Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Brigade Of Spain

Last week, I discussed the origins of the most famous foreign military unit of Irish immigrants in the 18th century, the French Irish Brigade, that first came into being in the aftermath of the War of the Two Kings, and then created an immense martial reputation for itself in the War of the Spanish Succession. But there were other Irish Brigades being formed at the same time, not as famous in size or in deed, but still worthy of recognition nonetheless. And, outside of France, chief among them were the Irish regiments that were formed for the service of Spain.

Spain had been a target for Irish émigrés for sometime of course. We might remember the Nine Years War and the alliance, fruitless as it eventually proved, between the rebellious northern earls and King Philip II. Hugh Roe O’Donnell died in Spain seeking additional support and in the “Flight Of The Earls” at the beginning of the 17th century, the initial goal was Spain, and Spanish controlled lands on the continent. Many of the Irish nobility on those boats would end up fighting for the Spanish monarchy long before Irish Brigades were formed, creating their own regiments named after Tyrone and Tyrconnell: among the most famous was Shane O’Neill, son of Hugh, who led a regiment as the self-styled Earl of Tyrone in several campaigns, dying at the Battle of Montjuic, Catalonia, in 1641. These Irish regiments did good service, but were never really Irish in their full form, and were disbanded before the end of the century.

In the early years of the 18th, what would become known as the “Irish Brigade” of Spain, came into being. France remained the preferred destination for Irish Catholics seeking education, fame and fortune abroad, but Spain was a frequent destination too, enough so that several regiments, bearing commanders names like O’Mahony, Fitzharris, MacAullife and Comerford, existed within the Spanish military, some having begun life as French units, since transferred, or Stuart forces, since released from service. In 1709, these were amalgamated into a new system compromising several regiments: the Hibernia, the Ultonia, the Limerick, the Waterford and the Irlanda, though in time there would be further subsuming and reorganisation, witling these numbers down to only a few, Limerick being sent to Sicily and Waterford becoming part of Hibernia. The Irlanda was the prominent one, known more commonly as the “Primera Infanteria Irlandesa” – the 1st Irish Regiment. In some manner or another, they would remain in existence until 1818, long after hopes for a Jacobite restoration were gone, and long after the majority of the regiments were actual Irish. Wearing red uniforms – the colour of the Jacobite cause – and bearing the symbol of a harp on their battle flags, the Spanish Irish Brigade would fulfil a small, but occasionally crucial role, in the Bourbon Spanish war machine during the fighting to come.

In the War of the Spanish Succession, battles and sieges were fought on numerous fronts, from central Europe to the American frontier. In the latter half of the war, Spain became a battleground to a larger degree. The Bourbon Spanish King at the time, Philip V, received several Irish regiments in French service, incorporating them into his army, some of them serving in Gibraltar in 1704, when it was captured in a stunning “Grand Alliance” attack that put the Rock under a British control that has continued to this day. A significant Irish presence was also at the 1707 Battle of Almansa, where the respective sides were commanded by two men with extensive Irish experience: the Duke of Berwick for the Franco/Spanish Bourbons, and Henri de Massue, a veteran of the War of the Two Kings and Williamite created Earl of Galway, for the Grand Alliance. Irish regiments executed a bayonet charge on British units that made the Grand Alliance troops flee, a sight that would have been near impossible to recreate in Ireland.

It was after this period of the war that the Hibernia, Ultonia, Limerick, Waterford and Irlanda regiments were formed. They served at the Battle of Zaragoza in 1710, a defeat that allowed for the Grand Alliance capture of Madrid. Following this, more extensive French support, including additional Irish regiments, were sent to bolster the Bourbon claimant to the throne, and he and his forces, including the Irish, were able to strike back at the Battle of Brihuega in late 1710, surprising and neutralizing a retreating British force, before the far bloodier Battle of Villaviciosa the following day, when the combined Franco-Spanish Bourbon force inflicted a decisive defeat on their enemies, the Irish engaged heavily.

The results of these battles pushed the forces of the Grand Alliance, and their preferred claimant to the Spanish throne, out of most of Spain, but fighting continued there until the finals days of the war. In July of 1713 the Bourbon forces besieged one of the last Grand Alliance strongholds in Spain, the city of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast. The siege dragged on for months, past the end of the larger war on several other fronts, and had been going on for over a year before it was finally resolved.

Barcelona’s resistance, in the face of massive enemy superiority in numbers, was remarkable. The likes of the Duke of Berwirck, and Irish general Arthur Dillon, were among the commanders on the Franco-Spanish side, and they repeatedly failed to make any headway, until September of 1714. That month, a workable breach was made in the walls, and the Hibernia regiment, augmented by units from the French Irish Brigade, formed a significant part of the storming force, that worked a way over and beyond the breach on the 11th of September. One of the young Captains of this force, wounded for his trouble and later receiving an award for bravery, was a man named James Sarsfield, son of Patrick. Named in honour of the Jacobite King his father had fought for, James was now the claimant for the Earldom of Lucan and one of the more prominent “Wild Geese” in Spain, who would later in life be one of the key driving forces of attempts to overturn Williamite control in Ireland. While all this was going on, the Ultonia regiment was employed fighting guerrilla soldiers in the Catalonian hills outside the city.

With the end of the war the Bourbon claimant to the throne of Spain won out, but he lost territory in other parts of the world, not least in “Spanish Flanders”, an area of Europe that Irish soldiers had been fighting and dying in for generations (and would again). The Irish Brigade of Spain would have to wait some time before it could garner much attention in the manner that it already had, having to be content with garrison duty and reduced numbers for most of the next few decades, the content of the regiments falling more towards the descendents of Irish and Irish officers commanding Spanish than fully “Irish”. While it would lack the same notoriety and respect that the regiments of the French Irish Brigade were able to find, the Spanish Irish Brigade also proved its worth in this period, standing fast and engaging competently with enemy forces, having been given the requisite training, supplies and support.

But for all that, this partial victory in the War of the Spanish Succession did not get the stated goal of a Jacobite Britain and a liberated Ireland any closer to being a fact, as opposed to a dream. In a different part of Europe, “James III” plotted a triumphant homecoming, and Irish soldiers would be beside him when he tried.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Brigade Of Spain

  1. ChrisM says:

    I do hope that you will include the Royal Irish Regiment in this rundown. They were just as much fighting Ireland’s wars, right?

    • NFB says:

      At some point, I do plan on discussing the Irish regiments that fought in British service, though I believe it would be apropos to wait until later in the timeline to dive into that particular can of worms, perhaps for the Napoleonic Wars, when the make-up of the British Army contained such a gigantic amount of Irish soldiers. Some retroactive discussion on the RIR will probably be included. For now though, I’ll remain focused on the Wild Geese and the Jacobite risings. Thanks for reading!

      • ChrisM says:

        Glad to hear it! I’ve been reading since the 9 Years War (and gone back and read the archives for before that), and really enjoying this series. Really fascinating look at an area of history that I (an American with some Irish ancestry) doesn’t know squat about. Also looking forward to your coverage of the United Irishmen, which I do know a very very tiny bit about.

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Jacobite “Fifteen” And “Nineteen” | Never Felt Better

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