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

By Moisés Enrique Rodríguez


Irish troops, including 1,000 men sent by Foisotte, fought during the siege of Barcelona (1651-1652). In the following year, 2,000-3,000 Irishmen took part in the failed campaign against Guyenne, where 500 lost their lives and a similar number deserted to the enemy. The Spaniards landed at the Gironde Estuary but were unable to relieve Bordeaux (besieged by the French army). They managed to hold out for six months in spite of severe supply problems and returned to Spain at the end of the year. Half of the 4,000 survivors were Irish.


Irish soldiers were also active in the Portuguese war but in smaller numbers. In 1644, a regiment of 'Naciones' (i.e., non-Spanish troops) including Irishmen fought at the battle of Montijo. 600 Irish troops took part in the offensive of 1653, in the Tercios commanded by William Dongan and Bernard Patrick. The latter was killed at the battle of Olivenza. The Irish were given praise for their heroism in the defence of Badajoz. By 1662 there was no longer an Irish Tercio because of the small numbers of soldiers of that nationality, but a number of Irishmen took part in the last two campaigns of the war which culminated in the defeats of Ameixial (1663) and Villaviciosa (1665).

In 1653, the survivors of the army which Owen Roe O'Neill had led during the Irish rebellion arrived in La Coruña under Colonels O'Reilly, O'Ferral and O'Rourke. Their departure from Ireland had been the result of negotiations between Ambassador Cárdenas and Captain (later Major) George Walters. Madrid intended to employ them against Portugal but nothing came of it. Galicia was not a good route to invade Portugal as the natural path of advance was through Extremadura.

The local authorities of La Coruña only allowed two of the seven vessels to land (1',000 men under O'Reilly) and the following year these troops were transferred to the Army of Flanders. The remaining ships (1,900 soldiers) had to proceed to Pasajes, where they linked up with another Irish contingent of 800 men. In the weeks that followed, many died of hunger or disease and others became beggars. The bulk of the survivors were sent to reinforce the ill-fated expeditionary force in Guyenne, but others remained in precarious billets in northern Spain. Their commander, Thaddeus (Tadhg) O'Rourke, travelled to Madrid in March 1654 to complain about the conditions and was finally given orders to muster his men and move to Zaragoza. 1,100 men had gone into winter quarters in Cantabria in the autumn of 1653. By January, only 540 were still under the colours (the remaining had died or deserted).

So many Irishmen had become scattered in northern Spain that in 1654 Madrid sent two trusted servants to re-assemble them into an army. One of them was Colonel Hugh O'Neill, a leader of the Irish rebellion who had been released from the Tower of London by the intervention of Ambassador Cárdenas. The other was the ubiquitous François Foisotte.


Moisés Enrique Rodríguez




- Grainne, Henry. Irish Military Community in Spanish Flanders, 1586-1621 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1993).

- Hennesy, Maurice. The Wild Geese: The Irish Soldier in Exile (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1973).

- McLaughlin, Mark G. The Wild Geese: The Irish Brigades of France and Spain (London: Osprey Publishing, 1980).

- Stradling, R.A. The Spanish Monarchy and Irish Mercenaries, 1618-68: The Wild Geese in Spain. (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1993).


I am indebted to Dr. Óscar Recio Morales for providing his essays:

- Incauta Nación, de un Irlandés te has fiado. Nobleza, nación e identidades del grupo militar irlandés en el ejército de los Borbones. El caso O’Reilly.

- Los Extranjeros y la Nación Irlandesa en el contexto de la Nueva Historia Militar Europea.

- La Gente de Naciones en los Ejércitos de los Austrias hispanos: servicio, confianza y correspondencia.

Online Resources

http://www.tcd.ie/CISS/mercenaries/spanish/, accessed 3 May 2007. This is the website of The Centre for Irish-Scottish and Comparative Studies of Trinity College Dublin.

http://www.irishinspain.org/ accessed 3 May 2007. This is the website of the project 'La Comunidad Irlandesa en la Monarquía Hispánica' of the CSIC (Spanish National Research Council).


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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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