Events and Epochs
Summary history : Political, religious, Demographic Background
The service of the Irish in France over the centuries was the mainly the result of the closer relationship between Ireland and England, or, later, Great Britain. Though Ireland was legally a sister kingdom to Great Britain, it was treated more like a colony, and it is probably fair to say that Ireland was treated far worse by the British than many of its colonies.
The colonization of Ireland by its nearest neighbour was a major overall reason for the exodus of Irishmen to France, since that country had begun to emerge as the enemy of Great Britain. Anti-Catholic legislation made it difficult for Irish Catholics to obtain service in the British army, to hold legal office or own land, which excluded them from almost every profession.
In addition, young and mainly Catholic Irishmen desiring a military career found it preferable to emigrate to Spain, France or Austria. In some cases, their ambition was to fight the English/British, but that was not always the case, since Austria was, in most conflicts, an ally of the British. For example, at that most celebrated of battles, Fontenoy, the Irish Brigade in the French service did, indeed, make its mark, but the Irish were also present in the ranks of the enemy, in the British army, and in that of Austria.
Well-to-do and reasonable well educated Catholics could enrol as gentlemen cadets in France and become officers after some years of service. Some, also from well-off Catholic families, however, simply enlisted and took their chances on promotion. Irishmen from poorer backgrounds simply enlisted as soldiers.
The Irish as Mercenaries
The Irish were, of course, mercenaries, employed by foreign armies to boost their military strength, and troops from different national origins, often competing to demonstrate the most valorous and heroic qualities, often performing magnificently, which suited the host countries, since it avoided losses from among the home troops and, thus, made war and the ambition for it more palatable, although mercenary units often cost more to recruit and maintain, and were more difficult to manage.
Dunkirk to Belgrade and beyond
The long-term result, of course, was that tens of thousands of Irishmen died not only on the battlefields from Dunkirk to Belgrade, as the song tells us, but much further afield, such as Saint-Dominque, Savannah, Yorktown and Pondicherry. They died in conflicts that had nothing whatever to do with the independence of Ireland, mere pawns in whatever power gamer was being played.
Decline in Recruitment
Up to 1745, the French army was allowed to recruit in Ireland discretely, but when units of the Irish Brigade took part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, such recruitment came to a halt, and overall recruitment declined, and those wishing to join had to make their own way to France.
Recruitment slowed to a trickle, and the intake of Irishmen into the French service, especially potential officers, was further reduced from 1773, with the easing of the Penal Laws which discriminated against Catholics, so that by 1790, the roll of officers of one regiment at least of the Irish Brigade bears the remark that the second-lieutenants were ‘mainly foreigners’.
Nationalism and Republicanism
From the point of view of Irish nationalism or, to be more precise, republicanism, it is significant that the regiments of the Irish Brigade, at least the officers the greater part of which defected to the French Princes (1791-2), joined the counterrevolutionary crusade. Beyond the Frontier, they fought first as mercenaries in the ranks of the coalition (1793-4), and soon formed the Irish Catholic Brigade in the British Army (1794-7). Their allegiance was not to Ireland, but to the King of France. After the disbandment of that Brigade, many went on to serve in the British army, some participating the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Heroism and Mythology
Such issues have been played down by Irish historians until recently, since they do not fit comfortably into the mythology of the persecuted Irish, unable to fight the British at home, escaping to France to continue the fight and performing deeds of magnificent valour when fighting for their host countries, shedding their heroic blood. Irish nationalist lyricists, and, indeed, much of the teaching Irish history, perpetuates this myth. It is probably true to say that most Irish people have learned what little knowledge of history they possess from popular songs than they have from studying the subject. Most accounts, in whatever form, present a sentimental and romantic account of the history of the Irish in the service of France. This platform will strive to take a more realistic approach.
We are left, then, with several reasons, often overlapping, for Irish volunteering to the French army, not necessarily in order of importance:
1. The desire fight Ireland’s great enemy, the British
2. The need for employment
3. The ambition of a military career
4. The search for adventure