‘Loyalty and Zeal’: the Catholic Irish Brigade in the British service, 1793-98

‘Loyalty and Zeal’: the Catholic Irish Brigade in the British service, 1793-98

Dr Ciarán McDonnell (Irish Archaeology Field School) examines the experiences of Irish Brigade officers as reflecting the transnational nature of Irish identity in this period.

Most people are aware of the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War, or the Irish Brigades of ‘Wild Geese’ in France and Spain. Few, however, are aware of the Catholic Irish Brigade in the British service, a short-lived but interesting unit that provides a clear example of the complex relationship between Ireland, Britain and France during the late 18th century.[i]

The Catholic Irish Brigade in the British service traces its history back to the Irish Brigade in the French army, where regiments of defeated Irish Jacobites joined James II in exile at the court of his cousin, Louis XIV in the 1690s. The Penal Laws in Ireland had barred Catholics from serving in the British Army, prompting the ‘Wild Geese’ tradition of emigration to the Catholic armies of Europe; France, Spain and Austria.

The French Revolution proved a major challenge for the Franco-Irish officers and many chose to emigrate to avoid the guillotine. A number of these officers decided to swallow their pride and offer their services to their one-time enemy, Britain. They were led by Count Daniel Charles O’Connell, uncle to Daniel ‘the Liberator’ O’Connell.  In April 1794 he proposed to the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, a new Irish Brigade in the British Army, composed of experienced Franco-Irish officers and newly recruited Catholic Irishmen.  Count O’Connell spoke of the ‘unshaken loyalty’ of the brigade to the late Louis XVI, and if Pitt accepted it would ‘reflect no small honour on his administration’.[ii]

The timing of this offer was significant. Catholics had officially been forbidden to enlist in the British Army during the eighteenth century, but recruitment parties often did not enquire too closely, and especially in times of war a ‘blind eye’ was turned to Catholic recruitment.[iii] However, in 1793 a Catholic Relief Act had been passed, which included the right to bear arms. Not only did this secure Catholic loyalty in Ireland but it also opened up a huge resource of manpower for the British Army for the war against France.

By accepting O’Connell’s offer, Pitt and his government recognised not only the value of experienced officers and increased manpower but also the symbolic gesture of goodwill it would make to Irish Catholics. However the Protestant Ascendancy had been used to a monopoly on military service in Ireland, seeing it as both their birth right and their unique display of loyalty to the king. Conservative members objected to the creation of a purely Catholic brigade and as the Ascendancy controlled the Irish parliament, Pitt needed to make concessions. The brigade was allocated the West Indies as its intended destination. This removed the Irish Brigade from the four nations and even Europe, out of sight and out of mind.

This decision was a crushing blow for Count O’Connell and his fellow officers. The brigade was established in 1795; six regiments were formed, each headed by a Franco-Irish colonel. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Fitzwilliam, declared his support due to the ‘Loyalty and Zeal of the Catholicks [sic]’.[iv] However his pro-Catholic policies were too much for conservatives in Dublin and Westminster and he was recalled shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, recruitment for the brigade struggled. This was a problem throughout Ireland, as hundreds of regiments (not to mention the Royal Navy) competed for recruits. Eventually three regiments were completed and sent overseas to the West Indies and Nova Scotia. There the brigade, like all European regiments, suffered greatly from the voyage and tropical diseases. The regiments lost about one half of their numbers to disease, and only a small number to active service against the French and their Haitian allies. Eventually lack of numbers forced the regiments to return to England, where they were disbanded and the men drafted into other regiments.

As a military unit the Irish Brigade did not last for very long, but what it represented is far more significant. The establishment of a purely Catholic brigade, so soon after the Catholic Relief Act, demonstrates the lengths the British government were willing to go to not only harness Catholic manpower but also Catholic loyalty in Ireland, and how concessions were made in times of war. This carrot would be later replaced with the stick, as sectarian issues flared up in the bloody insurrection of 1798 and the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Irish Brigade in the British service also demonstrates the gradual shift of the Irish military tradition from one closely associated with France to one much more closely linked with Britain. The majority of Irishmen would now fight for Britain, as part of an army of four nations, rather than against Britain. The tumultuous experiences of the Irish Brigade officers reflect the transnational nature of Irish identity in this period, and how it changed and adapted as circumstances dictated.

[i] For a full history see McDonnell, ‘A ‘fair chance’? The Catholic Irish Brigade in the British service, 1793-98’, in War in History, Vol. 23:2 (April, 2016), pp 155-168.

[ii] Cambridge University Library, Manuscript Collection (CUL), Add. 6958/1430, O’Connell to Pitt, 17 April 1794.

[iii] Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History (Cambridge, 2010), pp 170-2.

[iv] TNA, HO, 30/1, f. 209, Fitzwilliam, 15 January 1795.

Ciarán McDonnell is Associate Lecturer and Researcher at the Irish Archaeology Field School, where he teaches Irish history, from the medieval to modern period. His PhD from Maynooth University examined Irish identity in the British Army during the French Revolutionary Wars and his Jacobite Studies Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, London, investigated Franco-Irish army officers during the French Revolution.

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One thought on “‘Loyalty and Zeal’: the Catholic Irish Brigade in the British service, 1793-98

  1. Great post – as part of my PhD research, I have been tracing some members of the Irish Brigade from France, to Britain and the West Indies, and some back to France again. This is a fascinating, and under-researched transnational story. A rather different take on the traditional wild geese story.

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