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 immigrants 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, recognised 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

Fraternising 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 fields would be employed against English occupiers. When that opportunity was delayed or denied, then fighting England - or even an English ally - in the service of France or Spain would provide experience and vicarious satisfaction.

For a select few, the dream came at least partly true. Owen Roe O'Neill and Thomas Preston returned from Flanders and France to lead the 1641 Rising in Ireland. At Fontenoy, near the present-day Belgian city of Tournai, France's Irish Brigade routed an English army in 1745. In this century, a handful of Irish-born veterans of World War I (see Irish Roots 1994, No 4) lent their British army combat skills to the IRA.

British officials fretted about the threat of Irish military exiles in France and Spain. 'They speak the same language as us', one wrote in 1728, 'and are consequently the fittest troops to invade us with. They are seasoned to the dangers and so perfected in the art of war that not only the sergeants and corporals, but even the private men, can make very good officers on occasion'.

The worry was unnecessary. Charles Blount - who as England's Lord Deputy Mountjoy would in 1602 rout the Gaelic army of Hugh O'Neill at Kinsale - accurately predicted that exiled Irish soldiers posed no serious threat. 'It hath ever been seen', Mountjoy assured the Privy Council in 1601, 'that more than three parts of four of such countrymen never return'.

The Reality

In fact, Mountjoy overestimated the number who would ever see Ireland again. The fate of 1,200 of Hugh O'Neill's defeated men, shipped without choice to serve in the Protestant army of Sweden in 1609, was all too typical. During a battle against the Catholic King of Poland, seven companies of O'Neill's veterans deserted the Swedes, who in reprisal slaughtered two other companies of Irish held in reserve.

After using the Irish soldiers for three years, the Polish King abruptly dismissed them without pay. In 1612, a Spanish ambassador wrote that 'like another race of gypsies they now wander through the world, lost'. Reduced for a time to beggars, the survivors finally found employment in the Tercio Viejo Irlanda - the Old Irish Regiment of the Spanish Army of Flanders.

Organised by an English Catholic named William Stanley from soldiers who had fought on both sides of the Desmond Rebellion in Ireland, this unit was originally brought to the Low Countries in 1586 to fight for England's Dutch allies. Stanley promptly switched sides, bringing his unlikely force of Irish and English over to the Spaniards. England's frustration would turn to fury when it was later discovered that Guy Fawkes of Gunpowder Plot fame had been one of Stanley's soldiers.

The Irish, unhappy fighting under English officers, eventually split off to form their own companies, and by 1605 were united under the leadership of Col. Henry O'Neill, Hugh' son. The Tercio Viejo fought loyally for Spain through the seventeenth century, and was the precursor of the Hibernia, Irlanda and Ultonia regiments that would form the Irish Brigade of Spain's eighteenth century army.

Throughout the century, exiles from the Cromwellian and Williamite wars in Ireland provided a constant infusion of fresh talent and blood for the Irish Brigades of France and Spain. When they fought for France at Cremona in 1702, and for Spain at Villetri in 1744, the opposing Austrian armies were staffed - and sometimes led - by Irishmen named Browne, Taafe and McDonnell.

Even after the Wild Geese regiments were disbanded - in France by 1792, in Spain by 1818 - individual Irish soldiers served their adopted countries with zeal that could approach fanaticism.

Diego O'Reilly, an Irish general serving Spain against the Independence armies of Jose de San Martin in Peru, was defeated and captured in 1820. Eventually released, General O'Reilly was so distraught by his loss that he jumped overboard from the ship bringing him back to Spain.

Not surprisingly, San Martin's army contained its own generous complement of Irish soldiers and sailors. These included Chile's wartime leader Bernardo O'Higgins, the son of Sligo-born Ambrose O'Higgins, and Argentina's General John Thomond O'Brien from Wicklow, and Admiral William Brown from Foxford, County Mayo.

Dying for Ireland

During the US Civil War of 1861-65, the sentries of encamped Union and Confederate armies were often posted within shouting distance. A story is told of a pair of Irish pickets who one night engaged in a good-natured verbal duel across a no man's land.

'What are you fighting with them Rebels for', queried the Union sentry?

'Eleven dollars a month', replied the Confederate picket. 'Why the hell are you fighting for those damn Yankees?'

'Two dollars more a month than you', replied the triumphant Union soldier.

The anecdote underlines the fact that, in addition to more than 100,000 Irishmen who fought for the North, some 20,000 served the South in companies such as Charleston's Irish Volunteers, Savannah's Jasper Greens and the 1st Virginia Regiment's Montgomery Guards. The Confederate Irish, however, have been overshadowed by the legendary bravery of the Fighting 69th Regiment of the Union Army's Irish Brigade at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.

Among the soldiers of fortune drawn to the Union Army were several veterans of the Battalion of St Patrick, a Catholic Irish unit raised in 1860 to defend the Papal States against the forces of Italy's unifying hero Giuseppe Garibaldi. One was Cork-born John Joseph Coppinger, who would live to retire as a major-general of the US army. Another was Carlow-born Captain Myles Keogh. Promoted to major for his Civil War gallantry, Keogh would later join General George Custer's 7th Cavalry and die fighting Native Americans in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn.

More typical of Ireland's Civil War soldiers, however, were Willie Mitchel and James McKay Rorty. Born in Donegal, Rorty saw combat with the Fighting 69th before accepting an artillery commission in 1861. In a letter home to his father, Lieutenant Rorty expressed the hope 'that the military knowledge I may acquire may be turned to account in the sacred cause of my native land.'

Private Willie Mitchel, a colour guard with the Confederate Army's 1st Virginia Regiment, was the 17-year old son of Young Irelander and Jail Journal author John Mitchel, who had settled in the South and passionately embraced the Confederate cause.

James Rorty died at his guns during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, directing fire on the charging Confederates of General George Pickett. Willie Mitchel, whose regiment took part in Pickett's charge, died defending his colours within a quarter mile of Rorty.

The King's Shilling

In the final analysis, the age-old tendency of Irishmen to enlist in Britain's army has ensured that Irishmen fighting under other flags would eventually encounter their countrymen.

The Irish attraction to British military service is an ongoing tradition despite centuries of political strife and sectarian divisions. As recently as 1982, three Irish-born members of Britain's elite SAS Regiment perished in the Falkland Islands War; among the opposing Argentine forces were descendants of nineteenth century immigrants from Counties Westmeath and Wexford.

Despite popular belief to the contrary, Irish enlistment in Britain's army continued even as the repressive Penal Laws officially forbade it. English recruiting sergeants, pressed for manpower, were willing to accept Catholics with a wink and a nod; Irish recruits, desperate for jobs, proved equally willing to swear empty oaths.

Such mutual conspiracies, multiplied manyfold, explain how England's army included significant numbers of Irish Catholics - twenty percent by one estimate - during the American Revolution. Large numbers of Irish emigrants, Catholics and Protestant, also flocked to the American armies of George Washington. And in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, Presbyterian Ulster Scots formed the backbone of the patriot forces.

But the only officially-named Irish unit that fought in the American Revolution was the Volunteers of Ireland, a regiment of Irish loyalists commanded by Lord Francis Rawdon from County Down. Britain's October 1781 surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, was proffered by General Charles O'Hara of Sligo descent, and one of the defeated units, the Queen's Rangers, was 25 percent Irish by birth or descent.

One month later, French forces allied with the rebellious Americans landed on the then British-occupied West Indian island of St Eustatius. Among the French invaders were men of Irish Brigade's regiments of Dillon and Walsh, under Count Arthur Dillon.

Clad in traditional red uniforms, the Irish breached the gate of the British fort before the defenders realised who they were. Dillon's victory was made all the sweeter by the defection of half the British garrison, 350 Catholics from England's 13th and 15th Regiments.

Wild Geese Origins

In traditional usage, the Wild Geese were exiled Irish soldiers who enlisted in the service of European powers - chiefly France, Spain and Austria - from the late seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries.

More recently, the authors of several popular books on the Wild Geese have extended the term to cover the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to include Irishmen who fought in the Americas as well as Europe. Notably excluded, until the new stamp honouring the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, have been hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who fought during all these periods and wars in British uniform.

In a commemorative booklet titled The Wild Geese, the General Post Office acknowledges the impact of Irish regiments in the British Army. But the booklet omits a reproduction of only the Dublin Fusilier stamp.

During the Easter Rebellion of 1916, Dublin Fusiliers were among the British troops sent against the Irish rebel headquarters in the General Post Office. According to one account, several Dublin Fusiliers were executed in the GPO shortly before the rebel surrender.

The Pope's Irish Army

The 1860 Italian campaign of Ireland's Battalion of St Patrick was mercifully brief. Poorly armed and barely trained, its 1,000 men were no match for the professional soldiers of Giuseppi Garibaldi and the King of Sardinia. The Irish were fortunate to be able to surrender at Spoleto and Castlefidardo with only a few score casualties.

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 Edmé 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 honour.

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 War 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 organised 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'. Indeed, ten percent of the Irish in South Africa were killed or wounded defending a vestige of Britain's Empire. And Dublin's Boer War memorial to its Fusiliers, an arched entrance to St Stephen's Green that still stands at the top of Grafton Street, was derisively dubbed 'the Traitors' Gate'.

A Near Thing

While the First World War brought new controversy and rebellion to Ireland, an estimated 350,000 Irishmen, nevertheless, served in British uniform during the conflict. With a figure of up to 35,000 Irish dead, writes Myles Dungan in Distant Drums, 'few Irish families could have remained untouched'. For some survivors, the war did not end with a safe return home: during the ensuing Civil War, at least 82 Irish veterans of World War I were killed by the IRA.

In the trenches of Europe, however, Irish soldiers could relish the almost unique experience of fighting side-by-side. In 1917, Britain's troops were joined by Irish and Irish-American soldiers of the US Army's 165th Infantry Regiment, a direct descendant of the famed 'Fighting 69th' New York State Militia in the US Civil War.

If Irishmen were not fighting with the Germans, that was not the fault of Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement. Inspired by John MacBride and aided by a disillusioned Irish Boer War veteran named Robert Monteith, Casement tried in 1914/15 to raise a brigade from Irish-born prisoners of war in Germany.

But Casement badly misjudged the battle-hardened POW's regimental pride. 'In addition to being Irish Catholics', a prisoner delegation announced, 'we have the honour to be British soldiers'. In the end, Casement's efforts yielded only 55 recruits of dubious dedication. Had he been more successful, Casement proposed that his brigade fight with the Turks to liberate Egypt. There, his men would likely have faced units of the British Army's 10th Irish Division.

The subsequent fates of some of Casement's recruits casts a telling light on their abilities and loyalties. Sgt Daniel Bailey, who landed in Kerry with Casement in 1916, betrayed his leader to the British authorities and was pardoned. Former Connaught Ranger Joseph Dowling was captured in Clare while landing from a German submarine in 1918 and sentenced to life in prison. Timothy Quinlisk, a Royal Irish Regiment POW who later joined the IRA, turned out to be a British agent and was executed on orders from Michael Collins.

Hitler's Redhead

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, Irishmen again picked opposing sides. General Eoin O'Duffy sent 700 of his pro-fascist Blueshirt followers to fight with General Franco's pro-Catholic Nationalists. The James Connolly Column, a 150 strong contingent of IRA veterans and political leftists, left to fight for the Socialist and anti-clerical forces of the Spanish Republic.

Although they did not clash in face-to-face combat, both Irish units saw action during the 1937 Battle of Jarama. And both sustained casualties. Those deaths - 11 among O'Duffy's Irish Brigade and 59 from the James Connolly Column - marked the last time that significant numbers of armed Irishmen would face each other on foreign shores.

Despite Ireland's official neutrality during World War II, Irishmen and women again answered Britain's call to arms. By 1945, 150,000 Irish citizens had served with the British forces, of whom 10,000 had died. As in World War I, Irishmen fighting with Britain found themselves allied with the Irish and Irish-American soldiers of the US Army's 165th Infantry Regiment.

Having apparently forgotten Casement's failure in 1915, Hitler's intelligence services again tried to recruit an Irish unit from British Army prisoners-of-war. This time, the German effort was aided by Frank Ryan, an Irish Socialist who had fought with the Connolly Column against Spanish fascism.

This German scheme backfired with farcical results. One of their prize recruits, a Lieutenant Bissell, was a peacetime journalist interested in gathering material for spy stories. The prisoner chosen to command the Irish unit was Colonel John McGrath, a British reserve officer who had left his civilian job managing Dublin's Theatre Royal for army service in France.

McGrath put his dramatic skills to good use, playing a completely convincing collaborator. In fact, the Irishman was acting as a double-agent, and had volunteered for the unit in order to pass out secret correspondence codes to other still-loyal recruits and report the unit's activities to London.

Despite the efforts of men like McGrath, at least one Irishman served Hitler in German Army uniform. Taken prisoner and shipped back to New York for transfer to a US prisoner-of-war camp, this Irishman was encountered on the New York docks by US Army Sergeant Michael McGinn from County Monaghan.

A member of the 715th Military Police Battalion, Sgt McGinn was supervising a newly-arrived shipload of predominantly fair-haired prisoners when a redheaded POW caught his attention. His curiosity piqued, the Irish MP discovered that his German prisoner also had an Irish name - and an accent to match.

'What the hell are you doing fighting with this outfit', asked the outraged MP. The redheaded POW, whose identity has not been established, explained that he had been living and working in Germany when the war started, and had joined the Wehrmacht for the adventure.

Ho Chi McMinh

Between 1965 and 1973, Irish-born soldiers fought in Vietnam as members of the Australian and US armed forces. An unknown number of Irishmen died there; and the US Department of Defence has refused to break down casualties by place of birth or ethnic origin. Was Vietnam one of the few wars in which there was not at least one Irishman on the opposite side? Although there are no confirmed reports of Irish-born soldiers fighting with the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army, a number of US servicemen did defect.

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 rumour 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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