There were/are a large amount of “Irish” regiments within the British Armed Forces. Just check out this Wikipedia Category page, that only lists the defunct ones. The matter is complicated by the frequent creation and then extinction of these units, by the birth of a new one from the merging of two others, or two different entities having the same name. Suffice to say that a better mind than mine should be consulted for a full and authoritative history of the Irish regiments in British service. For the purposes of this series, I will be picking and choosing the regiments of the British military that I will focus on selectively. Today, the main focus will be one of the first and maybe the most famous, at least in the 18th century: the Royal Irish Regiment. Through the first half of the 1700’s, this unit served in a variety of wars and campaigns, and its history showcases some of the most interesting and some of the most mundane sides of regiment service.
It was not the first “named” Irish regiment to be raised for service by the British. Indeed, Irish men had been serving British and English monarchs and their Irish administrations for centuries already, either directly or under proxy leaders. In terms of the time period we are discussing, an “Irish Regiment” had been raised by the Viscount Clare in 1674, but this had been subsumed into the British military during the War of the Two Kings, coming to be associated with the Northumberland region, while Clare lead those loyal to him into service in the French Irish Brigade. The War of the Two Kings saw the genesis of other Irish named regiments, like the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars (originally Henry Conyngham’s Dragoons), or the 5th Royal Irish Lancers (originally James Wynne’s Dragoons). The famous “Enniskilliners” who had provided such a pivotal a role in the Ulster fighting in and around the time of the Siege of Londonderry, also became named units, like the unit of horse that became the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons or the infantry that became the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot. They fought in many campaigns of the War of the Two Kings, including the Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim, before seeing their status as a regiment maintained, going on to fight in the numerous continental conflicts of the 18th century, as well as the Jacobite rebellions in Britain. They were Protestant regiments through and through, with Catholics not permitted to enlist in the British Army for some time to come. For all that came after, these regiments would find their recruiting heartlands in the Protestant communities of Ireland.
But the Royal Irish Regiment was a little different. Its genesis was reckoned by some to go back to the days of Cromwell, when his New Model Army was aided by “Independent Companies” of Irish musketeers and pikemen, though this might be a bit of a stretch. When Charles II’s restoration came about, the new King reorganised part of the existing Irish military situation: by 1684 one of the existing regiments of infantry had been given to Arthur Forbes, the Earl of Granard. It was this unit that would eventually become the Royal Irish Regiment.
In the preamble to the War of the Two Kings, Granard’s regiment was subject to the same purging of Protestant officers and make-up that other regiments were, with the Colonel himself resigning in the face of Richard Talbot’s proscriptions: still, the regiment was able to maintain a greater Protestant character than many of their contemporary units. When the Glorious Revolution came, the regiment found itself in England, as part of James II’s army: its leadership promptly switched sides when it became clear that William of Orange was in the ascendant, its Catholic numbers dismissed soon after. Allegedly, the Protestant rump of roughly 200 soldiers were nearly assaulted by a crowd of angry English who were in fear of Irish soldiers running amok in the countryside, but were saved when they demonstrated their Church of England allegiance with the aid of a local clergyman.
The regiment, now under the command of Edward Brabazon, the Earl of Meath, was part of the Duke of Schomburg’s military force that attempted to end the Jacobite threat in Ireland in 1689. The regiment suffered alongside many others in the unfolding disaster that was that campaign, mostly from the ravages of disease, but was able to rest and refit effectively in the aftermath, swelling its numbers with local volunteers.
Meath’s Regiment took part in the Battle of the Boyne and the victorious march on Dublin, and was then present at the repulse outside Limerick later in 1690, helping to storm and capture an outpost of the defences; they later took part in the great assault William ordered to be made against the walls, which was defeated by the defenders: Meath lost a hundred soldiers in the process, out of a regiment that may have had less than 700 total.
Meath’s unit spent the winter on the Connacht frontier, raiding and counter-raiding, before taking its place with Ginkel’s army when the weather cleared. At Athlone and then Aughrim it fared better than many others, losing only a small number killed, but aiding in two of the most significant Williamite victories of the conflict. Present at the fall of Galway and then Limerick, Meath’s Regiment, now the 18th Regiment of Foot officially, was the only such regiment originally constituted in the reign of Charles II that did not take the Treaty of Limerick’s offer and go into the service of France.
While other units of the war were disbanded, their men sent home, William saw further use for the 18th, which remained part of his armed forces marked for conflict with France in the Low Countries, its troop make-up apparently committed to further fighting under the Williamite regime. In the following months, the regiment served a variety of roles: garrison duty in the south-east of Ireland, costal defence of Britain during a period when a French invasion was expected, raids on the shores of the Low Countries and Marine duty on-board Allied fleets, helping to protect merchant vessels from French attack. After Allied losses at the Battle of Landen – the place where Patrick Sarsfield died – the 18th was sent to the continent proper.
Support work and covering duty for sieges followed, and it was not until 1695 that the Regiment got a chance to really make a name for itself, at the vital siege of Namur. The town itself had surrendered, but its castle fortress held out. The 18th, having been used as part of a covering force to deflect French attentions from the siege and to protect coastal towns vital for supply, took its place in the siege works in August, and formed part of a large multi-national storming party that aimed to secure a breach and bring the fighting to an end.
The initial assault was a failure, but the 18th got the furthest of anyone, reaching the pinnacle of the breach and planting their colours before a strong enemy counter-attack forced them back. Their action was personally observed by William: he thereafter honoured the unit with the title “the Royal Regiment of Foot of Ireland”, which was permitted to carry his own symbols. The regiment lost many men, and Namur would be secured by other troops, but they had gained a great deal of respect and notice from the higher-ups of the British military.
Several years of unexceptional service followed, and then the “Royal Irish Regiment” or RIR, were sent back to Ireland on garrison duty, having obtained enough glory that their disbandment was not thought of, though it was reduced in number. Of course, war was never far away, and when it broke out again between Britain and France in 1701, the regiment was rapidly called back into active service.
The resulting conflict – the War of the Spanish Succession – was one where the regiment deployed consistently over many years, taking part in most major campaigns, especially a very large amount of sieges throughout Flanders, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Whether it was directly in trenches or as part of covering forces protecting supply lines, the RIR engaged in a huge number of besieging efforts, of various different sizes, so many that the names and dates start to blur. Kayserswerth, Nijmegen, Venloo, Ruremonde, Liege, Huy, Limburg, Rayn, Ingoldstadt, Landau, Huy again, Menin, Aeth, Lisle, Tournay, Mons, Douay, Berthune, Aire, Arleux and Bouchain are just some of the places that the RIR visited and took part in military operations around between 1701 and 1714, surely gaining a degree of speciality in siege work in the process. Taking constant losses from such consistent engagement, the regiment must have suffered terribly over time, and that’s before you get into the actual battles that it also fought in.
Those locations are essentially a greatest hits of the conflict. As part of a larger campaign to save Vienna from French attacks, in 1704, the regiment assaulted French positions on the eastern bank of the Danube during the Battle of Schellenberg, eventually forcing the enemy to retreat on the second attempt, after they gained the assistance of German allies. Later that same year the regiment found itself at Blenheim, site of the Duke of Marlborough’s most famous triumph. As part of the left wing, under Churchill’s direct command, the regiment aided in the total roll-up of the French enemy, suffering over 150 casualties in the process. Irish troops served in the French army too, but they avoided each other that day.
Almost the same result occurred two years later, at the Battle of Ramillies, only this time the RIR was posted on the right, and were part of the final decisive push that gave victory to the Allies. At Oudenaarde in 1708, that titanic clash that sucked in over 150’000 soldiers, the regiment formed part of the Allied vanguard, helping to annihilate a Swiss force allied with France, before withstanding and then driving back a French cavalry attack. At both Oudenaarde and the subsequent victory during the Siege of Lille, Irish troops served on both sides again, but it was not until the following year that they would engage the other.
That was at the Battle of Malplaquet. As previously discussed, the RIR and the French Irish Brigade came into direct contact with each other, near Sart Wood. Rolling British fire, with better muskets and lighter balls, won the day, as the French Irish, firing in bulk and at a slower rate, were forced to retreat, one RIR account referring to them as “brother harpers” as both regiments had the Irish harp as part of their flag. Perhaps the best remembered and noted military encounter of its history, it was to be the last major combat that the regiment partook in for over 50 years.
With the peace of 1714 the regiment was gradually withdrawn, but was still on the continent when the Jacobite ’15 broke out. It was rapidly transferred back to England, but never saw any combat during the unsuccessful rebellion. It was a bad time for the regiment, as it suffered some headaches during the transition from over a decade of warfare to peacetime: one attempted mutiny of troops, blamed on some poor leadership of the regiment, resulted in a round of executions.
After several years of being in readiness, the regiment was shipped to Minorca to form the garrison for that island, which had been transferred to British control at the end of hostilities, a role it would have as its primary duty for several decades. The garrison was meant to act as a bulwark between Spain and Austrian controlled lands in Italy, and saw little to no action. Notwithstanding a brief reinforcement given to the garrison at Gibraltar during one of the many sieges of the Rock in 1727, the time passed without any major incident. What primary sources exist for this period note the newly poor quality of recruits being sent into the regiment, reflecting its somewhat diminished status.
The regiment missed the early years of the War of the Austrian Succession, between the final section of their Minorcan deployment and a spell back in England. Following Fontenoy and the losses incurred there, the RIR was rapidly mobilised to the continent, there to take part in the defence of Ostend. The defence was a failure, the town surrendered by its Austrian governor, but the RIR was permitted to march back to Allied lines as part of the terms, one of its only true defeats during this period.
Later that year, the ’45 broke out, and the RIR was one of many regiments rapidly transported back to Britain to counter the forces of Charles Edward Stuart. But, as with the ’15, the RIR was put into position too late, arriving in Leith just after the Battle of Culloden essentially ended the fighting. They would spend the next few years garrisoned in Scotland, helping to maintain the control that the government had won there, constructing some of the military roads that were crucial to negating the natural advantages of the Highlands. Its numbers had been badly reduced by this time, due to the lack of recruits from home and the propensity of some to desertion, a sad reflection on a unit that had fought so hard at the beginning of the century.
The regiment never got the chance to go back to the larger war before it ended in 1748, and spent most of the next two decades between garrison postings in Ireland, Scotland and England, missing out on any serious campaigns during the Seven Years War. The Royal Irish Regiment’s history up to this point is fairly typical of many regiments in British service during this period. The regiment attained great recognition and honour in its first few conflicts, and its active service through the War of the Spanish Succession was an obvious credit. But, for whatever reason or reasons, in the aftermath of this war its status as an active regiment of foot faded away. Decades of garrison duty softened it up and led to a dearth of quality officers or decent rank and file.
It was in 1767 that the regiment was ordered on the long voyage over the Atlantic Ocean, to become part of the British military garrison of the American colonies, which was not seen as a very plum posting for any regiment seeking new battle honours. It was still there eight years later, in 1775.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.