Ireland and France: 300 Years of Military Relations

An exhibition ‘1689-2011, The Irish and France: Three Centuries of Military Relations’ was on display from February to April 2012 at the Military Museum, Les Invalides in Paris. It was officially opened by the Irish Minister for Transport, Sport and Tourism and the President of the Franco-Irish Parliamentary Group of the French National Assembly. It aimed to highlight the strong links that exist between Ireland and France, bringing it to the attention of a wider public, particularly the younger generations.
The exhibition comprised sixteen wall panels with pictorial and trilingual texts covering the period 1689-2011, including the Irish regiments which fought for France in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It featured material on the Wild Geese, a term in use in the early 18th century for the Irish men and women who found employment with the Catholic armies of Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. Indeed, one of the descendants, Patrice MacMahon (1808-1893), became President of the Third French Republic in 1873.*
A feature of the exhibition was the role of Irish men and women in World Wars I and II, in particular Samuel Beckett’s involvement in French resistance. The exhibition concluded with a panel on the most recent cooperation between the French and Irish army in the EUFOR mission in Chad.
300 Years of Military Relations
The Irish themselves, in spite of privations in the early years, found larger opportunities for profitable careers, first in France, then on the whole continent. With increasing confidence they ranged across Europe and in expanding overseas Empires of European States. The ancient Irish College in Paris, now the Irish Cultural Centre, houses a mediateque with a large collection of historical books and a variety of documentary sources.
For centuries Irish soldiers served in various armies across the world establishing a formidable reputation as fighting men. Particularly in the last twenty years an extensive collection of books, texts and articles have been written by leading historians and scholars with lengthy bibliographies dedicated to the Irish and military history, including a recent publication titled France – Irlande ‘Revue historique des armées’ 253 / 2008.
The Wild Geese: The Irish Brigades of France and Spain comments in the early years of the English Civil War, a French traveller in England remarked that the Irish “are better soldiers abroad than at home”. Between 1585 and 1818, over half a million Irish were lured from their homeland by promises of glory, money and honour in a constant emigration romantically styled ‘The Flight of the Wild Geese”, consisting mainly of kin and family groupings, always hoping to return. Throughout this period the Irish Brigades in France and Spain participated in conflicts ranging from the wars of the Spanish and Austrian Succession (1701-1714 and 1740-1748 respectively) to the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815).
Called ‘sister nations’ in history it is often forgotten that the initial link between Ireland and France was a military one. Since the 16th century Irish soldiers served in the French army and the tradition was maintained by the Irish who served in the Wild Geese regiments, the Irish Legion of Napoleon and also the Irish units during the Franco-Prussian war. The Wild Geese gave officers to the French army throughout the 18th century and even provided some of Napoleon’s generals.
Archives of Hotel des Invalides record the admission of some Irish military veterans and the names of three Irish men are engraved on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Ita Marguet, April 2012
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. It follows historical articles about Ireland and the Irish Brigades in Europe and beyond. *The Name MacMahon: A unique place in French history is the subject of a published text by the author (May, 2005).