Ireland and Russia: Irish Soldiers and Crown Jewels

Connections between Ireland and Russia date back to the time of Irish Brigades and regiments in Europe. After the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649, Irish fighting men left in their thousands and Irish regiments became a feature of the armies of Spain and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They became integrated in their countries of adoption and many left their mark at the highest levels of military, political and civil institutions in Europe and well beyond.
Throughout this period the Irish Brigades in the armies of France and Spain participated in conflicts ranging from the wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession (1701-1714 and 1740-1748 respectively) to the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). Irish soldiers had a reputation for ability and loyalty, and European courts were keen to seek their services.
Irish Soldiers
While the Irish were both numerous and prominent in the Habsburg and Russian imperial armies, no specifically Irish units were created. With extensive sources and bibliography, an article by Dr. Angela Byrne Irish Soldiers in Russia, 1690-1812: a re-assessment appears in The Irish Sword, The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Vol. XXV111, Summer 2011, No. 111. Set in the context of expanding Hapsburg and Russian Empires, it explores how Irish officers and their families managed to attain noble status and to integrate themselves into Russian society.
Along with titles came property and vast estates carrying Irish names of which O’Rourke and O’Hara are prominent. Despite the success with which they and their descendants became integrated and accepted within Russian upper classes, many still wished to retain a sense of Irishness.
Joseph Cornelius O’Rourke (1772-1849)
Ireland’s long military history is recounted in The Fighting Irish: The History of the Extraordinary Irish Soldier at a time in Europe when one encountered courageous Irish generals, diplomats, earls, barons, knights of St. Louis and St. Leopold.
The O’Rourke family were descendants of the Jacobite Irish nobility who fled Ireland following defeat by the Williamites in 1691. The majority of the family moved to France but a branch also moved to Livonia then a province of the Russian Empire.
Count Joseph Cornelius O’Rourke is widely chronicled as a Russian nobleman and military leader who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. He is particularly remembered in Serbia when he led a combined Russian and Serb army to defeat the Turks at Vavarin in 1810. A monument in his honour was erected in Vavarin, Serbia in 1910 where he is buried. His handsome and uniformed portrait hangs in the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, with other generals who took part in the Patriotic War of 1812.
Crown Jewels
In 1920 the first Dail Eireann agreed to accept a portion of the Russian crown jewels as security for an interest-free loan of $25,000 to the Soviet Union. The jewels were handed over in New York and brought to Ireland by Harry Boland (1887-1922) on a return trip from the US where he was Special Representative of the first Dail Eireann. In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) he entrusted them to his family with instructions they be given to Eamon De Valera (1882-1975) when he came to power.
They were duly delivered to de Valera in 1932 but subsequently lay forgotten in Government offices until Patrick J. McGilligan, Minister for Finance in the first inter-party Government (1948-51), rediscovered them. They were returned to the Soviet Union, and the loan was repaid.
Ita Marguet, October 2012
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in preparation of this text. It follows published texts about Ireland and its connections to the wider world, by Ita Marguet (2004 – 2012).