The Fighting Irish? Contemplating the Irish Military Diaspora

One of the most lasting stereotypes of the Irish – at home and abroad – has been of Irishmen’s “natural aggression” and “bellicosity.”  The Notre Dame football team has definitely helped to bring this into the post-modern age, but it’s a representation of Irishmen with deep historical roots.  Sons of Ireland are, apparently, born with an innate ability to fight and are bred to be warriors.  This type of classification goes back all the way to the Roman and medieval image of the “Berserker Celt” (which always makes me think of that scene from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when the Celts massacre the people of Sherwood Forest).

Attack of the Celts

Given the popularity of this warrior image, it shouldn’t be a surprise that, throughout the past several centuries, many Irishmen who left the island soon found themselevs embroiled in violent conflicts around the globe.  More often than not, these men joined foriegn military forces, giving nations like France, Spain, America, Canada, and Argentina their own incarnation of “the fighting Irish.”

However, in many cases, this was not a simple story of emigration and forgetting “the old country.”  Time and again, many Irishmen serving in armies abroad hoped that their efforts fighting for a foreign power would, somehow, help to gain support for Irish freedom.  This phenomenon dates back to the creation of the Irish Regiment in the Spanish Army of Flanders in the 1580s, and continued through such famous Irish events as the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the departure of the “Wild Geese” in the latter half of the seventeenth century (partly thanks to Cromwell aka The Git).  All told – and the numbers are a bit screwy because of a lack of solid record-keeping – it’s estimated that near 70,000 Irishmen had left the country to fight in foreign armies by 1700.

There are many famous units from the Irish Military Diaspora over the centuries, including the French Irish Brigade in the War of the Palatinate, Napoleon’s Irish Legion, the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg, the Fenian Army in North America, the Irish Transvaal Brigade in South Africa, and Connolly’s Column in the Spanish Civil War.

The Irish Brigade at Gettysburg, 1863

However, as my work on Irishmen in uniform has increasingly shown to me, the definition of the Irish Military Diaspora is not as clear-cut as it may first appear.

The thought of Irishmen fighting abroad to gain Irish freedom at home is a fairly easy concept to grasp.  For instance, the Fenians in the late 1860s were determined to conquer Canada in order to “swap it” for Ireland in the Great Blackmailing of Britain.  It didn’t work, but the Fenians did score the only victory the Irish had had against the English between 1170 and 1916.

Battle of Ridgeway

However, after 1689, Irishmen were not always fighting against English oppression.  Irishmen fighting for the British Crown became commonplace in Great Britain’s military forces as of the eighteenth century.  Irishmen fought for Britain against France in the Seven Year’s War, both in Europe and in North America.  While many Irishmen famously fought with the patriots/rebels in the American Revolution (often portrayed as an attempt to secure the same liberties that had been gained for them in 1689), many others fought in loyalist units such as Butler’s Rangers, the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, and as British regulars.

Most famously, perhaps, were the number of Irishmen fighting for Britain against Napoleon (and, consequently, against the Irish Legion) at the turn of the nineteenth century.  Somewhere between 33% and 55% of the Royal Navy and British Army were made up of Irish-born or Irish-heritage recruits… possibly because of economic times, true, but also because of the 1800 Act of Union that had made Ireland part of the United Kingdom.  Furthermore, these men were led by one of the most famous of Irishmen in British uniforms: Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.

And, because of this, I now feel compelled to put in a picture of Sharpe, whose best friend (Patrick Harper) was Irish and who saved Wellington’s life – fictitiously, at least.

Richard Sharpe and Patrick Harper - "Bromance"

So, here’s one of the questions I’m grappling with: when looking at the history of the Irish Military Diaspora, can Irishmen fighting for Britain be considered as part of the culture of Irish ex-patriots in arms, despite the fact that previous generations of fighting Irish emigrants had symbolized the struggle against England?  Is leaving the island to fight in any war all it takes to be part of this particular diasporic movement?

(This is not just an historical problem: Ireland’s recent engagement with its past in WWII [it was officially neutral from 1939-45] and the defection of Irish soldiers to fight in the British Forces against Hitler and Nazi Germany has become news again.  Known for generations as “deserters,” these veterans will now mostly likely receive official pardons from the state. )

Even if the above questions can be put aside as semantics, the theoretical framework surrounding the Irish Military Diaspora also complicates things.  Since the time of the potato blight — before, even — the notion of the Irish leaving Ireland has come down to a toss-up between chosen emigration and forced exile.  Kerby Miller nailed it with his classic tome, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America.  When it comes to taking a boat to somewhere else, the Irish have primarily felt that they were coerced into this dire strait, either through British oppression or economic necessity… which is usually the result of British oppression.  To be part of the Irish Diaspora proper (in most cases) is to disperse and resettle somewhere new, either carrying on Irish traditions or leaving them behind for a new identity.

It’s relatively easy to categorize Irishmen in the American Civil War or in the Canadian Corps during the Great War as recent immigrants or children of such, fighting for their new nation in a manner that adds a hypen to their efforts: IrishAmerican, IrishCanadian, etc.  That said, it is not so simple to hyphenize the military exploits of Irishmen within the British Army or Royal Navy, as the following four (if not more) questions cloud the picture:

a) Are the British Forces to be considered as “foreign” after the Act of Union in 1800 but before the Partition of Ireland in 1921?
b) Are far-away battlefields the requirement for the military diaspora, or must an Irish soldier be a part of another nation’s military?
c) Is the relative feasibility of returning to the homeland (provided one survived the war) something that stands against the common interpretation of diaspora?
d) To what extent does the Irish Military Diaspora depend upon an Irish nationalist persuasion in order to legitimize the soldiers’ temporary or permanent departure from Ireland?  Are some soldiers, born and bred in Ireland or of Irish heritage, left out of the possible narrative of military departure because their participation in a British or colonial unit automatically denotes pro-British sympathies in the eyes of contemporaries and historians?  Does the notion of a military exodus only mean physically leaving the island to fight somewhere else, or does it depend on an anti-British state of mind?

I had a friend at Goodenough College who was very proudly and loudly Irish — and yet, if you went into his room, there was a very obvious Union Jack hanging on his wall.  It wasn’t there because he was a unionist — he wasn’t — but because he was a reservist in the Royal Navy.  As an Irishman.  At the time, I had no idea what to think… now I have lots of ideas, but no answers.

I suppose, in the end, what I’m getting at is this: What makes a person Irish?  It’s a question that lies at the heart of both histories of Ireland and Irish communities abroad.  If someone is born on the Emerald Isle, but doesn’t fit the Padriac Pearse mould, are they, in fact, not Irish?  Does one have to be a Catholic republican in order to earn “member status” in the Irish family?

These questions are just as relevant for a cultural military paradigm as they are for political, social, or economic investigations.  Don Akenson clearly defines a person as Irish solely through birth on the island or Irish heritage — religion and politics do not denote or deny Irishness.  In terms of multicultural post-modernism, that is absolutely the correct approach; however, how many people truly believe it?  And how long will it take this all-inclusive definition to replace the Quiet Man stereotype that exclusively equates Irishness with Catholic nationalism?*

Exploring the various definitions of the Irish Military Diaspora, and their applicability to numerous historical time periods is a key way of complicating our understandings of what it means to leave Ireland.  Soldiers of Irish birth and/or extraction engaged in similar themes to those who boarded the “coffin ships” – they felt insecurities about the future, the trauma of leaving home (and the trauma of the battlefield), the overlapping of new identities, and the uncertainty of acceptance in their chosen community.  Connections with Ireland weren’t just kept in Boston, New York, and Montreal, but also traversed the globe with men in military uniform, who were known primarily through definitions based on the nation rather than the individual.  Many of these men – nationalists and unionists alike – believed that their efforts in a war far away from Ireland were absolutely crucial in defining Ireland’s future, either through earning foreign support for nationalist dreams, or by cementing the British connection.

And, yet, what do we call these men?  Ex-pats?  Emigrants?  Exiles?  The Enemy?

Military emigration has been a fact in Irish history and culture for over four hundred years — but it remains to be seen how much legitimacy it has within academic circles and, perhaps more importantly, within the popular imagination.

Further Readings
Donald H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora – A Primer (1996)
Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing (1999)
Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe series (1981-2006)
Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World (2001)
Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (1985)

*To be fair to John Ford and John Wayne, The Quiet Man actually is a wonderful demonstration in many ways of Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant cooperation, stressing the point that the Reverend Mr Playfair is a fully-fledged member of the community, born and raised in Innisfree.  Father Lonergan even gets the whole town to pretend they’re Protestant to save the minister’s job.  Today, would we call that fantasy or reality???  (Start the clip at 6.47 to see what I mean…)

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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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2 Responses to The Fighting Irish? Contemplating the Irish Military Diaspora

  1. Rob (Peregrinatio Pro Dei Amore) says:

    Ah Geez! You didn’t mention Sean Bean in “Bravo Two Zero”! 😉

  2. Rob (Peregrinatio Pro Dei Amore) says:

    And in my earlier (3VP) years, that’s why they dubbed me-self ‘The Fighting Father O’Gorman’!

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