Riches of Clare: Clare's Wild Geese

Clare Champion, Friday, July 4, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Tomás Mac Conmara writes about the fighting exiles whose exploits led to the phrase, Banner county.

On 27th May 1694, at the Battle of Ter near Catalonia, Spain, a French army engaged with Spanish forces during the Ausburg League War. Remarkably, among the various units in the French army that day was a Clare regiment commanded by Charles O’Brien, 5th Viscount Clare, while in the opposing Spanish Army an Earl Clare was also in the ranks. Various authorities have suggested that these two men were closely related and were possibly father and son.

The reasons behind how Irishmen came to face each other on the battlefields of Europe are many and complex. However, they all had one thing in common; they were all “Wild Geese”, a term used to describe the 20,000 or so soldiers that left Ireland with Patrick Sarsfield after the signing of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. With this initial exodus began a tradition of Irishmen travelling abroad to serve foreign kings, enlisting in the far-flung armies of France, Spain, Austria, Poland, Russia, Chile, US, Mexico and others, over a period of some 200 years.

The Irish quickly gained prominence in France and one of their most celebrated actions was at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, where the Irish unit had a decisive impact on the outcome. The overall commander of the Irish troops at Fontenoy was the 21 year old Charles O’Brien, 6th Viscount Clare and 9th Earl of Thomond. The regiment, which had been originally formed in 1689 by Daniel O’Brien, Viscount Clare, to serve King James II, was forced to leave Ireland for France under the Treaty of Limerick. It later became known as Clare’s regiment when the son of the founder became 4th Viscount Clare. During the initial stages of the Battle of Fontenoy, the English forces had torn the heart out of the French centre. Defeat looked imminent for the French and in desperation their commander sent for the Irish who had been positioned on the left flank.

With the battlecry of “Cuimnidh ar Luimneach agus ar Feall na Sasanach”, (Remember Limerick and the English betrayal) the Irish rose to the challenge. But then, a lone English guardsman emerged from the British ranks to face the oncoming Irish. In a gesture reminiscent of the single combat tradition of the ancient Celts, this move was replicated on the Irish side when Anthony MacDonough from county Clare stepped forward. In what must have been an extraordinary scene, the two armies momentarily suspended hostilities in order to allow single combat to commence between the two men. It was the Clareman who emerged victorious having smashed the sword arm of the guardsman, bringing him back as prisoner.

MacDonough was later promoted and was singled out for special assignment to recruit more men for the brigade back in County Clare. In a romantic twist, it is recorded that while back in Ireland he met a local girl and married her, never returning to France. Captain Anthony MacDonough is buried in the old cemetery in Killilagh, Doolin.

One of the most effective units in the army of France for over a century, Lord Clare’s regiment of 1714 reached an unprecedented number comprising 10,000 soldiers. The reputation of Irish fighting men grew throughout Europe during the turbulent 18th century with the result that military commanders in many countries were not happy without an Irish regiment within their army. The reputations of the Irish in battle also extended beyond Europe. Countless Irish men also fought and died during both the American Wars of Independence and the Civil War. It is often forgotten that it was an Irishman, John Sullivan, who actually instigated the American Revolution. His capture of the New Hampshire fort preceded the Battles of Lexington and Concord by over two months.

Thomas Francis Meagher, a leader of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 led the famous Irish Brigade in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, 1862, during the American Civil War. Meagher’s brigade was formed around the famous “Fighting Irish” 69th Regiment and he went on to become a Governor of Montana where a statue stands in his honour today.

During the Civil War, in what is acknowledged as one of the more successful recruitment techniques used by the Americans, placards read in small print “Irishmen, you are training to meet your English enemies” and in larger letters were the words “Remember Fontenoy!”

To the long list of “Wild Geese” who left their mark on history can be added the names of Bernardo O’Higgins, the Liberator of Chile, John Barry, the founder of the US Navy, and Peter de Lacy a military commander in the Austrian Army. This military legacy became a useful political tool during the First World War, as can be seen by the replica Ypres banner, the banner captured at Ramillies, shown here. This banner was designed to create a link with the Claremen of the Irish divisions in the British Army fighting in Flanders and the original Wild Geese, by commemorating the Battle of Ramillies in 1706 where Lord Clare’s Regiment first came to prominence. At Ramillies, the Clare regiment captured a banner from the opposing English forces, the only French unit to do so that day. This captured banner was presented to the Benedictine nuns in Ypres and was subsequently brought back to Ireland by nuns when they were forced to evacuate their convent due to the ravages of the First World War. They established themselves at Kylemore Abbey, County Galway, where the original banner presented by the Claremen is now kept. The capture of this banner by the Clare Dragoons is said to have given rise to the term “the Banner County”. Serving as a reminder of those far-flung exiles scattered throughout the world, the Ypres banner represents over 200 years of Irish men fighting outside their native land.

View the Ypres Banner

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