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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


Coat of arms of Irish units in Spain, eighteenth century.

Blank commissions were again in evidence for the regiment of 1,500 Irishmen raised by Maestre de Campo Cristóbal Mayo in 1652. A blank commission was made available for the maestre de campo who would take charge of the regiment (pay: 116 escudos per month). There were also blank commissions for sergeant-major (65 escudos per month), adjutant-sergeant (20 escudos per month), adjutant sergeant-major, ten captains (40 escudos per month), eleven ensigns and ten sergeants (AGS, GA, Libro 225, ff. 94-97v. Blank commissions, February 1652). Much the same occurred in the case of 3,000 Irishmen divided into three regiments that were levied by Colonel Thomas Plunket: three blank commissions for the maestres de campo, three for sergeant-majors for each regiment, thirty for captains for each company in the three regiments and another six for adjutant sergeant-majors (AGS, GA, Libro 225, ff. 125-127. Blank commissions, February 1652).

This practice of privatising the officer class to the benefit of some recurred in 1652 in the case of the Flanders veteran Dermicio O’Sullivan Moar. He was named maestre de campo of an Irish infantry regiment which would be formed by the 1,000 men he undertook to bring from Ireland (AGS, GA, Libro 225, ff. 139v-140. Aranjuez, 29 April 1652. Appointment as maestre de campo in ff. 140v-141). Another instance is that of Sergeant-Major Guillermo Butler, named maestre de campo of a regiment of 1,000 Irish whom he promised to recruit (AGS, GA, Libro 225, ff. 161-162v. Madrid, 23 November 1652 and ff. 162-163v). Yet another is that of the levy of 3,700 Irishmen in four regiments by Maestre de Campo Juan Patricio, a veteran of Catalonia. He was offered the rank of maestre de campo of one of the regiments (116 escudos per month), ‘over and above your pay as captain of a cavalry company which you will form with 100 of the men you have brought’ (AGS, GA, Libro 225, ff. 170-171v. Madrid, 31 December 1652).

During the eighteenth century, contracts signed in 1709 with Demetrio MacAuliff and Reinaldo MacDonnell made possible the formation of two Irish units which would later become the Ultonia and Hibernia Regiments. The parties to the agreement obtained military ranks. MacAuliff was given that of colonel (the first condition in his contract) and MacDonnell was named lieutenant colonel as well being given the chance to sell (yes, sell) blank commissions signed by Felipe V. ‘The said Macaulife [sic] will nominate all the officers in the regiment and these blank commissions will be acceptable to the court’ (second condition). The third condition stated ‘they will be paid on the same basis as are Spanish infantry regiments […] All the officers will be Irish and of proven service, and the rank-and-file soldiers must be Irish to the greatest number possible’ (AGS, GM, leg. 2716. Demetrio MacAulif’s conditions. Monzón, 29 October 1709). The conditions for the Hibernia (formerly Castelar) Regiment were practically identical (AGS, GM, leg. 2716. Reynaldo MacDonnell’s conditions for raising the Castelar regiment. Monzón, 29 October 1709).

Other members of prominent Irish families continued to take part in the market for military positions. In 1734 Felipe V rewarded the sergeant major of the Toscana regiment, Luis Francisco O’Mahony, with a colonel’s commission and a sergeant major’s commission (blank, for him to sell), in exchange for a promise to levy 300 soldiers. José Laules (Lawless), son of the lieutenant-general and diplomat Patricio Lawless, obtained a company of the regiment of Fresian Dragoons for the price of 36,000 reales; Ventura FitzJames Stuart, son of the famous Jacobo Francisco FitzJames Stuart, second Duque de Liria, married María Josefa Cagigal, member of a Spanish family that was traditionally associated with the army, the Cagigal de la Vega. For their son, Jacobo Stuart Cagigal, the maternal grandfather ‘benefited’ (in other words, bought) a lieutenant position in the Prince’s regiment when the boy was just two years old. This regiment had been raised by the boy’s uncle, Juan Manuel Cagigal (Andújar Castillo 2004: 137-138, 182, 287).

Those Irish businessmen with sufficient money to invest in a good military career for their sons also opted into this system. In 1768 the Butler Clarke family bought a commission as captain in the Foreign Volunteers infantry regiment for their son Juan (born in Seville, 1749). Juan became field-marshal in 1795, military and civil governor of Puerto de Santa María in 1798 and Governor of Cartagena in 1806. In Cuba, Gonzalo O’Farrill enlisted as a cadet in the Havana Nobles company in 1764. In 1771 his father, the rich merchant Juan José O’Farrill y Arriola, bought him a company in the Princess’s regiment. [3] From then on, Gonzalo began a meteoric ascent, holding ranks of lieutenant-general (1795), inspector general of infantry (1798); envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Prussia (1799), honorary privy councillor (1805); director general and colonel general of the artillery (1808), secretary of state and secretary for war (1808). 

José Fleming, who reached the rank of brigadier in 1793, found his ascent facilitated by the purchase of ranks. A member of an Irish merchant family in Puerto de Santa María, in 1771 he bought the rank of captain. His father had purchased him a lieutenant’s commission in 1762 in the Bourbon cavalry regiment. At the end of the eighteenth century, Nicolás Langton abandoned the family business in Cádiz and bought a company in the Jaén infantry regiment for 135,000 reales (Andújar Castillo 2008; Andújar Castillo 2004: 266, 268, 396).

It was to be another soldier of Irish origin, Alejandro O’Reilly, who exhibited serious doubts about the system of venality, to the point of openly rejecting it when he became Inspector General of Infantry in 1769. The place-buying phenomenon had acquired scandalous proportions under Juan Gregorio Muniain’s tenure as Secretary of the War Department. It slowed down completely, at least in Spain, between 1774 and 1790. In fact, any future monograph on O’Reilly, one of the great military reformers of eighteenth-century Spain, should deal with the part played by the Irishman in opposing the practice of place-buying, even if the system did resurface once more in the 1790s. [4]

These are just a few issues that need to be teased out. The somewhat controversial goal of this article is to draw attention to the absolute need to question some stereotypes about the presence of the Irish in Spain. These range from the supposedly warm welcome the Spanish extended to their ‘brothers from the north’ to the belief that the Irish ascent within the political, military and social spheres was based entirely on their merits. The granting of a place in the army or a promotion was in fact based on criteria that were not restricted to competence or professional experience. Some of those practices, such as the venality described in this article, were outside the written military codes and hence are not easily to trace in the sources. However, in doing so, the Irish merchant or soldier can be placed squarely within the milieu of the ancien régime of which he formed part.

Óscar Recio Morales
The Centre for Irish-Scottish and Comparative Studies, Trinity College Dublin

Translated by David Barnwell and Carmen Rodríguez Alonso


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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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