When valour becomes a reproach, when patriotism is thought a prejudice, and when a soldier’s sword is a sign of shame, the Irish Brigade will be forgotten or despised.
The Irish are a military people—strong, nimble, and hardy, fond of adventure, irascible, brotherly, and generous—they have all the qualities that tempt men to war and make them good soldiers. Dazzled by their great fame on the Continent, and hearing of their insular wars chiefly through the interested lies of England, Voltaire expressed his wonder that a nation which had behaved so gallantly abroad had “always fought badly at home.” It would have been most wonderful.
It may be conceded that the Irish performed more illustrious actions on the Continent. They fought with the advantages of French discipline and equipment; they fought as soldiers, with the rights of war, not “rebels, with halters round their necks”; they fought by the side of great rivals and amid the gaze of Europe.
In the most of their domestic wars they appeared as divided clans or abrupt insurgents; they were exposed to the treachery of a more instructed, of an unscrupulous and a compact enemy; they had neither discipline, nor generalship, nor arms; their victories were those of a mob; their defeats were followed by extermination.
We speak of their ordinary contests with England from the time of Roderick O’Connor to that of ’98. Occasionally they had more opportunities, and their great qualities for war appeared. In Hugh (or, rather Aodh) O’Neill they found a leader who only wanted material resources to have made them an independent nation. Cautious, as became the heir of so long a strife, he spent years in acquiring military knowledge and nursing up his clan into the kernel for a nation; crafty as Bacon and Cecil, and every other man of his time, he learned war in Elizabeth’s armies, and got help from her store-houses. When the discontent of the Pale, religious tyranny, and the intrigues and hostility of Spain and Rome against England gave him an opening, he put his ordered clan into action, stormed the neighbouring garrisons, struck terror into his hereditary foes, and gave hope to all patriots; but finding that his ranks were too few for battle, he negotiated successfully for peace, but unavailingly for freedom; his grievances and designs remained, and he retired to repeat the same policy, till, after repeated guerillas and truces, he was strong enough to proclaim alliance with Spain and war with England, and to defeat and slay every deputy that assailed him, till at last he marched from the triumph of Beal-an-ath Buidhe (where Marshal Bagenal and his army perished) to hold an almost royal court at Munster, and to reduce the Pale to the limits it had formed in the Wars of the Roses; and even when the neglect of Spain, the genius of Mountjoy, the resources and intrigues of England, and the exhaustion and divisions of Ireland had rendered success hopeless, the Irish under O’Ruarc, O’Sullivan, and O’Doherty vindicated their military character.
From that period they, whose foreign services, since Dathi’s time, had been limited to supplying feudatories to the English kings, began to fight under the flags of England’s enemies in every corner of Europe. The artifices of the Stuarts regained them, and in the reign of Charles the First they were extensively enlisted for the English allies and for the crown; but it was under the guidance of another O’Neill, and for Ireland, they again exhibited the qualities which had sustained Tyrone. The battle of Benburb affords as great a proof of Irish soldiership as Fontenoy.
But it was when, with a formal government and in a regular war, they encountered the Dutch invader, they showed the full prowess of the Irish; and at the Boyne, Limerick, Athlone, and Aughrim, in victory or defeat, and always against immensely superior numbers and armaments, proved that they fought well at home.
Since the day when Sarsfield sailed the Irish have never had an opportunity of refuting the calumny of England which Voltaire accepted. In ’98 they met enormous forces resting on all the magazines of England; they had no officers; their leaders, however brave, neither knew how to organise, provision, station, or manœuvre troops—their arms were casual—their ignorance profound—their intemperance unrestrainable. If they put English supremacy in peril (and had Arklow or Ballinahinch been attacked with skill, that supremacy was gone), they did so by mere valour.
It is, therefore, on the Continent that one must chiefly look for Irish trophies. It is a pious and noble search; but he who pursues it had need to guard against the error we have noticed in Voltaire, of disparaging Irish soldiership at home.
The materials for the history of the Irish Brigade are fast accumulating. We have before us the Military History of the Irish Nation, by the late Matthew O’Conor. He was a barrister, but studied military subjects (as became a gentleman and a citizen), peculiarly interested himself in the achievements of his countrymen, and prepared materials for a history of them. He died, leaving his work unfinished, yet, happily sufficiently advanced to offer a continuous narrative of Irish internal wars, from Hugh O’Neill to Sarsfield, and of their foreign services up to the Peace of Utrecht, in 1711. The style of the work is earnest and glowing, full of patriotism and liberality; but Mr. O’Conor was no blind partisan, and he neither hides the occasional excesses of the Irish, nor disparages their opponents. His descriptions of battles are very superior to what one ordinarily meets in the works of civilians, and any one reading them with a military atlas will be gratified and instructed.
The value of the work is vastly augmented by the appendix, which is a memoir of the Brigade, written in French, in 1749, and including the War Office orders, and all the changes in organisation, numbers, and pay of the Brigade to that date. This memoir is authenticated thus:—
“His Excellency, the Duke of Feltré, Minister of War, was so kind as to communicate to me the original memoir above cited, of which this is a perfect copy, which I attest.De Montmorency Morres (Hervé), Adjutant-Commadant, Colonel. Paris, 1st September, 1813.
To give any account of the details of Mr. O’Conor’s book we should abridge it, and an abridgment of a military history is a catalogue of names. It contains accounts of Hugh O’Neill’s campaigns and of the wars of William and James in Ireland. It describes (certainly a new chapter in our knowledge) the services of the Irish in the Low Countries and France during the religious wars in Henri Quatre’s time, and the hitherto equally unknown actions abroad during Charles the Second’s exile and reign.
The wars of Mountcashel’s (the old) Brigade in 1690-91, under St. Ruth in Savoy, occupy many interesting pages, and the first campaigns of the New Brigade, with the death of Sarsfield and Mountcashel, are carefully narrated. The largest part of the work is occupied with the wars of the Spanish succession, and contains minute narratives of the battles and sieges of Cremona, Spire, Luzzaca, Blenheim, Cassano, Ramilies, Almanza, Alcira, Malplaquet, and Denain, with the actions of the Irish in them.
Here are great materials for our future History of Ireland.