The ‘Wild Geese’ in Austria

For over 150 years, writes Christopher Duffy, generations of Irish gentry sought service in the armies of the European powers.

For a good one hundred and fifty years, from the middle of the seventeenth century until the later eighteenth, generation after generation of Catholic Irish gentry and their followers went overseas to serve in the armies of Europe. Collectively they were known as the ‘Wild Geese’, a name that evokes pictures of wild-eyed soldiers of fortune who braved the secret voyage from Ireland, donned the uniform of the King of France’s Irish Brigade, and charged with levelled bayonets against their English oppressors on the battlefields of Flanders.

No doubt people like that did exist, but research in Ireland and elsewhere is now enabling historians to present a revised, more complete, and realistic picture of a social group usually seen through the romantic spectacles of the nineteenth century.

‘Wild Geese’ have recently been discovered serving in settings as exotic as the Imperial Chinese Navy; but, for the sake of illustration, we shall take a look at some of the Irishmen who gave the army of Imperial Austria some thirteen Field-Marshals, two Presidents of the Hofkriegsrath and dozens of other Generals.

At the latest count the number of officers below field rank runs well into the hundreds. It would be vain to claim any one man as being typical of that highly individual creature, the Irish soldier abroad, but if we had to settle on a single officer to stand for the whole, we could do worse than choose one of Maria Theresa’s Field-Marshals, Maximilian Ulysses Browne.

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