Arc de Triomphe hosts military ceremony to remember the Irish who fought in the service of France

Event marked 220 years to the day since Napoleon created the Irish Legion

The poet WB Yeats wrote of the Wild Geese who spread their “grey wing upon every tide”.

On Thursday evening, France remembered the Wild Geese who left Ireland after the Williamite wars of the late 17th century and began a tradition of service in the French army which lasted for generations.

The event at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris was first time that France has acknowledged the contribution of the Irish who fought in the Brigade Irlandaise in the 17th and 18th centuries and thereafter the Légion Irlandaise of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

Special permission for the commemoration was granted by the Comité de la Flamme which organises memorial events every night at the Arc de Triomphe.


The eternal flame was lit by the French ambassador to Ireland, Vincent Guerand, the Irish ambassador to France Niall Burgess and Catherine Mulawaka, a descendent of Wolfe Tone.

Mr Burgess noted that Wolfe Tone, who lived in Paris between 1796 and 1798 when he tried to raise a French army to liberate Ireland from British rule, wore a French uniform and described himself as the Irish ambassador to France. “In that sense he is my predecessor,” Mr Burgess said after the ceremony.

“We commemorate a history as old as it is important between our two countries. This common history is expressed in particular by the participation of Irish soldiers in the Royal, Republican and Napoleonic armies,” said Mr Burgess.

“Republican aspirations in France gave ideas to Irish republicans. In 1798, soldiers of the French Republican army made the journey in the opposite direction and landed in the west of Ireland to help these Irish Republicans. This expedition remains engraved in the memory of Ireland, and especially in the west of the country, where the year 1798 takes the name of L’Année des Français, The Year of the French.”

The event marked 220 years to the day since Napoleon created his Irish Legion which he later decorated with the golden eagle for valour. It is also 225 years since General Humbert landed in Ireland in 1798.

The event was co-hosted by Cremona Heritage Ireland, an Irish organisation promoting the history of Irish participation principally in the armies of France and in some other foreign armies with an Irish diaspora, from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

After defeat in battle against English forces in Ireland in 1690, more than 13,000 Irish soldiers and their families were exiled to France (known in Ireland as the “Flight of the Wild Geese”). Many joined the army of King Louis the XIV, forming an Irish Brigade, making, in the words of the Irish general Patrick Sarsfield, “another Ireland in the armies of strange lands”.

From the 1690s to the early 19th century, historical sources estimate that up to 500,000 soldiers in the French armies were Irish or of Irish descent. The identity of most of these soldiers have been lost to history in a time before military cemeteries existed.

The event is planned to be an annual one commemorating the role the Wild Geese played in French history.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times