PATRICK'S DAY IN VIENNA, 1766
By Brian McGinn
Without a party to attend, March 17 can be a lonesome occasion for Irish exiles far from home. To make sure that did not happen, the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of Vienna invited Irish residents to a "grand entertainment" on the feast day of St. Patrick in 1766.
Among the Irish who responded, according to the Annual Register for 1766, was Count Lacy, President of the Council of War, along with Generals named Browne, Maguire, McElligott, O'Donnell, O'Kelly, and Plunkett. Other guests, too numerous to name, were listed only by title-- four Chiefs of the Grand Cross, two Governors, several Knights Military, six Staff Officers and four Privy-Counsellors
The Register also noted that all the principal Officers of State, together with the entire Court, wore Irish crosses to honour the day and "shew their respect to the Irish nation."
In 1766, the capital city of the mighty Hapsburg Empire was a Mecca for musical and military talent. The composer Haydn found patrons among the wealthy Viennese aristocracy. Mozart, then 10 years old, had already charmed the Empress Maria Theresa and her daughter Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France.
To defend their far-flung realms, which in addition to Austria and Hungary also included Bohemia, Croatia, Moravia and Transylvania, Maria Theresa and her recently-deceased husband, Emperor Francis I, had employed some of the best soldiers in Europe. Among the many officers of foreign birth or descent who led Austrian regiments, Irishmen were especially favoured. While their religion was an asset with the devoutly Catholic Hapsburgs, it was their abilities on the battlefield that most impressed the royal family.
In a glowing and insightful tribute found after his death in August 1765, Francis I had written: "The more Irish officers in the Austrian service the better; our troops will always be disciplined; an Irish coward is an uncommon character; and what the natives of Ireland even dislike from principle, they generally will perform through a desire for glory."
O'Donnell's Second Chance
General Karl O'Donnell, once of the celebrants that March 17th, seemed to embody the late Emperor's accolades. The son of Hugh O'Donnell of Co. Leitrim and Flora Hamilton from Co. Donegal, he had reached Austria in 1736, aged 21. In short order, young Con O'Donnell had been quickly transformed into the more Germanic-sounding Karl.
After three decades of faithful service, O'Donnell had eighteen battles--and the scars from two wounds--to his credit. At Leuthen, in 1757, he was reported killed in action. A ransom payment brought the Leitrim man back from the dead after colleagues discovered that O'Donnell had been wounded and taken prisoner. In 1760, at Torgau, O'Donnell rallied his troops to rout Prussian forces twice his strength and capture their commander.
It was hardly surprising that among the decorations adorning O'Donnell's uniform that March night was the Grand Cross of the prestigious Military Order of Maria Theresa. Recently appointed Inspector General of the Imperial Cavalry, the Irishman would go on to serve as Governor of Transylvania, 1768-1770, before his death on March 26, 1771.
Browne's Premature Proposal
Philip George Browne needed no introduction. This officer represented the third generation of his family to serve the Hapsburgs, beginning with his Limerick-born grandfather Ulysses Browne, who married Annabella Fitzgerald, and continuing with his father Maximilian Ulysses Browne, an only son born at Basle in 1705. Maximilian's 1725 marriage to the Bohemian heiress Maria Philippina Magdalena von Martinitz produced two sons: Philip George Browne and his younger brother Joseph Ulysses Maria Browne.
During a lifetime of service, Maximilian Browne had risen to the rank of Field Marshal and become a trusted adviser to Empress Maria Theresa. His fluent English once led to an appointment as liaison officer to the Court of England, Austria's ally till 1756. There, Browne's knowledge of military strategy quickly won the admiration of King George II.
By March 1766, Philip Browne was the last of this illustrious line of professional soldiers. Maximilian had died in 1757 from illness exacerbated by the effect of a wound suffered earlier that year at the siege of Prague. The following year, Philip's brother Joseph, a Major General, succumbed to wounds sustained in battle at Hochkirch.
Philip retained a sentimental attachment to the land of his grandparents. Determined to find an Irish wife, he sought the help of Bonaventure O'Brien, an Irish Franciscan priest in Prague. Acting as Browne's confidential intermediary, Fr. O'Brien made inquiries in 1763 concerning a daughter of Lord Kenmare, a distant relation of Philip's in Co. Kerry.
"If you are in Lord Kenmare's neighbourhood," O'Brien wrote to an Irish cousin, "you'd do me a singular favour in letting me know how old his daughter is, her humour and other qualities, also her fortune. This request will seem strange to you at the beginning, the case is---General Brown, only surviving Son and Heir to the late Marshal of that name, has spoke to me about that young lady, and seems inclined to marry in Ireland.......He speaks no English, so it is necessary to mention if the young Lady understands the french."
But the dash and daring that had made Philip an Imperial General and holder of the Knight's Cross completely failed him in Kerry. Word came back that the prospective bride was much too young and quite unavailable. She later married a wealthy young nobleman. Philip eventually settled on a non-Irish wife from the House of Sztaray. The Austrian branch of the family was extinct within a generation of Philip's 1803 death.
Lacy Takes Command
Francis Maurice Lacy was another guest who walked in the shadow of a famous Irish father, Peter Lacy from Co. Limerick. At home as abroad, the Lacys and Brownes were neighbouring families related by several generations of intermarriage. But Peter's military career, destined to end on such glorious notes, started under inauspicious circumstances.
Serving as a 13-year old ensign in the Irish army of James II, Peter Lacy experienced humiliating defeat as the forces of William of Orange crushed the Jacobite cause. In 1691, he joined the "Wild Geese"--Ireland's Jacobite exiles--in their mass exodus to France. Lacy then fought in turn for France and Poland before finding an outlet for his prodigious organizational talents in the Russian Army of Peter the Great.
Credited with transforming the ragtag Russians into one of the best fighting forces in Europe, Peter Lacy had by 1736 risen to the rank of Field Marshal. In 1737, Lacy sent his youngest son Francis Maurice, born in October 1725 at St. Petersburg, to study in Austria under the care of Maximilian Ulysses Browne. Three years later, Lacy's daughter Helene Marthe cemented yet another bond of kinship with her marriage to George Browne from Limerick. Peter Lacy's new son-in-law was a fellow Field Marshal in the Russian service, and a first cousin of his son's tutor, Field Marshal Maximilian Browne in Austria.
Under such a watchful eye, young Lacy learned fast and well. Francis saw his first combat in Italy at the age of eighteen, when Austrian forces under Maximilian Browne bloodied the Hibernia and Irlanda Regiments of the Spanish Army at Velletri in 1744.
By March 1766, the son had eclipsed the famous father, who died in 1755 as Governor of Livonia. In February, Francis Lacy had been promoted--over the heads of a score of jealous Austrians--to War Minister and President of the Council of War. "I see no one more competent than Lacy," the Empress Maria Theresa had written in her endorsement.
At age forty, with his name ennobled and Germanized as Count Franz Moritz von Lacy, the new Minister of War was arguably Vienna's most eligible bachelor. The recently widowed Empress took delight in teasing Lacy, vowing that if he did not soon find a wife she would have to marry the reluctant Irishman herself.
Lacy served as War Minister from 1766 through 1778. He died--still single--at Vienna in November 1801. An infantry regiment of the Austrian army remained linked to his name down to the time of the First World War. In his biography of Maximilian Browne, The Wild Goose and The Eagle, military historian Christopher Duffy describes Lacy as "the reformer of the Austrian Army, the acknowledged European master of the science of supply, and for Clausewitz the epitome of the spirit of eighteenth-century warfare."
O'Mahony Plays The Court
It was no accident that this bemedalled assembly of Irishmen gathered in Vienna as guests of the Spanish Ambassador, Count Demetrio O'Mahony. Born in 1702 at St. Germain en Laye in France, he was the son of Daniel O'Mahony from Co. Kerry.
Demetrio's father also fled Ireland in 1691 to enter the service of France. Nine years later, at the Battle of Cremona, Daniel O'Mahony won international renown when he rallied compatriots in France's Irish Brigade to foil a surprise attack by Austrian forces.
Seizing opportunity where and when he found it, Daniel O'Mahony arranged a transfer to the Spanish service. His strategic sense was well rewarded---the Spaniards promoted the able Irishman to Lieutenant General and made him Count of Castile. His son James followed in his footsteps, also rising Lieutenant General in the Spanish Army.
But it was Demetrio who profited best from paternal example, setting aside military inclinations for a career in the Spanish diplomatic service. As Ambassador O'Mahony mingled with his distinguished Hiberno-Austrian guests that St. Patrick's evening in 1766, he may well have smiled as he recalled his late father's advice. "One campaign at Court," Daniel O'Mahony always reminded his sons, "is worth three against the enemy."
Copyright 2002, 1996
by Brian McGinn. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Irish Roots Magazine, No. 1, 1996, 10-11.