Dillon regimental flag, 1745

Sat, Jun 9, 2012, 01:00

A history of Ireland in 100 objectsUnder the treaties of Limerick and Galway that ended Jacobite resistance in Ireland, members of the defeated army were allowed to enter the service of Catholic powers on the Continent.

About 20,000 went to France, and over the first half of the 18th century the so-called Wild Geese continued to seek their fortunes in the armies of France, Spain and Austria. The numbers were seldom huge – perhaps 1,500 recruits a year in the 1720s and 1730s – but, especially for the sons of dispossessed Catholic landowners, foreign military service acted as a way of clinging on to a lost status.

Dillon’s Regiment was unique in that it was continuously under the command of members of the same family for more than a century. It was first raised to fight for James II in 1688 by Theobald Dillon, who was killed at Aughrim. In 1691 it was part of the Irish brigade that joined the French army. It served in Piedmont and Savoy in 1691, at the capture of Barcelona in 1697 and in the defence of Cremona in 1702.

But the most famous battle in which the regiment and the larger Irish Brigade took part was at Fontenoy, near Tournai in Belgium in May 1745, at which this flag was flown. It was one of the crucial episodes in the war of 1740-48, when France and Prussia clashed with Britain and the Netherlands over who would succeed Charles VI of Austria.

The French, under the Marechal de Saxe, were losing to the Anglo-Dutch force under the duke of Cumberland when 4,000 men of the Irish Brigade counterattacked with the cry of “Remember Limerick”. The butchery at Fontenoy achieved little in the long-term: the war eventually ended with roughly the same balance of power as at its beginning. But Fontenoy was idealised, especially on its centenary, as a glorious Irish victory over England.

The male descendants of former Jacobite landowners proved to be remarkably adept adventurers. Some joined the British imperial service: Peter Warren, from a Jacobite crypto-Catholic family in Co Meath, joined the British navy and made his fortune from captured Spanish ships and astute American trading, founding Greenwich Village in New York. His nephew William Johnson left Meath for the wilds of upstate New York in the 1730s and ended up as both a Mohawk chief and a British baronet. On the other side of the fence, Sir Charles Wogan acted as the most dashing fixer for the Stuart pretenders, ending up as a senator of Rome and governor of La Mancha, in Spain.

The figure of the swaggering officer returned from continental wars epitomised a strain of Catholic male pride. In her great ‘Lament for Art O’Leary’, Eibhlín Dubh ní Chonaill recalls her husband, a captain in the Austrian army, with his “silver-hilted” sword, fine horse and elegant clothes: the very image of the uppity Catholic. But in truth the Wild Geese were more of a safety valve than a threat to the established order.

The Irish Brigade was disbanded in 1783 as part of the peace between France and Britain after the American war. Ironically, in 1792, after the French Revolution, the remnants of the Dillon regiment joined the British army.

Thanks to Lar Joye

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie

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