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The Spanish Habsburgs and their Irish Soldiers (1587-1700)

By Moisés Enrique Rodríguez


The Irish were among the most attractive candidates. First of all, they were Catholic. Secondly, their intermittent state of rebellion against the English had made them proficient in combat. Last but not least, being England's 'natural enemies' they were also perceived as Spain's 'natural allies', since 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. The situation was rather more complicated and at various times the English cooperated in the exportation of Irish soldiers to Spain, but this simplification has some validity.

'The dispossessed Gaelic chiefs and their swordsmen (...) fought with tenacious loyalty and fanatical zeal in Flanders. After all, the Dutch enemy were co-religionists of the Ulster planters, easily seen as affiliated to their English oppressors, and were actually in alliance with the latter against Spain in the years 1625-1630' (Stradling 1993: 133). These religious and ideological elements, however, were absent in the later wars against the French, Catalans and Portuguese, in which the Irish behaved for the most part as professional soldiers and gave a good account of themselves.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) and its aftermath forced many Irishmen to leave their native island. It has been estimated that 34,000 Irish soldiers joined the armies of Spain and France during the years 1641-1654. Concerning the former, most Irishmen were transported directly to the Peninsula (18,000-22,500), but a minority (2,000) made their way to Flanders. For obvious reasons, the aristocracy was over-represented in this exodus and by the second half of the seventeenth century, 'some nine-tenths of the dynastic leadership of traditional Ireland were present in the Spanish Netherlands or metropolitan Spain, the men serving as officers, their wives and children as dependents of the crown' (Stradling 1993: 125). This meant that between fifty and one hundred families of the old Irish ruling class became pensioners of Philip IV and his successor Charles II.

The Netherlands

The story of the Irish units in the armies of Spain commences in 1585 in the Netherlands. The Dutch had rebelled against their Peninsular masters and Elizabeth I sent an army to support them. Among these men were 1,500 Irishmen recruited by Sir John Perrot. They were commanded by the Englishman Sir Edward Stanley who, although a devout Catholic, had fought for Protestant England against both Irish rebels and Spanish troops. However, in 1587 the Spaniards bribed Stanley and he and his men went over to the enemy, to whom they surrendered the town of Deventure, which they were garrisoning. The unit became known as the 'Tercio Irlanda' and remained in existence until 1604 when it was broken down into individual companies. In 1605, Henry O'Neill (second son of the Earl of Tyrone) created the 'Tyrone Regiment' which included many of these men and which remained in existence for the next five years.

Irish troops were a permanent feature of Spain's Army of Flanders throughout the seventeenth century and fought first against the Dutch and then against the French. Between 1587 and 1661, this force included on average 1,000 Irishmen, although the numbers fluctuated over the years. Henry estimates that during this period, 10,000 Irish immigrants reached the Spanish Netherlands, of whom 6,300 joined the army. The organisation of the Irish regiments changed frequently and so did the names of the individual units, which were usually named after their commander. The Army of Flanders was truly multi-national and there were periods during which the Walloons and Flemings recruited among the local population outnumbered the Spanish soldiers. Germans, Italians, Swiss and Irish were also represented.

'Beginning with Stanley's defection to Spain, and progressing in spurts during the late sixteenth century, emigration of Irishmen for this purpose (serving in foreign armies) became virtually continuous. It received a great impetus with the return, by stages, to a state of general warfare on the continent after 1618. Though isolated groups reached the Baltic States, and others found service in France, a large majority of these exiles (at least three quarters of the total) went to serve in the Army of Flanders after Spain's renewal of war with the rebel United Provinces (1621). As Catholics, who often came to the camp with their own embattled, zealous chaplains, and as men acclimatized by their very nurture to many of the environmental hardships of campaigning in the Low Countries, they were highly valued by the field officers of the Spanish Monarchy. By the beginning of the great war between the two Catholic powers of Spain and France, which broke out openly in 1635, one authority (Jennings) estimates that as many as seven thousand Irishmen were enlisted in the forces commanded by Philip IV's brother, Don Fernando de Austria, governor of the Spanish Netherlands' (Stradling 1993: 17).

'In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, transportation of men from Ireland to fight in Flanders, and later in Spain itself, became a major aspect of international strategy, with significant commercial aspects to set beside its military logic' (Stradling 1993: 25). There was a fairly constant flow of arrivals, but it is likely that 6,000 of the 7,000 men in service in 1635 had come to the Netherlands as recently as 1634, as a result of an agreement between Juan de Necolalde (the Spanish Chargé d'affaires in London) and King Charles I of England. The Irishmen were organised in four 'Tercios', under Colonels Owen Roe O'Neill (a nephew of the Earl of Tyrone), Thomas Preston, Hugh O'Donnell and Patrick Fitzgerald. They suffered extremely high casualties in the battles against the French and only a third were still in service in 1639. It became difficult to recruit replacements and only 150 fresh Irish volunteers arrived in time for the campaign of 1640. 'The bravery of the remaining Irish at the terrible sieges of Arras and Genrep, in 1640-1641, brought them undying fame' (Stradling 1993: 26).

'For some years thereafter, the numbers of Irish in the Army of Flanders were not sufficient to maintain a specific Tercio and the companies were integrated into other units' (Stradling 1993: 26). From a peak of 7'000 men, the Irish contingent was reduced to 200 in the years 1636-1646. Casualties in the battlefield were only one of the reasons for this depletion. Transfers were another: In 1638, Madrid dispatched two Irish regiments from the Netherlands to northern Spain, where a French attack was expected. In 1641, after the siege of Arras, Colonel Patrick Fitzgerald (or Geraldine) and the survivors of his unit were sent to Catalonia, where the population (allied with France) had risen against the King. According to Stradling, the vast majority of the officers and men serving in the Spanish Netherlands in the 1620s were transferred to Spain in the period 1638-1662. Last but not least, the Irish uprising of 1641 further depleted the ranks of the Army of Flanders. In the following months, many veterans returned home to join the insurrection. Owen Roe O'Neill was one of them: He departed in 1642, became the rebellion's commander-in-chief and died of illness in 1649 while the war was still in progress.

The uprisings in Catalonia and Portugal in 1640 meant that the priority of the Spanish war effort in the next decades was the Peninsula itself and not the Low Countries. Madrid continued recruiting Irishmen but most of them were dispatched directly from Ireland to the northern ports of Spain and never served in the Netherlands.

In the winter of 1645-1646, during the English Civil War, the Irish army led by Randal MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim, found itself surrounded by Parliamentary forces in the Kintyre Peninsula (Scotland). Knowing that they would be massacred if they surrendered, Antrim escaped to Brussels where he negotiated the transfer of his force to Spanish service. The final outcome of the operation is not known with certainty, but 'early in 1647 a new force of nearly 700 Irishmen appeared in the musters of the Army of Flanders. This force is consistent with the hypothetical number of survivors from an original 1'600, allowing for the losses of campaigning in Scotland, and a winter under siege in Kintyre, and after the vicissitudes they had suffered since Antrim had left to seek means to their rescue. These twelve companies, commanded by John Murphy, were added to Patrick O'Neill's four to make up a respectable Irish Tercio of 947 effective' (Stradling 1993: 63). O'Neill remained in command but was later succeeded by Murphy.

In 1653, survivors of the rebel army that had fought under Owen Roe O'Neill in Ireland were hired by Spanish agents and made their way to the Peninsula's northern ports. In the following year, Philip IV decided to dispatch 3,000-4,000 of these men to Flanders. It is not known how many were actually transported but at least one regiment (750 men under Colonel O'Reilly) reached its destination.

In 1661, Irish troops were sent to fight in Portugal and this reduced the number of Irishmen in the Army of Flanders to around 400, a level that was maintained until at least 1700. The institution disappeared in 1714, when Spain ceded the Southern Netherlands to Austria.

The Iberian Peninsula

The first Irish volunteers to reach Spain (several hundred men under Donal O'Sullivan Bere, Earl of Berehaven) arrived in La Coruña in 1605, in the aftermath of the Nine Year War (the failed rebellion against the English which lasted from 1594 to 1603). Madrid did not need their services on the Peninsula and soon afterwards transferred them to the Netherlands, where they joined the Army of Flanders and were placed under the orders of the Earl of Tyrone. Unable to obtain an independent command and unwilling to serve under his countryman, O'Sullivan returned to Spain where he settled.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Spanish Hapsburgs faced a dire emergency in the Iberian Peninsula. They were faced with rebellions in both Catalonia and Portugal, and unrest in Andalusia (1647-1652).

The insurrection in Catalonia (1640-1659) represented by far the most serious of these menaces since it endangered the unity of Spain itself and threatened to divide the country again along the lines of Castile and Aragon. France had a common border and could and did intervene in support of the rebels. Spain answered in kind and launched an invasion of the Guyenne. This war ended in victory for Madrid but it was close-run. Considerable numbers of Irish troops (as well as Germans and Walloons transferred from the Army of Flanders) fought in these operations alongside the Spanish regulars.

Portugal had been part of the dominions of the King of Spain since 1580, when Philip II had obtained the Lusitanian crown after the extinction of the House of Avis. The association between the two countries was intended as a purely personal union, but slowly turned into Spanish domination of Portuguese affairs. Lisbon tolerated this situation for the next sixty years but in 1640, taking advantage of Spain's predicament in Catalonia, finally revolted against Philip IV under the leadership of the Duke of Braganza. The rebellion (known in Portugal as the 'War of the Restoration') lasted until 1668 and ended in Portugal's independence from Spain.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 31 August 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Rodríguez, Moisés Enrique, 'The Spanish Habsburgs and their Irish Soldiers (1587-1700)
' in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 125-130. (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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