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"Wild Geese"

'Remember Fontenoy!' The role of the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fontenoy, 30 April 1745, where the French army won a notable victory over the British and Dutch, has been regarded as the greatest of Irish battle honours. In this supplement to the Weekly Nation for Christmas 1898, Irish soldiers displaying captured British standards.




The Wild Geese come in their thousands with the October moon. They blacken the sky and they cry the coming of Autumn. Where there are low marshlands, or sloblands, they settle down, and then the cabins are cooking them with much butter or grease in the bastables all the Winter. About the estuary of the Shannon, and all up the river into Limerick, they must have whizzed and moaned, that Winter of 1691, when Ginkel offered the terms that ended the Jacobite War, and started bitter quarrels among the tired and tattered Irish. The flying Irish, down the Shannon or down the Lee with Sarsfield, looked up at the skies, and took the name, The Wild Geese. It was the end of a period. It was all but the end of a race.’

Seán O’Failáin

The Beginning (1688)

Oliver Cromwell's conquest of Ireland had initiated the most severe displacement of Catholics in Irish history, most to the relatively barren northwestern part of the country. "To hell or to Connaught" were the orders for the treatment of the Irish Papist. After the Restoration, James II, a Catholic, had succeeded his brother Charles II as King. James  intended to restore the land rights to the Irish Catholic. He appointed Richard Talbot, Duke of Tyrconnell, to Lord Lieutenant of Ireland with instructions to implement this. The Protestant population became worried. James' autocratic and pro-Catholic policies soon provoked English politicians to invite the King's own son-in-law, the Dutch Prince William of Orange (later William III of England) to replace him as king. It was reminiscent of 1641 when reformist John Pym and his House of Commons squared off against King Charles I... the King a Protestant surrounded by Catholic sympathizers and Pym’s parliament strictly Protestant. This event had ended in a Civil War and the king loosing his head! (It was sewn back on before they buried him.) This time the key figures would be  James and William.  Eight weeks after William’s arrival to England (5 November 1688) James fled first to France to raise an army, then to Ireland. By that time Richard had all of  Ireland outside of Ulster  run by a Catholic administration.  A rag tag Irish Army (said to be) of  40,000 ill equipped and untrained men was assembled. They were joined by 3,000 Frenchmen, far short of the number James had hoped for. The war began in April of 1689 with the siege of Derry (Londonderry). The size of James’ army, though under trained, was a huge surprise at Derry. They came to be know as the Jacobite Army. Soon after, William arrived with his army, the Williamite Army, and the decisive battle was fought on 1 July 1689 at the Boyne.
Battle of the BoyneThe End (1690)
The war in Ireland was now entering its final phase. James II had safely escaped to France only three days after the loss of the Battle of the Boyne. The Jacobite Army held out for another year. The final Battle of Aughrim took place on Sunday, 12 July 1691. It was the bloodiest battle ever fought in Ireland with the Ulster Jacobites led by Gordon O'Neill. Though they fought bravely, the war was lost. The Williamite’s now had the problem of quickly eradicating an entire hostile army from Ireland. In an effort to keep the army intact and in a state of readiness the Jacobite Army commanders, Sarsfield and Wauchope, managed to have the articles of surrender allow the army to avoid being disbanded. However, as part of the agreement, they had to leave the Kingdom (England, Scotland and Ireland).  The Williamite General, Ginkle, agreed to provide the free transport of fifty ships to France, and another twenty more if necessary.

The Irish were offered money for their horses and arms and offered billets in the service of King William.  On October 5th, Sarsfield and Wauchope countered the English inducements by promises of active service in France on an English establishment at English pay and with the hope of someday soon returning as a powerful trained and experienced army.

On the morning of the 6th of October, the Irish were forced to decide.  14,000 Irish Infantrymen assembled on the Co. Clare side of the Thomond bridge across the Shannon from Limerick Castle. The army marched past Sarsfield and Wachope to one side and Ginkel and the Lords Justices on the other.  Those who chose to stay in a Williamite Ireland filed off, those who chose to fight on marched straight ahead. 3,000 filed off with 1,000 choosing to enlist in the English service.  11,000 marched straight ahead. Between then and the 8th of December, when the final ship embarked from Cork,  1,000 had changed their minds and left for France to serve Louis XIV with James II. This time would forever be remembered as 'The Flight of the Wild Geese'. The embarkment of the final ship was a disaster. The men were gathered apart from their families and boarded onto boats to be transferred to the ships. The women believing they were being left behind  jumped into the River Shannon and swam for the boats. Many drowned. Of all the orderly embarkments this is the one remembered most.  

The Final Embarkment at the River ShannonThe Wild Geese Abroad
Upon arrival in France the Irish commanders were greeted  with a message sent (rather then being delivered personally) from James II proclaiming he would never forget his loyal Irish subjects. Soon after  he made arrangements with Louis XIV that the 6,500 original troops that had sailed with Mountcashel in 1690 should be incorporated into the French Army as the Irish Brigade. He also arranged to collect the difference in the Irish Army’s pay for his personal expenses.

Wars were plentiful on the continent and Wild Geese continued to migrate from the poor homeland to promises of better things. James II’s 12,000 exiled troops who arrived later, comprising thirteen infantry regiments and two troops of horse guards, were paid less then the Irish Brigade. Some officers were also demoted.

In 1692, Louis forced James to release his exiled troops for service in the French forces in the Nine Years War which ended in 1697. The result was over 6,000 of the 21,000 Irish were dead or crippled. The Irish Brigade was retained but the exiled army was disbanded. Some of the men from the exiled army were able to join the Irish Brigade.

In 1701, James II died and his thirteen year old son James Stuart (James III) revived the Irish exiled army, forming five regiments of foot. The Irish fought in Italy, Flanders, Bavaria and Spain. In the Austrian campaign of 1701-1702  Louis XIV was impressed with the courage and bravery of the exiled Irish. In recognition of their outstanding service he had their pay raised to the level of the Irish Brigade.

In Spain the "Hibernia", or Irish Regiment, and the "Ultonia", or Ulster Regiment, was formed for Philip V, the latter being the remnants of Colonel Gordon O'Neill's command. By 1715, only 3,300 Irish remained in the French service as five one-battalion regiments and cavalry. The Irish found themselves victims of the Treaty of Utrecht (between France and Britain) in 1715 while in the French service. They were not allowed to answer the call of James III in Scotland in his bid to regain his father's kingdom.  After this failure James left France and resettled in Rome. Spain and Russia continued to be patrons of the Wild Geese.

The exiled Irish continued to distinguish themselves for generations following the original members. Several attempts were made by the battle-hardened veteran troops to return and reclaim their nation while in the French and Spanish service, but all failed.  Ships never left port or the Royal Navy never allowed them to reach their destination. In 1745 James II’s son, Bonnie Prince Charlie, took matters in his own hands and crossed to Scotland with the Wild Geese marching all the way to Derby by December. In November, detachments of the Royal Scots were sent by the French as reinforcements. Two of the six ships were intercepted. The French had agreed to send the entire Irish Brigade but nothing came of it. They were defeated at Culloden on April 16th, 1746.  Charles Stuart escaped to France with the help of Flora MacDonald, Richard Warren, Colonel O’Sullivan, and Felix O’Neill (who was from the Hibernia Regiment of Spain). O’Neill was captured and held in Edinburgh Castle. More than 300 Irish soldiers were captured but were later, in 1747, returned to France.

The Irish Brigade, pride of the French Army, served under General Montcalm in the French - English Wars in North America. The first battle was on the 8th of September 1755 between 3,000 of the Irish Brigade and 9,000 of the British General William Johnson's forces. The British were left demoralized by their loss. Incidentally, Johnson was himself an O'Neill descended from a Shane O'Neill whose son adopted the surname MacShane which was eventually changed to Johnson . A small group had fought in the decisive Battle of the Plains of Abraham, though their 'colours' were not present (possibly because they weren't suppose to be there "by treaty"). General Wolfe's army recognized them by their distinctive red and green uniform jackets. Unfortunately Montcalm did not wait for the full force of the Irish Brigade to assemble before going into this battle. If he had, the outcome may have been quite different. Members of the Irish Brigade in Quebec are recorded with such names as "de Macarti (MacCarthy), de Patrice (FitzPatrick), Forcet (Forsyth), de Harennes (O'Hearn) de Klerec (O'Cleary), Sylvain (O'Sullivan) and Riel (Rielly/O'Rielly as in Louis Riel who was descended from Jack "Devil may care" Rielly, one of Patrick Sarsfield's Wild Geese). These families have since been absorbed into French Canadian communities and today, many do not know their Irish roots. One name that seems to not have changed was O'Neill.

 During the American War of Independence in 1778 the officers of the Dillon Regiment petitioned "to be the first to strike a blow against England". Eventually the Dillon and Walsh Regiments of the Irish Brigade landed in Savannah, Georgia.  Other Wild Geese went to West Africa to fight the English.

With the event of the Revolution in France, the Irish Brigade ended.  The Irish Regiments were finally disbanded in 1792.

If they had stayed home, the gentlemen Irish would likely had found themselves poor and destitute.  Having chosen to leave, they retained the titles and honours of their families. They left in the hopes of one day returning and regaining their home, but as months slipped into years and a generation into generations, the dream faded and finally was extinguished.




Wild Geese - from Europe to the "New World"

  Patrick Sarsfield - "Wild Geese Hero"

The Wild Geese Victorius in Italy -- "Remember Cremona"

  Fenian Raids of Canada


 Celt Knot

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