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When merit alone is not enough
Money as a ‘parallel route’
for Irish military advancement in Spain

By Óscar Recio Morales

Translated by David Barnwell and Carmen Rodríguez Alonso


One of the many clichés about the Irish presence in Spain relates to the quality of the Irish as soldiers. This is taken as explaining the uninterrupted presence of Irishmen in the armies of the Spanish Monarchy from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the start of the nineteenth. Traditional historiography is replete with nineteenth-century-style individual portraits of illustrious Irish military figures (or those with Irish roots). When they are discussed as a group, they are quickly assigned the Romantic poetic categorisation of Wild Geese. This literary metaphor has become laden with strong ideological associations, almost all of these military and nationalist. The Irish are seen as victims, antagonists (be it Ireland versus England or Catholic versus Protestant), male and of course always heroic (Remember Fontenoy!). 

But if the term Wild Geese did in its day have some meaning, today it appears completely out of date and reductive, faced as we are with a context so rich and complex as that of Irish emigration during the modern era. For not all Irish emigrants were soldiers, not all were men, and not all achieved the honours and the integration that they sought. In Spain they too were victims of marginalisation and caricature. Even the aristocrats among them underwent a process of integration and subsequent assimilation that was not without its difficulties, or exempt from conflict with the other ‘native’ elites of Spain. [1]

Officer in Hibernia Regiment, 
in typical red jacket and green sash, 
late 18th century
(Bueno Correa 1986)

This is of course not to deny the Irish military tradition upon which Bartlett and Jeffery reflected in the opening chapter of A Military History of Ireland. Nor is it my intention to take away one whit from the merits and qualities that Irish soldiers demonstrated. What I propose to show is that neither military tradition nor merits were sufficient to account for the spectacular social ascent of the Irish military in Spain. This article does not propose to address other well-known factors such as religion, the tradition of service to the crown, or a supposed common ethnic origin. There is a need for a new theoretical framework to supersede old models, such as for example the study of the Irish solely in terms of their origin. To put it another way, I believe that it makes sense when studying the Irish to bear in mind the relations they established beyond the confines of the socio-professional and the geographical perspectives. 

The Irish provide us with a microcosm of internal machinations at court, social advancement, relationships with other foreign communities, as well as with the host society, and so on. In this sense the Irish did not behave differently to anyone else at the eighteenth-century court - the Basques, for example, formed an extensive and complex network of relationships which went beyond simple common origin. Of course this does not mean that common origin was not an important element in group cohesion, nor that it was not especially marked among the Irish, although it was not the sole element. And, just like other groups, the Irish also used other ‘parallel routes’ to get to the top, much at odds with what we would today understand under the rubric of ‘meritocracy’. Money was just one of these.

The publication of F. Andújar Castillo’s work on venality in the eighteenth-century army has justifiably caused a veritable revolution in Spanish historiography. It has forced all of us to think about the world of the military in an unconventional way. [2] When it came to entry into the army and promotion thereafter, money was as important as seniority or any other distinction.

Often hidden within the official documentation, the buying and selling of positions in the military hierarchy was a practice that already existed in the Spanish Army from the time of Carlos V, and reached incredible proportions in the eighteenth century. The various options for buying and selling in the eighteenth-century army ranged from the classic ‘supply of soldiers’ (in return for a promotion), to the mixed system in which, as well as money, the supplier would receive jobs for himself and his family as well as blank officer commissions signed by the king. Of course there was also the direct purchase of office, and in the second half of the eighteenth Century even the provision of private finance for construction works - either civil or military - was one means of gaining access to the officer ranks. 

The Irish entered fully into this market, especially around the middle of the seventeenth century. During the golden age of the Irish levies, war was big business, especially for Irish veterans of the armies of Flanders, Extremadura and Catalonia. Whether or not these soldiers had been brought to Spain like enslaved Africans was of little consequence once they found themselves surrounded by money and positions in the officer ranks. I will mention just a few cases here. Captain Cristóbal Mayo brought 1,000 men from Ireland and with these he formed a regiment under his command in Catalonia, ‘with the privileges of Spaniards and on the same footing’. Mayo was named commander of this regiment, the conditions being set out before the levy arrived in Spain. Mayo received the title of maestre de campo (commander of one or several regiments), allowing him to head the regiment. In addition, he was assigned the commissions for sergeant major, adjutant sergeant major, adjutant, eleven captains, eleven ensigns and nine other officer commissions, all ‘blank’ (AGS, GA, Libro 209, ff. 162-163v. Madrid, 2 April 1650).

The same thing happened in the case of the levy of 600 men raised by Ricardo White in 1650. These were to form six companies of 100 men in each. The six commissions for captain (pay: 40 escudos per month) were given blank to White - or, which amounted to the same thing, at his full discretion. He also received blank commissions for six ensigns and six sergeants. White imposed further conditions: note the king’s order to the Corregidor (Governor) of Biscay Province to admit White as a resident of Bilbao ‘as long as he does not marry a woman from Biscay but rather an Irishwoman and attends to the services he has promised to render’. The service, of course was to raise 600 men for the army (AGS, GA, Libro 209, ff. 198v-200v. In f. 200v. the order of Felipe IV to Juan de Torres y Armendariz, governor of Vizcaya. Madrid, 29 September 1650).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 7 September 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Recio Morales, Óscar, 'When merit alone is not enough: Money as a ‘parallel route’ for Irish military advancement in Spain' in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 121-124. (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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