Any reader of America’s Civil War history knows of the Irish Brigade and their battle cry ‘Remember Fontenoy’, but a true understanding of that emotion is often not given other than to note that it refers to the Irish Brigade in the French Army. To understand it fully we must go back to the origins of the first Irish Brigade in a trade of French soldiers for Irish made in 1690. When William of Orange was invited by a Protestant Parliament to take the crown of England deposing Catholic James II, France’s Catholic King Louis XIV favored Stuart King James II in his struggle to regain his throne. In 1690, Louis sent 6,000 French regulars to James in Ireland, but since he needed men in his own struggle with William on the continent, he received about 5,000 Irish recruits in return under the command of Justin McCarthy, Viscount Mountcashel. Ireland got the best of the trade at the time but, as it turned out, it would be a better bargain for France in the years to come. The Irish troops were organized into three regiments, known by their commanding officers: O’Brien’s commanded by Colonel Daniel O’Brien; Dillon’s, commanded by Colonel Arthur Dillon and Mountcashel’s commanded by McCarthy himself.
The Irish stand against William’s army at Limerick under Patrick Sarsfield forced a treaty with William in October 1691 and as many as 19,000 more Irish troops followed Sarsfield into exile in France as a condition of the treaty. This came to be known as the “Flight of The Wild Geese.” Most added regiments to the French army and became the Irish Brigade. The names of the regiments would change with changes in command, but Dillon’s regiment remained under the command of a Dillon for its entire years of service. Irish regiments participated in most of the major land battles fought by the French and even served as France’s allies to the Scots against the English at the Battle of Falkirk Muir and Culloden during the Jacobite rising of 1745. Walsh’s Regiment also served with Washington in the American Revolution as part of John Paul Jones marines using their motto of ‘Semper et Ubique Fidelis’ (always and everywhere faithful) which may have influenced the subsequent adoption of the motto ‘Semper Fidelis’ by the U.S. Marines.
Since King Billy was the nemesis of both Louis XIV and James II and the split fidelity was defined by the Brigade wearing red coats as a sign of their fealty to the Gaelic house of Stuart and its claim to the English throne. England’s perfidious breaking of the Treaty of Limerick and introduction of the Penal Laws ensured that France’s Irish Brigade would remain supplied with the cream of Ireland’s sons for generations, bringing the total number to about 30,000 and leading to their battle cry of ‘Cuimhnigidh ar Luimneach agus ar feall na Sassanach!’ (Remember Limerick and Saxon treachery!) The Irish fought well for the French for the rest of the Nine Years War against William of Orange, at battles such as Landen in 1693, where Patrick Sarsfield was mortally wounded and whose dying words were reported to be “If only this had been for Ireland.” Despite their many victories, the one that stands out in Irish memory was the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745.
In 1698, after the war with William was concluded by the Treaty of Ryswick, many of the Irish regiments in France were disbanded by Louis XIV. But the peace that had come to Europe was short-lived; by 1701, Europe was at war again. King Charles II of Spain had died and Louis XIV pressed the cause of Philip of Anjou for the Spanish crown. The Austrians countered that Archduke Charles of Hapsburg, son of Emperor Leopold I, was the legitimate heir. Tensions, backed by England, soon led to the War of Austrian Succession with Holland, Prussia and Austria soon at war with France. Louis XIV had need of his stalwart Irishmen once again. Fontenoy was a major engagement of that war. The battle was fought against the English, with their Austrian and Dutch allies, commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, known as the ‘Bloody Butcher.’ King Louis XV of France and his son, the Dauphin, were also on the battlefield.
Fontenoy hardly ever appears in English history books, but has a strong significance in Ireland where even GAA teams are named for the battle. On the afternoon of 11 May 1745, near the town of Fontenoy in today’s Belgium, 16,000 of the finest soldiers in the armies of England and their allies stepped off to attack the center of the French army of Louis XV. Several attacks against other sections of the line had failed and the day appeared lost, but Cumberland took a chance on a bold massed attack on the French center that was sure to succeed. Courageously moving forward against heavy fire, the English soon reached the French position and appeared ready to overrun the center. The audacious gamble was about to succeed when the French sent in their last reserves in a furious attempt to save the day. As a few remaining French forces were holding on the left, the British observed another formation advancing on their right in uniforms as red as their own. Forward they came with bagpipes playing the Jacobite anthem, ‘The White Cockade,’ and voices raised in one of the most ancient languages of Europe: ‘Cuimhnigidh ar Luimneach agus ar feall na Sassanach!’ These red-coated soldiers were Irish and Frenchmen of Irish ancestry and they were intent on retribution against the nation that oppressed their people for generations. They crashed into the British with close-in hand-to-hand fighting at which they excelled with bayonet, clubbed musket and simply bare hands. A French historian later wrote that in 10 minutes it was over and the attackers who were left on their feet were driven off. The Irish Brigade had beaten the Brits and saved France – Ireland’s long-time ally.
The centuries after the broken Treaty of Limerick and introduction of the Penal Laws were a sorrowful time for Ireland’s people. It was said that the worst place in the world to be an Irish Catholic was in Ireland itself. However, if there was one organization the Irish could look to during those dark times for affirmation that they were as good as any other nationality, it was to the Irish Brigade in France and their stunning victory at Fontenoy. In addition to giving many Irishmen an outlet for their talents at a time when there was virtually none in the land of their birth, the Brigade provided hope to those destitute masses back in Ireland. As long as it existed, there remained the possibility that the flags of the regiments of the Irish Brigade might one day fly in Dublin and the Irish would have their own again. Though today many in Ireland still know the name and accomplishments of the Irish Brigade, there seem to be few in the Diaspora familiar with their legacy. That is unfortunate, for the hope that Fontenoy gave the Irish played an important role in sustaining them as a people then and a resurgent force later. That is why so many of the native Irish in the Irish Brigade of the Union Army were inspired to Remember Fontenoy!
Hark! Yonder through the darkness one distant rat-tat-tat!
The old foe stirs out there, God bless his soul for that!
The old foe musters strongly, he’s coming on at last,
And Clare’s Brigade may claim its own wherever blows fall fast.
Send us, ye western breezes, our full, our rightful share,
For Faith, and Fame, and Honor, and the ruined hearths of Clare
From “Fontenoy 1745” By Emily Lawless