Though purists reserve the label Wild Geese strictly for those Irish Jacobin troops who left Ireland after the Williamite War ended in 1691, romantic military tradition has tended to consider almost all Irish expatriates who served in overseas armies from the 1580s into the 1800s and beyond as part of “the flight of the Wild Geese.”
The popular image of these wandering Irish warriors is of tragic exiles nobly fighting for the cause of freedom “in every land but their own” to twist the most famous poem about the Wild Geese. Their opponents in various conflicts would dispute that claim, naturally, but since this is Saint Patrick’s Day we’ll have none of that in this blog post.
EIGHTY YEARS WAR – In 1585 an English Catholic named William Stanley raised an Irish Regiment to serve on the Continent with Queen Elizabeth’s forces. Stanley selected his 1,400 troops from the most volatile, hard-bitten Irish rebels whose battle prowess he admired even though he had fought against them only a few years earlier. The Irish Regiment under Stanley helped take Doesborg in August of 1586 and Deventer in October of that year.
By January 1587, William Stanley’s religious loyalties won out over his national loyalties and he and his men turned Deventer over to the Spanish, following which they switched their loyalties to King Philip II. Fresh Irish recruits would sometimes arrive from their homeland to replenish the ranks a bit but by the year 1600 the Irish Regiment was dissolved due to losses from battle and related causes.
FLIGHT OF THE EARLS, ETC – In 1607 more Irish soldiers fled to the Continent to serve in the army of the King of Spain. Even more followed after it became illegal in Ireland for Irish Catholics to hold political office or serve in the British military.
POLISH-MUSCOVITE WAR – In 1609, 1,300 Irish Catholic soldiers were sent to serve in the Protestant forces of Sweden. They were sent to battle the Polish Catholic forces but switched allegiance because Poland was the only European nation which had Statutory Freedom of Religion at the time. Irish Catholic troops then served in the Polish-Muscovite War until 1618.
** Following the Irish Rebellion of 1641-1642 and the Irish Confederate Wars in the 1650s the defeated Irish soldiery again sought service overseas, some with Spain and some with France.
NINE YEARS’ WAR – 6,000 Irish recruits served in behalf of France in Mountcashel’s French Irish Brigade beginning in 1690. Eventually the Irish numbers in the French military rose to over 19,000.
IRISH PICQUETS – Irish forces from the French Army served on the Scottish side in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745.
SEVEN YEARS WAR – In this conflict of 1756-1763, the French Army contained the Fitzjames Irish Cavalry Regiment as well as the Regiments Berwich, Bulkeley, Clare, Dillon, Lally and Rooth.
IRLANDA REGIMENT – In the service of Spain the Irlanda Regiment fought in Havana, Cuba from 1770-1771.
ULTONIA REGIMENT – These Wild Geese served Spain in Mexico from 1768-1771.
HIBERNIAN REGIMENT – Served Spain in Honduras from 1782-1783.
NAPOLEONIC WARS – From attrition the assorted Irish Regiments in the Spanish Army were gradually reduced to all-Spanish units by 1811.
NAPOLEON’S IRISH LEGION – Meanwhile, on the Napoleonic side in those wars, his Irish Legion served from 1803 onward until being disbanded in 1815 as all things Bonaparte were being purged.
As the 1800s rolled along the waters became muddied because of tendencies to count anything from 175 Irish soldiers on up as “Irish forces” serving in assorted wars.