Patrick Sarsfield sails to France on December 22, 1691, leading 19,000 of his countrymen to enter the French service in the first phase of the military denuding of Ireland known as the Flight of the Wild Geese, as agreed in the Treaty of Limerick on October 3, 1691, following the end of the Williamite War in Ireland.
More broadly, the term “Wild Geese” is used in Irish history to refer to Irish soldiers who leave to serve in continental European armies in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, or even, poetically, Irish soldiers in British armies as late as World War I.
Irish recruitment for continental armies dries up after it is made illegal in 1745. In 1732 Sir Charles Wogan indicates in a letter to Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, that 120,000 Irishmen have been killed and wounded in foreign service “within these forty years.” Swift later replies, “I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think, above all other nations.”
It was some time before the British armed forces begin to tap into Irish Catholic manpower. In the late eighteenth century, the Penal Laws are gradually relaxed and in the 1790s the laws prohibiting Catholics bearing arms are abolished.
Thereafter, the British begin recruiting Irish regiments for the Crown Forces – including such famous units as the Connaught Rangers. Several more Irish units are created in the 19th century. By 1914 specifically Irish infantry regiments in the British Army comprise the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers. With the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 five of the above regiments are disbanded, with most of the remainder undergoing a series of amalgamations between 1968 and 2006. The United Kingdom still retains three Irish regiments: the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, and the London Irish Rifles.
Sarsfield is honored to this day in the crest of County Limerick. The Flight of the Wild Geese is remembered in the poetic words…“War-battered dogs are we, Fighters in every clime, Fillers of trench and of grave, Mockers, bemocked by time. War-dogs, hungry and grey, Gnawing a naked bone, Fighters in every clime, Every cause but our own.”
(Pictured: ‘Irish Troops Leaving Limerick’, 1692, (Cassell Petter & Galpin, London, Paris & New York, c1880), Artist Unknown)