The Age of the Swashbuckling Irishmen

December 2004By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).

Ireland and the Jacobite Cause, 1685-1766: A Fatal Attachment.  By Éamonn Ó Ciardha. Four Courts Press (c/o ISBS, 5824 NE Hassalo St., Portland OR 97213 [503-287-3093]). 468 pages. $35.



On the jacket of Éamonn Ó Ciardha’s book is an 18th-century depiction of the victory at Fontenoy, May 11, 1745, a day honored in Irish national tradition. Here we see the leader of the Irish Brigade handing a torn and captured Union Jack to the French monarch Louis XV. This picture, eloquent as it is, does not tell the whole story, as recounted in Ireland and the Jacobite Cause. The Irish Brigade at the time was in the service not just of the French King, but also of the exiled Catholic who claimed the British crown as his right. To the extent that the French King supported this Stuart claimant, a steady stream of recruits from Ireland entered his army. At that time, a fierce loyalty to the Jacobite cause was at the center of Irish political life. (Jacobite is the adjective derived from James or Jacques, the name of the Catholic King, and is not to be confused with Jacobin).

Historians have long cast Irish Jacobites in the shadows, but now Ó Ciardha has assembled a vast array of primary sources — political poetry, state papers, pamphlets, sermons, newspapers, and correspondence — to demonstrate that an unswerving commitment to the exiled Stuart King prevailed among Catholics in Ireland for nearly three generations. Most important of all, he demonstrates that the political poetry of 18th-century Irish bards (composed in the Gaelic tongue) shows an undying optimism about the return of the Stuart King at the head of the Irish Brigade. These poets celebrated the deposed Catholic King as the shield of the poor, the royal star, and a messianic figure who would rescue his fellow Gaels from persecution. They also celebrated his impeccable descent from a legendary Irish ancestor named Milesius.

Until now it has been the rule to ignore 18th-century Irish poets as a source for that nation’s history, even though the native poets mirrored public opinion and were considered the “conscience of the nation.” This was the golden age of Irish political poetry, for song in the Gaelic tongue was virtually the only means of communication left to the oppressed majority. Poets alone could go about spreading political news with near impunity, so they kept hope alive by celebrating the heroism of Irish generals and soldiers abroad — for instance, the exploits of the Irish Brigade in engaging the Germans in 1735 while the French army retreated. News of such triumphs spread quickly to Ireland, because there was a constant flow of priests and visitors from Irish mercantile communities in the ports of St. Malo, Brest, and La Rochelle. Bards would sing about events in Paris, Rome, and Madrid — but not Dublin, Edinburgh, and London — because they expected the Irish Brigade to arrive from Europe to restore to the Gaels their land and their religious freedom.

As Ó Ciardha suggests in his title, fidelity to the Jacobite cause was in the end a “fatal attachment,” because all the attempted invasions failed. Still, it was not for lack of trying: In 1707, for instance, a planned invasion of Britain with the Duke of Berwick at the head of the Irish Brigade fell through. Yet the fact remains that the Irish yearned not for revolution, but for restoration, until 1766, the year that James III (“the Pretender”) died. Till then the Catholic Irish were Jacobites. Afterwards, they became Republicans, and poets no longer sang about a “Bonny Prince,” but about “Bony” (Napoleon Bonaparte).

Ó Ciardha reveals that Protestants in Ireland had cause to fear in the 18th century, for despite a large military force spread in 263 barracks across Ireland to defend them against the majority, there was a Catholic “army-in-waiting” across the sea, namely, the Irish Brigade. So even if Irish Catholics at home were disarmed, thousands of their fellows abroad were fully armed and trained for combat. The Irish Brigade had its birth in the 1688 Revolution that sent James II, the Catholic King, into exile (mainly for trying to bring about civil and religious liberty for British and American subjects over a century ahead of its time). In 1688 Catholic Irishmen in Ireland mobilized in large numbers and fought until 1691, though unpaid and poorly equipped, against an army of veterans paid and equipped by the English Parliament. Under the terms of the Treaty of Limerick (1691), this Irish army followed General Patrick Sarsfield into Europe and soon demonstrated its merit at Landen, in 1693, where King William lost 12,000 men.

Despite constant proclamations and penalties against recruiting and enlisting for the Irish Brigade — laws which testify to Protestant fears — there was an unstoppable flow of recruits throughout the century. Thousands of young Irish Catholics kept enlisting, dazzled by the prospect of a “triumphant return to enjoy their ancient claims.” Privateers on the coast, often manned by Irish Jacobite crews, conveyed them swiftly across the sea. Historians dismiss the large numbers of recruits mentioned in contemporary correspondence, but Ó Ciardha persuades us that these large numbers prompted “the more coercive aspects of the Protestant Ascendancy legislation.” Not long before the Jacobite invasion of Scotland in 1715, it was reported that 17,000 Irishmen were in the service of the King of France and that new recruits were being promised a return to Ireland within a year, led by King James III. Although the 1715 insurrection failed, the diaspora “remained buoyant” about an imminent landing of the Irish Brigade.

Ó Ciardha contends that “the Wild Geese” were driven overseas not by mercenary motives, but by a desire for religious liberty, for they risked death by enlisting, fighting, and also returning to Ireland. A number were caught and executed just for enlisting or recruiting. According to a report by the Jacobite Nicholas Plunkett in 1710, the majority of the Irish were living as “slaves…barred from employment in the state, in the army, in the church, in the treasury, in the judicature and in all civil status, deprived of all the laws in the realm.” They had, in effect, “lost their country.” No wonder, then, that the young enlisted in hopes of coming back to free their countrymen.

While it is true that the Irish failed to rise in the 1745 Jacobite insurrection, this was the result, Ó Ciardha explains, of the famine of 1741 that “wiped out a quarter of the Catholics.”

The close tie between the Stuarts and the Catholic Church in Ireland was forged in 1685, when Pope Innocent XI gave James II the right to nominate bishops, a right that was then exercised by his son in the 18th century. Of 129 appointees to Irish sees from 1687 to 1765, all but five were appointed by the Stuart claimant. Although instructed to avoid “open politics,” some Irish priests were involved in recruiting for the Brigade.

The government in Dublin was apprehensive of the link between the Catholic Church and the exiled Stuarts, and so responded to Jacobitism with anti-Catholic laws, such as bans on Catholic services and pilgrimages. It also tried unsuccessfully, as in 1709, to force Catholic priests to take an oath renouncing the Stuart claimant. Those who gave shelter to priests risked losing what little they possessed, and the Mass, as an anonymous poet lamented, was offered “under the branches of a tree.”

Whenever an invasion was foiled, there would follow “the customary witch-hunt against the Catholic hierarchy, friars, and popish priests.” Branding priests was no use, however, because the Irish would brand others the same way to wipe away the distinction. Punishing priests could also backfire: When Fr. William Smith was “pilloried, whipped, and branded,” people flocked to him even in jail. Astonishingly, the Duke of Bolton, on August 25, 1719, proposed castrating Catholic priests in Ireland — “arguably the single most shameful proposal of the ‘Protestant Ascendancy.’” Historians contend that this proposal was only meant to ensure the defeat of the bill, but, as Ó Ciardha notes, “public thanksgiving took place in all the chapels of Galway and most others in the kingdom after the castration bill was rejected, showing that the threat was taken seriously by many Catholics.” He is right that historians should not underestimate the “psychological effects” of such bills and of the penal (anti-Catholic) laws which kept the Irish people in a state of fear. In 1723-1724, Catholic priests were threatened with the charge of “high treason” just for their priesthood. In 1745, when faced with the threat of a Franco-Jacobite invasion, the government offered bounties for the capture of priests, monks, Jesuits, and bishops.

Besides all this, Catholic priests repeatedly “bore the brunt of government retaliation” for the rapparees (i.e., Irish freebooting soldiers). Now, these rapparees could be seen either as a “Jacobite rearguard” that continued to fight at home until the Irish Brigade returned, or as a group of “bandits who drew the wrath of the authorities on defenceless Catholics.” Ó Ciardha finds “reliable sources from either side of the political divide” that speak of the government’s sometimes pretending to go after rapparees, but using that as “a cover for the systematic slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands of innocent Irish Catholics.” For example, he cites George Story, an eyewitness on the side of King William in the war of 1688-1691, who tells of “vast numbers of harmless natives” slaughtered as “rapparees.” An Irish poet lamented that the heads of boys as young as 12 were spiked as rapparees on the walls in County Wicklow, and another poet sang of the rapparees as “mountain boys” who must “stick together and keep to their isolated fastnesses until the Gaels come across the sea, blessed by the clergy, to deliver the Irish.”

Ó Ciardha devotes a good portion of his book to those Irish-Protestant Jacobites in Dublin who were seen by other Protestants as “monsters.” They were typified by Dr. Charles Leslie and the Duke of Ormonde, who both joined the Catholic King in exile. Such Irish-Protestant Jacobites could be found among the high-church clergy, printers, literary men, and aristocrats, not to mention students of Trinity College, who once defaced a statue of King William. A Protestant mob in Dublin celebrated the Pretender’s birthday by roaring in the street, “High Church and Ormonde” and “Down with King George.”

Irish-Protestant Jacobites tended to be anti-Dutch and anti-Ulster Presbyterian and to minimize the danger of a Catholic insurrection or invasion. They trusted that a restored Stuart king would give them liberty of conscience. Meeting in Dublin coffee-houses and taverns, they also counted in their ranks Tories disgruntled after being dismissed from office and Catholics who had converted to Protestantism but were still regarded with suspicion by the government. Among the Jacobite printers could be found George Faulkner, publisher of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, who was prosecuted, though not convicted, for printing “popish prayer-books”; Edward Lloyd, who owned the chief Jacobite coffeehouse in Dublin in 1712 and who tried to print the memoirs of James II; and John Drake, who published a work reflecting unfavorably on King William, Queen Anne, and the Hanoverian succession.

Of interest to literary scholars is the evidence Ó Ciardha assembles to show what grounds Archbishop William King, of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, had to suspect Swift of Jacobitism. He was so suspicious he even “connived at the seizure of Swift’s correspondence.” Indeed, Swift not only dedicated one of his works to a man implicated in a Jacobite plot, but he also had many friends among known Jacobites, sympathizers, and fellow travelers. Ó Ciardha provides an impressive list of these, among whom was the Duke of Ormonde, one of the most trusted Irish advisers of James III. Swift received a letter from Ormonde even after his flight to France, and as late as 1738 Swift would daringly praise Ormonde and show contempt for the Hanoverian King. Ó Ciardha mentions that the Stuart King received a copy of Gulliver’s Travels from Michael McDonogh, the Catholic Bishop of Kilmore, and regarded Swift’s satires against the English government as helping the Jacobite cause.

Ó Ciardha’s book — a scholarly achievement, but not an easy read — deserves high marks for shedding so much new light on the history of Ireland. After this book is assimilated, historians will no longer be able to ignore the fact that for nearly three generations before the rise of Republicanism, Jacobitism was at the center of Irish politics, swashbuckling Irishmen abroad were a real threat to Protestant Ascendancy, and Irish bards kept perennially alive, by their songs in the Gaelic tongue, the fervent hope for an imminent rescue from Europe.



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