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

By Moisés Enrique Rodríguez


Faced with this emergency, Spain proceeded to transfer many units of the Army of Flanders to the Peninsula, including the bulk of her Irish soldiers. Envoys and contractors (including the Burgundian François Foisotte) were sent to Ireland to recruit more troops, and as a result of their activities several ships made their way to the ports of northern Spain directly from the island. These events coincided with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) on the British Isles, which included the English Civil War and the submission of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell and his generals. Many Irishmen left their country after the victory of the Commonwealth's forces and a large number of them joined the armies of France, Spain and the exiled Charles II Stuart. This meant that on the European battlefields Irishmen often fought against fellow Irishmen.

The first Irish units to see active service in Spain were the regiments known as the Tyrone and Tyrconnell Tercios. They were commanded by John O'Neill (Earl of Tyrone) and Hugh O'Donnell (Earl of Tyrconnell) respectively and arrived in the ports of the Basque country in 1638. Spanish intelligence had learned that France intended to launch an attack across the border and these troops were transferred from the Army of Flanders to help strengthen the northern defences. They took part in the relief of Fuenterrabía in September of that year, where they made a significant contribution to the Spanish victory. With a strength of 1,200 men, the Irish Tercios comprised about 10% of the Peninsular force. Subsequently they took part in other military operations in northern Spain and during the winter of 1639-1640 they distinguished themselves at the siege of Sales.


The Catalans rebelled against the king in June 1640 and the Irish troops already in Spain were part of the Spanish forces sent to suppress them. France intervened and sent an army across the border in support of the insurrection.

In 1641, the Irishmen fought at the disastrous battle of Montjuïc, near Barcelona, where they suffered heavy casualties including John O'Neill (Earl of Tyrone) who 'was killed at the head of his men, both he and they fighting with their accustomed valour' (Stradling 1993: 115). The Tyrone regiment was annihilated, with most of their members either slain in battle or taken prisoner.

Hugh O'Donnell was able to retreat southwards after the battle and the 450 survivors of his Tercio managed to reach the precarious safety of Tarragona with the main Spanish army, where they were besieged. Along the way, they undertook reprisals against the local population and sacked Reus. Unfortunately, they punished the wrong people. The town had not joined the rebellion and had remained loyal to Philip IV.

The siege of Tarragona lasted 104 days but the Irishmen only took part in its initial stages. A few weeks after their arrival, they were attached to a force that was taken behind enemy lines by the Spanish navy, in an attempt at relieving Perpignan. This might have been a punishment for their excesses at Reus. The operation was a shambles and the town fell to the enemy in 1642. The Peninsular ships were intercepted by the French navy on the return journey and O'Donnell and hundreds of his men died in the fighting. The remainder were captured and the Tyrconnell Tercio disappeared from the Spanish Order of Battle.

Other units were brought to Catalonia from the Army of Flanders, including the survivors of the siege of Arras who were led by Colonel Patrick Fitzgerald (or Geraldine). However, transfers from the Spanish Netherlands would clearly not suffice and Spain dispatched a number of envoys and contractors to Ireland, to raise new regiments. As a result of their activities, in the years 1641-1654, between 18,000 and 22',500 troops reached the Peninsula directly from Irish ports. The conditions of the voyage were often appalling and many died of disease and hunger either during the journey or shortly after their arrival. The men had to be billeted among the local population and their numbers put a considerable strain on the local economy. Deaths and desertions while quartered in northern Spain greatly reduced the number of Irishmen who actually made it to the battlefields of Catalonia and Portugal.

Madrid had been extremely impressed with the Irishmen's performance in the Netherlands. This was not the case after the operations in Spain. Although many Irishmen performed well, the rate of desertions was extremely high and there were instances where whole units went over to the enemy (the French also employed Irish troops). A possible reason for the difference might have been ideological. In Flanders, the original enemy had been the hated Protestants. French, Catalonians and Portuguese were fellow Catholics. During the Dutch war, the Irish in Spanish service were (or became) professional soldiers. In Spain and Portugal, a whole generation of exiles joined the Habsburg army and this meant many raw recruits, often in poor health because of what they had endured at home, the sea voyage and the winter months in northern Spain.

The first troops from Ireland reached La Coruña in the autumn of 1641: 300 men led by George Porter, an English Catholic. They were part of an ambitious contract signed between Alonso de Cárdenas (the Spanish Ambassador in London) and a group of officer-entrepreneurs. The agreement was to raise a force of 8,000 in ten regiments, but the rest of the troops never departed. They stayed in Ireland and became the might of the rebellion which broke out later in the year and which was only crushed by Cromwell's generals the following decade. Many believed that Spain had never really intended to recruit such a large force and that the operation had been a smokescreen to create an army capable of liberating Ireland from British dominion and thus restoring her to the Catholic faith. It is more likely that Cárdenas was duped by the rebel leaders who might have used his scheme as a deception for preparing the uprising. Men such as Owen Roe O'Neill, then serving in the Army of Flanders, must have known what was really happening.

Catholic Ireland needed her men at home to fight the Parliamentarians but also required financial assistance from Madrid. The Confederation of Kilkenny (as the rebels are remembered) had to trade troops (her only commodity) for gold and, if possible, arms. The Spanish envoy, the Burgundian François Foisotte, was able to negotiate the dispatch of several shipments: 6,500 men in the period 1644-1654. However, the last contract (for 1,800-2,000 soldiers) was signed not with the rebels (who had by then been defeated) but with the victorious Parliamentarians, who agreed to sell their prisoners of war to Foisotte, thus sparing their lives.

Foisotte was not alone. In 1644, 1,200 men recruited in Ireland arrived in northern Spain under the command of James Preston, whose father and brother (Thomas) were serving with distinction in the Army of Flanders. They fought in the war in Catalonia and in autumn 1646 were part of the Spanish force that relieved the town of Lérida, the decisive battle of this conflict. 'The enemy, demoralised by successive failures of assault on the citadel, decimated by disease and debilitated by insufficient supply, disintegrated before the Spanish offensive. In the ranks of the victorious army were the Tercios of Patrick Fitzgerald and James Preston. They shared in the glory and Madrid went wild with triumph and relief' (Stradling 1993: 55).

In the winter of 1646-1647, Preston returned to Ireland with a contract to raise 3,000 soldiers. 'By the middle of May, Preston had collected 500 men, who were loaded into two transports in Waterford. Just as they were sailing out of the bay, a French squadron of five warships appeared as if on signal from behind a promontory. They intercepted the Irish vessels and - with no apparent resistance - carried them off as prizes, with their precious cargo of prisoners (...) Once on French soil, Preston and his men passed smoothly into French service' (Stradling 1993: 59). The Colonel does not seem to have acted independently and the leaders of the Confederation of Kilkenny were most probably in connivance with the French. Preston served his new masters effectively and was later sent to Portugal with a large purse, with orders to bribe the Irishmen in Spanish service into desertion. He had considerable success in this task.

Patrick Fitzgerald seems to have returned to Ireland in 1647. His Tercio had the longest service of all the Irish units in the Peninsula (seven years). After his departure, command of the Irish troops in the army of Don Juan José de Austria in Catalonia was given to General George Goring, an English 'Cavalier'.

In addition to Foisotte and Preston, other envoys and contractors were active in the recruitment and transport of Irish soldiers to Spain, such as Don Diego de la Torre (envoy extraordinary of the King to the Kilkenny Confederation in 1646), Dermot O'Sullivan (son of the Donal O'Sullivan mentioned above), the White brothers, Colonels Christopher Mayo and Christopher O'Brien (who commanded the troops they raised), among others.

Stradling mentions that 4,000 men arrived in Spain directly from Ireland in the 1640s and that 2,500 of them were still on duty in 1650, when they made up 5% of the Habsburg army in the Peninsula. 2000 soldiers recruited by Mayo reached Guipúzcoa in 1652 and 500 landed in Cádiz soon afterwards. In the last week of the year, 4,000 additional troops arrived in San Sebastián and Pasajes in a dozen ships. 3,000 of them formed the core of the Bordeaux expedition in 1653.

In June 1653, because of desertions and the fear of the plague (then raging in some areas of Ireland) the King of Spain 'resolved that the persons engaging in making levies should cease forthwith and that the 'asientos' (contracts) most recently concluded should not be proceeded with' (Stradling 1993: 79). At this time there were still five outstanding contracts for 16,000 men. The moratorium could not be implemented and in the years 1653-1654, following the final collapse of the Irish rebellion, 12,000 more Irishmen reached northern Spain. Madrid could do little to stop them and accepted them in her armed forces. More followed and the flow only stopped in 1655. Few Irish soldiers arrived in the Peninsula except as individuals after that date but military emigration to the Army of Flanders continued (albeit in much smaller numbers).


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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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