Irish Fighting Irish
By Brian McGinn

In foreign armies, Irish soldiers often found fellow-Irishmen in their gun sights

At Saratoga, in New York’s Hudson River valley, rebellious Americans dealt a humiliating defeat to the British Army in October 1777. The American hero was Timothy Murphy, the sharp shooting son of Irish immigrant's who picked off two key British officers during the battle.

Among the British prisoners was Sgt Roger Lamb from Dublin, who observed his fellow captives conversing with the Americans across a shallow river. In his memoirs, Lamb recalled how an Irish soldier named Maguire, with the British 9th Regiment of Foot, recognized a familiar voice on the opposite bank.

He suddenly darted like lightning from his companions, and resolutely plunged into the stream. At the very same moment, one of the American soldiers, seized with a similar impulse, resolutely dashed into the water from the opposite shore.’ Astonished spectators on both banks watched the men embrace tearfully in mid-stream. The accompanying cries of ‘my dear brother’ soon cleared up the mystery. ‘One’, wrote Lamb, ‘was in the British and the other in the American service, totally ignorant until that hour that they were engaged in hostile combat against each other’s life’.

The Dream

Fraternizing with the British was not the way such stories were supposed to end. The Wild Geese of popular myth and legend dreamt of returning to Ireland, where military skills perfected on foreign fie

In defeat, observes Irish historian R. V. Comerford, they provided a rallying point for Irish Catholic-nationalist sentiment, ‘provoking Irish papers to produce paeans of inflated praise’ to their battlefield heroism.

Ironically, the chain of events which brought this Irish battalion to defend the Papal States in Italy was set in motion by an earlier, 1859 French invasion of Northern Italy led by General Pierre Edm? Patrice de MacMahon. Initially, Irish nationalists were so enthralled by the exploits of this Wild Geese descendant that they arranged to cast a ceremonial Sword in his honor.

In September 1860, when the blade was presented to MacMahon in France, Garibaldi’s troops were poised to overwhelm the Pope’s estates and the Battalion of St Patrick in Italy. The coincidence embarrassed MacMahon’s Irish supporters, since it was their hero’s 1859 Italian exploits that had exposed the vulnerability of the Papal States.

Loyal Fusiliers

In 1831, more than four out of every ten men in British Army uniform were born in Ireland. The Irish-born component continued at about twenty per cent right down to the beginning of the Anglo-Boer Wars in 1881. In addition to such veteran units as the Royal Irish Regiment, raised in 1684, and the Connaught Rangers, founded in 1793, the Army then included the newly renamed Royal Dublin and Royal Munster Fusiliers, formerly the Royal Madras and Bengal Fusiliers.

During the Second Boer W! ar of 1899-1902, more than 30,000 Irishmen fought for England in South Africa against the Dutch-descended Boers. On the opposing side, John MacBride and Arthur Lynch organized two Irish Brigades about 300 men in all fighting for the Boers.

The October 1899 encounter of opposing Irish forces at Talana Hill, near the town of Dundee, has assumed legendary dimensions (see ballad). Beyond the hyperbole, there is little doubt that some 80 Dublin Fusiliers were captured by a Boer unit that included MacBride’s pro-Boer Irishmen. According to Dr Donal McCracken, author of The Irish Pro-Boers, ‘exchanges ranging from the cordial to the hostile occurred between the prisoners and some Irish brigaders’.

Stung by nationalist criticism, one Irish-born British soldier wrote home defensively in 1902. ‘We cannot help our destiny’, explained Sergeant J. P. Long. ‘You will find Irishmen in almost every army in the world brought there by fate which oftimes means misfortune

Known to their former colleagues by nicknames such as ‘Porkchop’, ‘Tex’, and ‘Salt and Pepper’, some defectors were spotted carrying arms and leading North Vietnamese patrols. With the exception of one Marine who returned to the US after 14 years, most of these men’s identities and origins remain shrouded in rumor and mystery.

Ironically, North Vietnam’s wartime leader ho Chi Minh was familiar with and in part inspired by the long Irish independence struggle. In 1914, while employed as an assistant pastry chef in London’s Carlton Hotel, Ho had Irish nationalists as co-workers. He is reported to have shown great interest in the Easter Rising, and later to have read Tom Barry’s IRA memoir, Guerrilla Days in Ireland.

 

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