'For Faith and Fame and Honour': The Irish Brigade in the Service of France Part 2 of 5: 'Who Stood the Victors Crowned'

By Joe Gannon

(Right: King Louis XIV of France.)

"So failed Eugene's advance,
So failed all foes of France!
(Shout, boys, Erin's the renown!)
Let her praises still resound,
And while the world goes round,
To their praise too redound,
Who stood the victors crowned
In Cremona town"

        -- 'Cremona' by Emily Lawless

A legend of the Irish Brigade has it that Louis XIV once complained to an officer of the Brigade that the Irish caused him more trouble than the rest of his army put together. The quick-witted officer was said to counter: "Please, your Majesty, your enemies make the same complaint about them."

In 1701, with much of Europe arrayed against him, Louis XIV once again called on the "Irlandais" to cause trouble for both him and their mutual enemy. He had quickly cast them aside when he signed the Treaty of Ryswick, by which he had also recognized William as the English king. Now he renounced that, recognizing the Stuart claim again. Exiled from their native land as they were, there were few options open to the Irish. They again rallied to the cause of France.

The ensuing conflict was called the "War of Spanish Succession." It would last 13 years and be waged all over Europe. Parts of the Irish Brigade would take part, in every corner of the continent, from Italy and Spain to Flanders and Germany.

Austrian Archive of the State, War Archive and Card Collection (Wikipedia Commons)
Imperial troops crossing the Alps under the commnd of Prince Eugene in the year 1702.

Most famous would be their adventure in the town of Cremona, in northern Italy. The campaign in Italy in 1701 began poorly for the French, with a defeat at Chiari in September. The French retreated to Cremona and expected that there would be no further action until spring. But the allied commander was Prince Eugene of Austria, one of the finest soldiers of his day. Finding a hidden way into the bowels of the city by way of a large drainage pipe, he infiltrated several hundred soldiers into the town and sprung his trap on the slumbering French on the morning of February 1, 1702.

With the French totally surprised, his men were able to open one of the city gates to allow entry to Eugene and many thousands more allied soldiers. Wrote an Italian historian describing the scene: "Confusion, terror, violence, rage, flight and slaughter were everywhere!" The French were panicked and running for theit lives, if someone did not make a stand they were sure to be run out of the city. But the men of Dillon's and Burke's regiments of the Irish Brigade were stationed near the Po gate, through which the second part of Eugene's attack was to enter. Eugene's other wing would never see the inside of Cremona. Led by the indomitable Daniel O'Mahony, the Irish would hold the bridge on the outside (eventually burning it) and the gate from the inside against repeated assaults. Eventually the bulk of the French army rallied and returned to help them drive Eugene out of the town.

'Lord Clare, you have your wish, there are your Saxon foes.'

King Louis XIV had no doubt who had been the heroes of Cremona. He raised the pay of all the Irish regiments after the battle, even those who hadn't been there. The English were also sure it was the Irish that had thwarted their ally Eugene. In the House of Commons, an Englishman observed that if the Irish had been allowed to keep their property and remain in Ireland they would surely have caused the Crown fewer problems.

The Irish would later fight in France's futile battles against the seemingly invincible Duke of Marlbourgh. The Brigade would fight well in many of the engagements, including Blenheim in 1704 and Ramillies in 1706, though they were all calamitous defeats for the French. But in each battle the Irish upheld their reputation as some of the finest troops on the continent.

At Blenheim, they held their part of the line through out the battle. When the rest of the French line collapsed and it appeared they would be surrounded and captured, they cut their way out of the trap and covered the French retreat.

Photo by Tomás Ó Brógáin.
Reenactors Tomás Ó Brógáin in the uniform of Clare's Regiment. Click on image for a larger view.

At Ramillies it was Clare's regiment that covered the French retreat before another onslaught by Marlborough. So well did they perform this duty that they captured two enemy colors, one belonging to the regiment of Marlborough's brother. Those were the only two colors captured by any French units on that inauspicious day. Lord Clare was killed while commanding his regiment during the retreat.

Still, though Marlborough was ever successful in the Low Countries, the French were eventually successful in Spain, under the command of the Duke of Berwick, with help from Daniel O'Mahony of Cremona fame. Mahony had recruited several Irish regiments from the prisoners taken in Spain and commanded them with great skill during the battles there. Thus, though they could never defeat Marlborough, the French goal of putting Philip of Anjou on the Spanish throne succeeded.

The Brigade would continue in French service, with a steady stream of young men with no future in British-occupied Ireland arriving in France, most from the west of Ireland. In 1740, another of the numerous wars over royal successions would engulf Europe. This one was over the throne of Austria and would thus be called the "War of Austrian Succession."

It was during this war that they would achieve their most famous victory at the aforementioned battle at Fontenoy. Young Irelander Thomas Davis' would later commemorate the victory at Fontenoy thus:

"Lord Clare" he says, "you have your wish, there are your Saxon foes,"
The Marshal almost smiles to see, so furiously he goes!
How fierce the look these exiles wear, whose wont to be so gay,
The treasured wrongs of fifty years are in their hearts today."

Wikimedia Commons
Flora MacDonald's farewell to Bonnie Prince Charlie, depicted by George William Joy.

A year later some of the Brigade would be in Scotland, fighting with "Bonnie Prince Charlie" in the last hurrah of the Jacobite cause. Charles would arrive in Scotland accompanied by seven advisors who came to be known as "The Seven Men of Moidart," so named for their landing place in Scotland. Of the seven, four were Irish "Wild Geese": George Kelly, Thomas Sheridan, John MacDonnell and John O'Sullivan. Kerryman O'Sullivan was the most influential with the young Prince, and as a result remains one of the most controversial figures of "The '45," as the rising would eventually be known.

The French were unsure how much support to lend to the "Bonnie Prince" at first. Though nearly captured on the way, Prince Charlie arrived in Scotland in mid-July. The Highlanders rallied to his cause and began to sweep the English out of Scotland. The French decided to send help, and elements of the Irish Brigade were among them. A larger number of them were captured by the British navy, however, and others turned back. Only a few hundred would get through, along with part of the Royal Scots regiments of the French army.

With such small numbers present their impact could not be decisive, but by all accounts they performed well. In the disaster of Culloden in April, it was the members of Irish Brigade and the Royal Scots who formed the rear guard that held off the English. That rear guard was commanded by General Walter Stapleton of the Irish Brigade, who was mortally wounded, a fate that also befell any hope of restoring the Stuarts to the British throne.

New York Public Library
A soldier of Dillon's regiment.

A small number of officers and men of Fitzjames' cavalry unit of the Irish Brigade were used as the "Bonnie" Prince's bodyguard and helped him safely depart the field. As the prince went into hiding, he ordered his troopers to surrender to the English. This they did, as did the remnants of the brave Stapleton's rear guard, and all were later exchanged.

"The '45 of "Bonnie Prince Charlie" has become legend. One "what-if" that has often been mentioned is "what if more of the Irish Brigade and the Royal Scots regiments had made it to Scotland?" Though the Highlanders were fierce fighters, they had no trained, cohesive, veteran fighting units to match the Scottish and Irish regiments in French service. Charles would later claim in a letter to King Louis VX that if he had another 1,200 French regulars he could have won the battle. Like all such questions, it will remain unknowable.

The Irish Brigade was in the thick of the last great battle of The War of Austrian Succession, a French victory at Lauffeld in Holland. Though it was a French victory, the Irish Brigade suffered heavy casualties, including the commander of Dillion's Regiment, Colonel Count Edward Dillon, who was mortally wounded.

The treaty that ended the war included the French accepting the Hanover succession to the throne of England. The Stuart cause had run its course, and died on the field at Culloden. The Irish Brigade survived this, but would never again be the same force as took the field at Fontenoy and Lauffeld. The officers would continue to be mainly men of Irish birth or ancestry, but with the prospect of "liberating" Catholic Ireland by restoring the Stuarts now gone, fewer and fewer young Irishmen followed the call to glory in France, and the rank and file would become less and less Irish.

The "Old Brigade" was gone, but not without leaving a record as glorious as any military organization of its time. And altered though it might be, it would yet make a mark under its Irish commanders, in places thousands of miles from the poverty of western Ireland.

Part 3: 'Fighters in Every Clime'

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 permissions@garmedia.com.


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Tags: Brigade, Europe, France, Irish, War


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