The Wild Geese

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The Wild Geese
Gordon, Michael
Harland-Jacobs, Jessica ( Mentor )
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University of Florida
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The Wild Geese

Michael Gordon

Throughout Irish history, countless generations of exiles have cast off from the shores of Ireland in search

of sanctuary, adventure and alliances. The "Flight of the Wild Geese" after the signing of the Treaty of Limerick

that ended the Williamite War in 1691, marked the watershed moment of Irish migration to the European

Continent. Nineteen thousand Catholic Irishmen and their families sailed to France in the hope of one day

returning to free Ireland from English tyranny. For the next hundred years ships arriving on the west coast of

Ireland would depart with Irish recruits listed in ships logs as "Wild Geese" for the armies of Europe.

The original meaning of the term "Wild Geese" applied to those Irish who left Ireland to serve in European armies

of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Eventually it became a broader concept that gave a

specific historical identity to this group of Irish emigrants to Europe.i The Wild Geese represented a diverse

migration to Continental Europe throughout the eighteenth century, and constituted a distinct Irish community on

the Continent. Nevertheless, the history of the Wild Geese has been extremely neglected by professional

historians who have yet to address these issues.

The Williamite War, a campaign of a much broader European conflict known as The War of the League of

Augsburg reached the shores of Ireland in 1688.ii The Irish Catholics sided with the Jacobites, the supporters

of James II, the Catholic Stuart king of Britain, Scotland and Ireland against the Dutch Protestant William of

Orange who had support of the Irish Protestants.iii The Treaty of Limerick in 1691 ended the war in Ireland.

The treaty guaranteed the rights of the Catholic Irish, and the Irish Jacobite army sailed to France. Yet,

the Protestant Ascendancy would never honor the Treaty of Limerick. Instead they enforced the Penal Laws, a

harsh legal code that stripped the Irish Catholics of their land, persecuted them for their religion and removed

almost every right of citizenship.iv

The memories of these events continue to be a source of sectarian violence and terrorism in the United Kingdom

and the Republic of Ireland today. Irish nationalist praise the Gaelic Irish who fought in defense of Catholicism

and Ireland, while Unionist honor the memory of King William of Orange and his victory in defense of civil

and religious liberty.v The events of this significant period in Irish history have been exhaustively documented.

vi Nevertheless, the Wild Geese, major participants in these events, have been neglected by historical study.

Why have historians yet to address this critical issue?

Today no comprehensive historiography regarding the Wild Geese exists. Given the remarkable surge in Irish

Studies, this inattention to the Wild Geese is especially perplexing.vii A number of methodological issues contribute

to the lack of historiography about the Wild Geese. A researcher examining the Wild Geese must be skilled in

the Continental European languages and the native Gaelic Irish tongue. The few who have researched migration

from Ireland to Europe have focused exclusively on military and religion. Yet, those who did research Irish

migration have failed to define whether or not it constitutes a diaspora.

The Wild Geese migrated from Ireland to Continental Europe throughout much of the eighteenth-century. From

1691 to 1789 the Wild Geese migration took place on a large scale, had a condensed time frame and a rich

social diversity. Nevertheless, general surveys of global diasporas and the Irish diaspora fail to classify, and

declare the Wild Geese migration to Europe.viii The Wild Geese migration to Continental Europe has yet to be

critically analyzed by the professional historian.

It is extremely difficult to put an accurate number on the amount of Catholic Irish men, women and children

that migrated to Europe between the signing of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 and outbreak of the French

Revolution in 1789. John Cornelius O'Callaghan, author of History of the Irish Brigades stated that the number

of Irishmen in French and Spanish service during the eighteenth century consisted of 450,000 to 500,000 men.

ix Estimates range as high as one million Irishmen serving just in the armies of France. Reports from early in

the eighteenth century declare Irishmen migrating to the Continent as very high. In 1721 the Irish

government informed Westminster that twenty thousand Irishmen at Cork, waited or had already been transported

to the Continent.x Nevertheless, it is more likely that 300,000 Irish migrated to Europe during this era.xi

The Irish historian Donald Akenson argues that all Irish diasporas are a multi-generational phenomenon.xii

The Hennessey family of Cognac fame can establish that the Wild Geese constituted a diaspora under

Akenson's multigenerational theory. Born in 1720 at Ballymoy, Co. Killavullen, Ireland, Richard Hennessey is an

Irish native by birth. In 1740 Hennessey migrated to France, following family members who had been there since

the original 1691 migration. After serving in the Irish Brigade, he settled in Cognac, and established his

famous distillery. Today the Hennessey family is still prominent in political and social life in France and

throughout the world. M. Jean Hennessey served as French ambassador to Switzerland, and ran for president

of France in 1931. It is of interest to note that his challenger at the time M. Aristide Briand can trace his Irish

descent to Conell 0' Brien who migrated to France during Wild Geese migration of the eighteenth-century.xiii The

Wild Geese migration to the Continent can be defined as a diaspora. Nevertheless did the Wild Geese on

the Continent establish another Ireland that existed and influenced the Island throughout the eighteenth-century?

The Wild Geese never believed their exile to France would be permanent. Protestants and Catholics living in

Ireland both believed that the Wild Geese would continue to have an important role in the affairs of Ireland.

As Patrick Sarsfield watched his Irish army embark for France in 1691 he stated,

These men are leaving all that is most dear in life for a strange land in which they will have to endure much, to

serve in an army that hardly knows our people; but they are true to Ireland and have still hopes for her cause;

we will make another Ireland in the armies of the great king of France.xiv

Nevertheless, most general surveys about the history of Ireland make no reference to the Wild Geese, and

those surveys that do take sparse notice.xv The majority of Irish historians have adopted the Irish historian W.E.

H. Lecky's portrayal of eighteenth century domestic Ireland that he discusses in his general survey entitled, A

History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. The traditional Irish historical belief put forth by Lecky is

that Protestants enjoyed a virtual monopoly on political, social and territorial power in Ireland.xvi J. G. Simms

states, "the years between the Treaty of Limerick and the act of union were the classic age of

Protestant ascendancy. "xvii

Nonetheless, historical analysis of eighteenth century Ireland has begun to question the Protestant dominated

belief. Lecky's conclusion about eighteenth century Ireland may be true on the surface, but in the 'hidden

Irelands' Catholic discontent, struggle and prosperity thrived among the Gaelic Irish and the Wild Geese on

the Continent. Several nexuses existed between Daniel Corkery's Catholic peasant 'hidden Ireland,' Kevin

Whelan's underground Catholic gentry and a third Ireland that I propose existed on the European

Continent composed of the Wild Geese and their descendants. Irish historians who adhere to Lecky's portrait of

a Protestant dominated eighteenth century Ireland have largely neglected these other Irelands.xviii

One such nexus that existed between the other Ireland's outside of eighteenth century Protestant dominated

Ireland involved the European military recruitment of Irishmen. The Catholic nobility that fled to Europe eagerly

took commissions as officers in the armies of Europe. The French diplomat Coquebert de Montbret while

visiting Ireland in the eighteenth century states, "I am astonished to find on visiting Ireland that even French

army families like Dillon and Lally were mere tenant farmers on Kirwan's estate at Cregg in Galway, while the

Mullays were simple peasants."xix Common Irishmen also served on the Continent. Corkery states, "behind

every Gael of those Wild Geese lay the 'hidden Ireland;' and behind such of them as sought commissions in

foreign armies lay very often such houses as Derryname."xx A letter from the Stuart Papers at Windsor Castle

dated November 18, 1729 discusses a court case in which an Irishmen had been arrested at Wexford for

recruiting Irishmen to be soldiers in Europe. The letter states, "Mooney was a volontair [sic] of Nugent's regiment

of Horse and that 100 livres tournois was offered to him for each suitable recruit."xxi Foreign military

recruitment establishes another viable Ireland that Lecky's interpretation fails to realize.

Commerce is another nexus that can be identified amongst the other Irelands outside of Lecky's Ireland.

Irish merchant families on the Continent retained close ties with Ireland. The connection between the Galway

families in Bordeaux and their relatives in Dublin is one reason for their success as merchants. Cullen writes,

"this was true of Bodkins, Joyces, Frenches, Blakes, Lynches, Darcys all of whom had a share in the large

Bordeaux wine trade which consumed two-thirds of the wine shipped to Ireland and roughly half of all wine

shipped to the British isles."xxii Several members of the Wild Geese founded banks in Europe that funded

Irish commercial aspirations abroad and Jacobite invasions of the British Isles. One such example is George

Waters. George Waters left Ireland for France after the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. In the early eighteenth century

he founded a bank in Paris. Richard Hayes writes, "his house in Paris and his son that succeeded him were centers

for Jacobite activities...and he and others of the Irish Brigade largely contributed to the 45 Rising.xxiii

Commerce establishes another Catholic Ireland that existed outside the scope of Lecky's Ireland.

The outcome of the events of the year 1691 has largely affected Europe and is a continued source of violence

within Ireland today. Nevertheless, historians have neglected the Wild Geese, a major impetus of these events.

Wild Geese historiography is either extremely poor or non-existent within Irish and European history. Several

reasons for the neglect of the Wild Geese historiography can be identified, such as language barriers to

the researcher. The Wild Geese migrated to the Continent during the eighteenth century, and merit recognition as

a diaspora as defined by Donald Akenson. New interpretations of eighteenth century Ireland have

emerged challenging the traditional historical belief of a Protestant dominated Ireland. The Wild Geese

represent another challenge to this interpretation. They interconnect the other Irelands, continued the Gaelic

tradition and beliefs, and continued the Catholic struggle to gain their land and rights back from the

Protestant Ascendancy.


i. Grainne Henry. "Wild Geese in Spanish Flanders: the first generation 1586-1610"

ii. Richard Doherty. The Williamite War In Ireland 1688-1691. Four Courts Press, Dublin: 1998. pgs 11, 12, 197

iii. Frank McLynn. The Jacobites. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London: 1985. pg. 6

iv. John Cornelius O' Callaghan. History Of The Irish Brigades In The Service Of France. Glagow, Cameron and

Ferguson, London: 1870.

Curtis and McDowell. Irish Historical Documents 1172-1922. Barnes and Noble, New York: 1968.

v. The Irish Examiner 1986

vi. Hereward Senior. Orangeism In Ireland And Britain. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Toronto: 1966

vii. Thomas Bartlett and Chris Curtin. Irish Studies: A General Introduction. Gil and McMillian Ltd, Dublin: 1988. pgs. 1-3

viii. Gdrard Chaliand and Jean-Pierre Rageau. The Penguin Atlas Of Diasporas. Viking, New York: 1995.

Donald H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora: A Primer. P.D. Meany Publishers, Toronto: 1993

ix. John Cornelius O'Callaghan. History Of The Irish Brigades In The Service Of France. Cameron and Feguson,

London: 1870 pg. 193, 344

x. J.L. McCracken, "The social structure and social life, 1714-1760" A New History of Ireland. ed. Moody and

Vaughan, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1986. 31-33

xi. Michael Gordon. The Wild Geese. Unpublished honors thesis: the University of Florida. May, 2003.

xii. Donald H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora: A Primer. P.D. Meany Publishers, Toronto: 1993

xiii. Richard Hayes. Biographical Dictionary Of Irishmen In France. M. H. Gill and Son, Ltd., Dublin: 1949. pg. 121, 122

xiv. Gerald O'Connor. Memoirs of Gerald O'Connor. Digby, London: 1903. pg. 81

xv. R.F. Foster. Modern Ireland 1600-1972.

Moody and Vaugh. A New History Of Ireland. Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1986.

xvi. W.E.H. Lecky. A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and

London: 1972

xvii. J.G. Simms "The Establishment of protestant ascendancy, 1691-1714" A New History Of Ireland. Edited by

Moody and Vaugh. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1986. pg 1

xviii. Daniel Corkery. The Hidden Ireland. M.H. Gill and Son, LTD. Dublin: 1925.

Kevin Whelan. "An Underground Gentry? Catholic Middlemen in Eighteenth-Century Ireland" The Tree of

Liberty. Ireland: Cork University Press, 1996

xix. Kevin Whelan. "An Underground Gentry? Catholic Middlemen in Eighteenth-Century Ireland" The Tree of

Liberty. Ireland: Cork University Press, 1996 pgs. 17-19, 21

xx. Daniel Corkery. The Hidden Ireland. M.H. Gill and Son, LTD. Dublin: 1925. pg. 51

xxi. Transcipts of State Papers Relating to Ireland, In Public Record Office

xxii. L. M. Cullen. "The Irish Merchant Communities Of Bordeaux, La Rochelle And Cognac In The Eighteenth

Century" Negoce et Industrie en France et en Irlande. Collection of Franco-Ireland History, Bordeaux. 1978

xxiii. Richard Hayes. Biographical Dictionary Of Irishmen In France. M. H. Gill and Son, Ltd., Dublin: 1949. pg. 315


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