9 – The Wild Geese and France’s Irish Brigade
After England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-1689, the newly crowned Protestant king William III took an army to Ireland to subdue the island and mop up the last Jacobite supporters of his Catholic predecessor, king James II. After losing to William in the Battle of Boyne in 1690, James fled to Europe, leaving his most Irish Catholic supporters to try and retrieve the situation. Despite their best efforts, the Irish Jacobites were decisively defeated at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, and forced to capitulate.
Peace was concluded with the Treaty of Limerick, signed in October 1691. It offered favorable terms to Jacobites willing to swear allegiance to William III. Those unwilling to do so, were allowed to leave Ireland en masse, and join the exiled James II in France. In what came to be known as “The Flight of the Wild Geese”, roughly 14,000 men, accompanied by 10,000 women and children, left Ireland for France.
Upon arrival, the Wild Geese took service as mercenaries, and for the next hundred years, the French army would include an Irish Brigade, whose nucleus was the exiles of 1691. During that period, their ranks were constantly replenished by new arrivals from Ireland. French ships smuggling brandy and wine into Ireland usually smuggled out new recruits for the Irish Brigade, who were often listed in the ship’s log – in a nod to the first batch of recruits from 1691 – as “Wild Geese”.
Many of the new recruits sought adventure, others simply wanted to make a living, and most were looking for an opportunity to fight Ireland’s ancient enemy, the English. Thousands of Irishmen thus served France in the century after the Treaty of Limerick. They fought for the French in numerous wars, and proved instrumental in some notable victories against the British, such as at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. After the French Revolution, the unit’s existence as a separate entity came to an end, when foreign regiments were integrated into the French army’s line infantry.