.

The subject so intrigues McGarry that for his next book, he’d like to delve deeper into the topic, and look at some of the individuals involved.

Perhaps there is another eureka moment still to come.

Read: Hidden History: The Irish and the American Civil War>

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