The contribution made by the Irish and their descendants who have served and continue to serve in the military is unmatched compared to Ireland’s small size. The story is diverse and complex with influences coming from several different cultures and identities throughout the centuries. It is a rich colourful tapestry of local, 32-county, and transnational stories. Exploring, discussing and deconstructing that story is important to understanding Ireland and its diaspora today. As part of this process the recording, preserving, and passing on of that story to the generations of today and tomorrow is critical to understanding identity, reconciliation, and providing a lasting tribute to honour those who served and continue to serve.
Ireland’s military story can be traced back to the days of the Gaelic clans and the exploits of the mythical Fianna. Their heroic tales of honour and valour are still told to school children today. The tales of the Irish on the battlefield and their military feats throughout the centuries are legendary. Brian Boru’s united Irish and Viking army against Norse invaders at Clontarf in 1014; Hugh O’Neill’s Nine Years’ War campaigns from 1593 – 1603; Patrick Sarsfield’s leadership during the Williamite War in Ireland 1688 – 1691 and the subsequent Flight of the Wild Geese; United Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone’s 1798 rebellion; the Inniskilling Dragoons’ charge at Waterloo in 1815, the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions at Messines in 1917, or Irish peacekeepers at the siege of Jadotville in 1961, are just a few of the military campaigns and personalities from Irish history.
Although Ireland was colonised over the centuries the old traditions evolved as a new Irish identity or identities developed. By the end of the seventeenth century permanent Irish regiments had become part of the British Army. As Ireland transitioned so too did the military tradition; by the second half of the eighteenth century there were rumbling demands for more autonomy and an indigenous military began to form: the Irish Volunteers. Units such as the Tullamore True Blue Rangers, Dublin Volunteers, or the Independent Enniskilliners, began a tradition that last until this day. The tradition also spread as the Irish began to travel the world. Throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries the battle cry ‘Cuimnidh ar Luimneach agus ar Feall na Sasanach!’ (‘Remember Limerick and the Saxon Faith!’) was bellowed by the Irish Brigade in the service of France, while ‘Fág an Bealach!’ (‘Clear the Way!’) was shouted out by the 87th (Prince of Wales’s Irish) Regiment of Foot during its campaigns under the Irish Duke of Wellington in Spain and Portugal. Later the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War, and the New South Wales Irish Rifles also used Fág an Bealach as their battle cry. Today the same motto is still borne by the British Army’s Royal Irish Regiment.
Irish regiments throughout the centuries to this day have adorned their uniforms with symbols associated with ancient Ireland. Today, the Royal Irish Regiment, The Irish Guards, the Irish Regiment of Canada, the South African Irish Regiment (renamed the Andrew Mlangeni Regiment in 2019), the 69th (New York) Infantry Regiment and of course the Irish Defence Forces (Óglaigh na hÉireann) adorn their uniforms and flags with harps and shamrocks, while the wolfhound is a common mascot. The cap badge of the Irish Defence Forces is centred with the letters FF meaning Fianna Fáil; literally the warriors of Ireland or warriors of Ireland’s destiny (Fáil was an ancient name for Ireland, in the context of destiny). Although a later entry to the Gaelic world, the Great Irish Warpipes and the Brian Buru bagpipes were the preferred instrument of the bands of the Irish regiments in the British Army until recently. The pipes are still heard on every Irish unit’s parade ground, while St. Patrick’s Day, Killaloe, Brian Boru’s March, and Let Erin Remember are Irish military marches played throughout the world.
Not surprisingly the legendary tales of Irish bravery and their sacrifice are still remembered and continue to be written about and studied. The American Civil War and the Great War are just two examples of the impact made by the Irish; at least 200,000 Irish born served in each of these conflicts. Names such as Admiral William Brown founder of the Argentinian Navy; the San Patricios in Mexico, Thomas Francis Meagher General of the United States Irish Brigade; Lieutenant Maurice Dease the first posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross in the First World War; John F. Kennedy United States President and Second World War veteran are just a few Irish names whose service is commemorated and honoured every year at home in Ireland and abroad.
Around the world today some 70 million people claim to be of Irish descent. You will still find Irish born people in militaries around the globe in countries they have made their home. For the most part members in Irish military units throughout the diaspora are of Irish descent or not Irish at all, but the tradition lives on. Throughout the diaspora Irish regiments are still part of the armed forces of Britain, Canada, South Africa, and the United States; other units with Irish roots still exist in France and Spain. Adding to this heritage is the proud recognition countries – for instance Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Britain, Canada, France, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United States – have for the Irish who helped found elements of or served in their armed forces, emergency services, or law enforcement.
Today on the island of Ireland Irish people continue to serve in the British Armed Forces and the Irish Defence Forces. In Northern Ireland the Royal Irish Regiment with their Killaloe March and the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry ‘the Wolves’ who quick march to Gary Owen are two of the Northern Irish units that deploy people on operations throughout the world as part of the British Army. Finding an Irish person from any of the 32-counties in wider British Army, the Royal Air Force or Navy is not uncommon.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Defence Forces need little introduction. Continuing the legacy of the Irish Volunteers they carry with them the manifesto of their forefathers: ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’. The modern Irish Defence Forces secure and defend those guiding principles every day at home and abroad. Their devotion to international peace and helping to defend democracy around the world on United Nations missions has been heralded by the international community. Their sacrifice in the Congo during the 1960s was brought to the big screen in 2016 in the film Siege of Jadotville. Today Irish Defence Forces peacekeepers wear the blue helmet in Syria, Lebanon, and Mali to name a few. Their commitment ensures the people of those countries can go about their daily lives peacefully. At home 24/7 all year round the men and women of the Irish Army, Air Corps and Naval Service defend and protect the economic, political, and social freedoms of the people of Ireland; on land, sea and air they silently put themselves on the line.
Ireland’s military story is complex and diverse, but it is also a rich tapestry of colourful stories of heroism, honour, tragedy, and peace. It is a local, all-island, and diaspora story. It is about remembering the person around the corner who put on a uniform 200 years ago, but never came home.
To this day and throughout history, Irish individuals and units – or of Irish descent or lineage – have come from a variety of culturally different backgrounds and identities. At the core of this programme are the men and women who have served and continue to serve. From soldier to General, airman to Air Marshal, and sailor to Admiral serving throughout the world in numerous militaries they all have one thing in common; they are all part of Ireland’s Military Story.