Wild Geese—The Irish Abroad from 1600 to the French Revolution

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Wild Geese—The Irish Abroad from 1600 to the French Revolution

There are several interpretations of the term Wild Geese. Traditionally it referred to a relatively small number of the Catholic landed elites who, in the face of English and Protestant oppression, fled Ireland after the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 and precipitated the final collapse of Gaelic resistance to English rule in Ireland. The definition, however, has been considerably broadened by historians to include all those who left Ireland to serve in the armies of continental Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, including the wives, families, and dependents of soldiers. In popular writings the interpretation has been further extended to include all Irish emigrants of whatever period and character and even their descendants now living abroad.

The Military Community in Europe

One of the largest identifiable groups of people to leave Ireland in the period 1600 to 1789 is that of the Irish who went to serve in the huge continental armies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Although enclaves of Irish could be found in regiments of the Baltic states, Russia, and Poland, the vast majority of Irish soldiers served in the armies of Spain in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (including in South America) and in France and later Austria in the second half of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.

Overall figures indicate that foreign military service represented a mass movement of people out of Ireland. In 1635 there were an estimated 7,000 Irishmen enlisted in the Army of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands. Following the collapse of the Irish Confederate Army, 22,531 Irish troops were delivered to Spain between 1641 and 1654. Between 1634 and 1660 more than 30,000 Irishmen were recruited into the French army. Following the Williamite war (1689–1691) an estimated 30,000 soldiers left Ireland to fight in Irish brigades for France.

This military group consisted mainly of family and kin groupings who tended to form clusters of Irish settlements in specific parts of cities or towns. Galicia in Spain, Brittany, Belgium, and the southwest of France were particularly popular destinations. Irish officers intermarried with Irish merchant families, and the military group was closely connected both by family and political ties to the various political and religious exile groups in Catholic Europe. Each Irish company in the Catholic armies of France and Spain was assigned a chaplain, which helped to cement links between the military and the numerous Irish religious colleges in Europe. Clerical assistance in the handling of investments and legal documentation was to prove crucial to the survival of Irish communities in Europe before the French Revolution.

The Merchant Community in Europe

By 1600 there was already an extensive trade network between Ireland and the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, including particularly the ports of France, Spain, the Low Countries, and Britain. The seventeenth century witnessed a huge upsurge in this trade, and transient Irish merchants were replaced by Irish merchants residing abroad. Family groupings were so evident in the resulting merchant communities that certain surnames could easily be identified with specific towns. The Stritches and Arthurs of Limerick, for example, settled in Nantes, while the Martin, Lynch, and Kirwan families of Galway went to Saint-Malo. Most merchants were initially Old English, but Gaelic families became much more prominent in trading circles as the seventeenth century progressed. This led to tensions between Old English and Gaelic families in both merchant and military circles. In general, Irish communities in large ports were mainly Old English, and smaller or inland towns were associated with Gaelic names. There was a remarkable degree of integration between these Irish families and their local communities by the second generation in terms of social position, intermarriage, and language. Because these families were Catholic, both France and Spain allowed them a legal status that was almost on a par with that of their own citizens; such status was not generally open to members of other nationalities.

Most Irish communities that emerged in early modern Europe became immersed in both the culture and the politics of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. They subsequently produced a cultural ideology that saw Catholicism as the inherent factor that united those of Norman and Gaelic descent into one nation and identified Protestant England as the enemy of the nation. This ideology and the literature that stemmed from it ultimately helped to create an Irish identity that equated Irishness with Catholicism and did much to promote the belief that Protestant oppression was the main reason why so many left Ireland.

The New World

Irish men and women also became colonizers. In the seventeenth century some 50,000 to 100,000 men and women left Ireland for the West Indies and North American colonies, and another 250,000 to 400,000 departed in the years 1700 to 1776. Apart from those forced under various government schemes to go to the New World, there were four categories of Irish people attracted to the Americas: English and Scottish tenants and laborers who had come over to plantations in Ireland where they were now dissatisfied; vagrants who sought employment overseas; Old English and some Gaelic landowners deprived of land by confiscation; and a small group of Irish landowning entrepreneurs who hoped to acquire further lands in the new colonies. The majority went as indentured servants, working as servants to planters for a period of three to seven years in return for their passage out. If a servant survived the period of service, he or she could become a paid laborer or even a small planter.

Irishmen were involved in the short-lived colonies in Virginia in the 1580s. A colony of Irish adventurers was established at the mouth of the Amazon by Sir Thomas Row in 1612. The Caribbean also was a popular destination. There was a remarkable growth in the number of Irish Catholic laborers in the Leeward Islands and Barbados from the 1630s. Nevis and Montserrat became almost exclusively Irish colonies. By 1669 there were an estimated 12,000 Irish living in the West Indies. In North America an Irish settlement was established in Newfoundland in the 1620s. With the collapse of several Irish colonies in the Caribbean following the importation of Negro slaves, more Irish migrated to colonies such as Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. Most of those who emigrated from Ireland in the seventeenth century were Catholic, and they went as individuals rather than in family groupings. This and the pervasive anti-Catholic sentiments in many colonies ensured that they did not form ethnic communities but were absorbed instead into Protestant colonial networks. Few settled in New England or Massachusetts, where in general Catholics were frowned upon by the local authorities.

Patterns of Migration

The conquest of Ireland led to a level of economic, social, and political dislocation that undoubtedly resulted in waves of mass migration from Ireland during the early modern period. Thousands of Irish left for Spain after the defeat of the predominantly Gaelic forces at the Battle of Kinsale. The entire Catholic merchant class of Waterford went abroad in the 1650s following Cromwellian measures that precluded them from trade. Vagrants and convicts were sent to Virginia as early as the 1620s by English government officials. And between 1652 and 1656 an estimated 35,000 priests, soldiers, and soldiers' wives and children, together with widows and orphans of those who were killed in the wars, were deported to the West Indies.

Early modern migration cannot be simply defined as a response to political crises in Ireland because economic factors played a part as well. The migration of poorer Irish in the late 1620s and early 1630s to Britain and the Continent was caused by food shortages and plague. Wider European politics in the form of state buildings and confessionalization constituted another key factor in the movement of Irish people. The need for manpower during the Thirty Years' War resulted in the recruitment of over 100,000 men from Ireland. The stabilization of Irish immigrant groups from the 1660s and the establishment of major Irish colleges such as Paris and Nantes in the 1670s and 1680s reflected the increasing level of organization of the absolutist French state under Louis XIV. Increasing social regulation of the poor during this period created a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, which prompted legislation in most European countries to define begging without a license as a crime. This forced many poorer people to leave their localities or countries. It was a particular feature of Ireland, where poor-law relief was virtually nonexistent owing to the weak infrastructure of both the Established Church and the state at the local level.

SEE ALSO Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690; Irish Colleges Abroad until the French Revolution; Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690; O'Mahony, Conor, S. J.


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Gráinne Henry