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Irish abroad


Before pursuing the main themes, it is worth introducing a brief variation. Latterly the Irish soldier, now able to wear the insignia of a native unit, has been shedding his reputation for bellicosity and reinventing himself as a mediator. For centuries Ireland did not have an army of its own except revolutionary force which tended to be led by poets and writers rather than soldiers. Some of them were excellent poets, but a well-turned couplet is not much protection against enfilading fire or an artillery barrage - there is no substitute for military nous. Since gaining independence, apart from a short period of civil strife during which the new-born infant scratched herself until she bled copiously, the Irish Defence Forces have been doing what armies should do, making peace rather than war. Arguably this tiny contingent has done more good in the last four decades than all the thousands of Irish mercenaries, idealists, and journeymen soldiers of the previous four centuries. Ireland has supplied 33,000 troops for United Nations peacekeeping operations in seventeen countries. Their courage, diplomacy and restraint are in stark and refreshing contrast to those legendary fighting qualities of their compatriots in foreign armies. They have taken casualties at Niemba in the Congo, in South Lebanon and in a host of other battle zones, knowing that they must avoid, at almost all costs, inflicting casualties in return. Revenge and retaliation are not words allowed in their lexicon.


But the Irish peacekeeping role is an infant tradition and beyond the remit of this book. Before dealing with the specific conflicts which will illustrate the role of the Irishman in modern warfare it is interesting to examine briefly some of his antecedents. It is hard to think of a major American or western European military engagement of the last 300 years which has not had at least one Irishman present. They have fought for every king and queen of England, France and Spain, soldiered under George Washington, Simon Bolivar, the Duke of Wellington (himself a Dubliner), founded the navies of the USA (John Barry), Argentina (William Brown) and Austria (John Forbes), come under fire at Fort Surnter, Balaclava, Waterloo, Gettysburg, the Little Bighorn, Mafeking, Jarama and the Somme. Why? Few if any of them were forced, coerced or compelled to be in any of those dangerous, deadly, disease-ridden places. So what were they doing there? Why did other people's fights become the Irishman's fight again and again?


Often it was simple happenstance, coincidence. The Irishman had migrated and been caught up in a war. But that explanation requires further elucidation. Why did he happen to be there? With ever-recurring monotony the answer is that his own overpopulated, impoverished country could not support him or his family. Although the Irishman was not necessarily a conscript in the accepted sense (he could, theoretically, return to his homeland), he was constructively conscripted by virtue of economic exile. In truth, he had no alternative. Ironically, the military force which was the main beneficiary was that of the very nation which had, effectively, compelled him to migrate in the first place. Despite all the lore and lionising of 'Wild Geese', Fontenoy, Sarsfield and the 'Irish brigades' of Europe, the vast bulk of emigré Irish soldiers served in the Army of Britain.


Those who did not, those who populated the forces of continental Europe, may have had another reason for their exile. They may have had the temerity to oppose the political dominance in their country of the British establishment. After the Treaty of Limerick a huge body of Roman Catholic Irish soldiers, who had opposed the Protestant King William, left for France under Patrick Sarsfield, the Earl of Lucan. Many left with the hope of returning in the ranks of a larger French army to put King James II back on the throne. They, and their successors who followed the same route throughout the Penal Law days of the eighteenth century, were forlornly dubbed the 'Wild Geffe'. Those early exiles entered the service of the King of France, the Catholic Louis XIV who was at war with most of Europe. For the next century, almost until the Revolution, there would always be an 'Irish Brigade' in the French army. Sarsfield died in 1693 at the Battle of Landen, fighting for France in Flanders against the forces of William of Orange. During that first conflict involving the 'Wild Geese' - the War of the League of Augsburg-over 20,000 Irish soldiers died. A similar number fell in the ensuing War of the Spanish Succession. But within a relatively short period all realistic hopes of French intervention in Ireland had faded. It would be a mistake to see all the Irishmen recruited into the French forces from 1700 onwards as political exiles. The French tended to view them as mere mercenaries, which, to some degree, they were. Under the Penal Laws, applied against Roman Catholics in eighteenth-century Ireland, they were barred from serving in the British army. If they wanted to pursue a military career (often as the only alternative to poverty), they had to do so on the European continent. The apotheosis of France's Irish Brigade came at the Battle of Fontenoy, fought in 1845 during the War of the Austrian Succession.

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