France's Irish Brigade: Part 1 of 5, 'Worst Place in the World'

By Joe Gannon

(Above: The Battle of Fontenoy 1828 - Horace Vernet. King Louis congratulating the Brigade after Fontenoy. Click on image to see a larger view.)

Hark! Yonder through the darkness one distant rat-tat-tat!
The old foe stirs out there, God bless his soul for that!
The old foe musters strongly, he’s coming on at last,
And Clare’s Brigade may claim its own wherever blows fall fast.
Send us, ye western breezes, our full, our rightful share,
For Faith, and Fame, and Honour, and the ruined hearths of Clare

        -- "Fontenoy 1745" By Emily Lawless

On the afternoon of May 11th, 1745 near the town of Fontenoy in what is today the country of Belgium, 16,000 of the finest soldiers in the British and Hanoverian armies stepped off behind their commander, the Duke of Cumberland, to assault the center of the French army of Louis XV. Several assaults against other sections of the line by the British and their Dutch allies had already failed. The day appeared lost, but Cumberland, like Robert E. Lee 118 years later at Gettysburg, rolled the dice on a bold massed advance against the enemy center.

Moving forward courageously through a withering fire, Cumberland's men soon reached the French position and appeared ready to sweep the center of the line away. His audacious gamble was on the verge of success. At this climactic juncture, the French sent in their last reserves in a furious attempt to save the day. As Frenchmen attacked them from the left

'Cumhnigh ar Luimneach agus ar feall na Sassanach!'

and front, the British observed another formation advancing on their right flank in uniforms as red as their own. They came forward with bagpipes and fifes playing the Jacobite anthem, "The White Cockade," and voices raised in a battle cry in one of the most ancient languages of Europe: "Cuimhnigidh ar Luimneach agus ar feall na Sassanach!!" (Remember Limerick and Saxon treachery!)

These red-coated soldiers were mostly Irishmen and Frenchmen of Irish ancestry. This was the Irish Brigade in the Service of France, and they were about to exact a measure of retribution against the forces of the nation they saw as the oppressors of their people. Never stopping to fire, they crashed into the British right flank. It was the close-in fighting at which the Irish were said to excel, with bayonet, clubbed musket or simply bare hands. A French historian said that in 10 minutes it was over, the British driven off. But who were these Irishmen fighting in a French army while wearing the same colors as the British, and why were they there?

From an engraving by Jean Sorieul
Uniforms of the Irish Brigade of France. Red coats were worn throughout the Brigade's history, signifying their support for the Stuart claim to the English crown.

In the history of Ireland, the hundred-year period after the broken Treaty of Limerick in 1691 was a dismal era for the vast majority of the population. With the imposition of the Penal Laws in the aftermath of Williamite War, it was said that the worst place in the world to be an Irishman -- if one were also a Catholic -- was Ireland itself.

If there was one institution in the world which the Irish could look to during that "dark age" for affirmation that the Irish were the equals of other nationalities in Europe, it was the Irish Brigade in the Service of France. In addition to giving many Irishmen an outlet for their talents at a time when there was virtually none in the land of their birth, the Brigade provided hope to those destitute masses back in Ireland. As long as it existed, there remained the possibility that one day the flags of Dillon's regiment and the rest might fly in Dublin and the Irish would "have our own again." Though today many in Ireland still know the name and accomplishments of the Irish Brigade, there seem to be very few in the Irish Diaspora familiar with their legacy. That is unfortunate, as the hope they gave the Irish played an important role in sustaining them as a people then.

Viscount Mountcashel,
Justin McCarthy

The origins of the Brigade lie in a trade of French soldiers for Irish made in 1690. France's King Louis XIV knew it was in his interests to assist the Catholic King James II of England in his struggle for the crown with William of Orange, then being contested in Ireland. Louis thus agreed to send 6,000 of his well-trained French regulars to James in Ireland, but he was in dire need of men in his own struggle with William on the continent. In return, Louis received slightly over 5,000 raw Irish recruits under the command of Viscount Mountcashel, Justin McCarthy. Ireland got the best of the trade in 1690, but it would be a wonderful bargain for France in the years to come.

These Irish troops were eventually organized into three regiments, known by the names of the colonels commanding: Mountcashel's; O'Brien's, commanded by Daniel O'Brien; and Dillon's, commanded by Arthur Dillon. While the names of the various Irish regiments in France would change over the next century with changes in command, Dillon's regiment would remain at least nominally under the command of a Dillon for its entire 100 years of service, and thus retain that name for a full century.

After the Treaty of Limerick in October 1691, perhaps as many as 19,000 more Irish troops followed Patrick Sarsfield into exile on the continent. This event would come to be known in Irish history as the "Flight of The Wild Geese." While Mountcashel's three regiments remained in the French army, these new troops were organized into an army under the control of King James.

Given that William of Orange was then the nemesis of both Louis and James, the effect of this split allegiance was slight in the field. It did have one long-term effect, however. The Brigade would wear red coats for the next 100 years as a sign of this fealty to the Gaelic house of Stuart, and to that family's claim to the English and Scottish thrones.

More Irish followed Sarsfield's men, bringing the total number in this embryonic Irish Brigade to perhaps 30,000. The stifling nature of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws that would shortly descend on Ireland following the breaking of the Treaty of Limerick (the origin of the Brigade's battle cry later at Fontenoy) would ensure that the Brigade would remain supplied with the cream of Ireland's sons for generations to come.

National Museum of Ireland
The flag of Dillon's Regiment, Irish Brigade of France.

The Irish fought well for the French for the rest of the war against William of Orange, at battles such as Landen in 1693, where Patrick Sarsfield was mortally wounded, and whose final word were reputed to have been "Would it were for Ireland." At Marsaglia, their counterattack on Prince Eugene was credited with winning the battle. But in 1698, after war with William was concluded by the Treaty of Ryswick, most of the Irish regiments in France were disbanded by Louis XIV.

It was a hard period for those Irish officers and men who were put out of the French army. They had been branded traitors by the English, and thus could not return to Ireland. Some traveled to other European nations and offered their services, some turned to robbery, becoming highwaymen in the French countryside.

But the peace that had come to Europe was very short-lived. By 1701, Europe was at war again. King Charles II of Spain died, and Louis XIV pressed the cause of Philip of Anjou for the Spanish crown, while the Austrians countered that Archduke Charles of Hapsburg, son of Emperor Leopold I, was the legitimate heir. Backed by England, Holland, and Prussia, the Austrians were soon at war with France, and Louis XIV had need of his stalwart Irishmen again.

Part 2: 'Who Stood the Victors Crowned"

Related Resources:


  • Bartlett, Thomas and Jeffery, Keith, Eds.: A Military History of Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Bredin, A.E.C.: A History of the Irish Soldier, Century Books, 1987
  • Hayes, Richard, Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France, M.H. Gill and Son, LTD., 1949.
  • Hayes, Richard.: "Irish Casualties in the French Military Service" The Irish Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland Volume I, No. 3, 1951-52, pp. 198-201.
  • Hayes, Richard: "Irish Swordsmen of France," M. H. Gill and Sons, Ltd., 1934.
  • Hayes, Richard: "Old Irish Links with France," M. H. Gill and Sons, LTD., 1940.
  • Hennessy, Maurice: The Wild Geese: The Irish Soldier in Exile," The Devin-Adair Co., 1973.
  • Lawless, Emily, With The Wild Geese," W. Isbister & Co. Ltd.,  1902.
  • McLaughlin, Mark, "The Wild Geese: the Irish Brigades of France and Spain," Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1980.
  • Mullen, Thomas J., "The Ranks of Death, Unpublished manuscript.
  • Murphy, John A., "Justin MacCarthy, Lord Mountcashel," Royal Eóghancht Society Publications, 1999.
  • Murphy, W.S., "The Irish Brigade at the Siege of Savannah, 1779," The Georgia Historical Society Quarterly Volume XXXVIII, No. 4, December 1954, pp 307-321.
  • O'Callaghan, John, "History of the Irish Brigades in the Service of France," R&T Washbourne, Ltd., 1890.
  • O'Connell, Mary Anne Bianconi, "The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade: Count O'Connell and Old Iris... K. Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co.," 1892.
  • The O'Doneven, Lt. Col.: "Coote and Lally: Two Irish Personalities at War," The Irish Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Volume VII, No. 28, 1966,
    pp. 231-233.
  • Petrie, Sir Charles, "The Irish Brigade at Fontenoy," The Irish Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland,
    Volume I, No. 3, 1951-52, pp 166-172.

More on The Wild Geese in Europe's Wars

This feature was edited by Liam Murphy and Gerry Regan.

Copyright © 2011 by GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from GAR Media. Direct questions about permissions to


Views: 5097

Tags: Brigade, Europe, France, Irish, War

Comment by Joe Gannon on April 18, 2017 at 1:22pm

Comment by Joe Gannon on April 18, 2017 at 1:23pm

Comment by Joe Gannon on April 18, 2017 at 1:25pm

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 28, 2017 at 7:01am

Oh the French are in the Bay , say the Van Gon Goth... No that was 1798 /// Lovely piece as always Joe  


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