Today, the picturesque and popular touristic medieval city of Girona boasts between 80,000 and 100,000 inhabitants. Two hundred years ago, Girona was a sleepy Catalonian town with a population of 6,000 civilians and about 2,000 seminarians, and its garrison held 400 soldiers of the first battalion of the Ultonia Regiment. The Ultonia was one of three Irish regiments in the Spanish Army, the name Ultonia being a latinisation of the name of the Irish province of Ulaidh (Ulster). The first of these regiments was formed in 1698 and was called the Irlanda Regiment. Contracts signed in 1709 with Demetrio MacAuliff and Reinaldo MacDonnell made possible the formation of two further Irish units which would later become the Ultonia and Hibernia Regiments.
In 1808, the Ultonia Regiment was composed of soldiers of Irish ancestry and led by officers of Irish origin. Its colonel was Antonio O’Kelly, born in Ireland in 1743, and among his staff in the Ultonia were Lieutenant-Colonels Pedro O’Daly (of Galway origins) and Ricardo MacCarti (born 1753 in Ireland), Sergeant-Major Enrique José O'Donnel y Anethen (born 1776 in San Sebastián to parents from County Mayo). Its commander was Juan O'Donoban (born in Spain of Irish origins) and its captains were Pedro Sarsfield and Patricio Fitzgerald (both born in Spain of Irish origins), and Daniel O’Sullivan Beare who was the son of Tadeo, Earl of Berehaven. Many officers and men were accompanied by their wives and children, which was the custom of the time. Reflecting the Irish diaspora, both the French Napoleonic Minister of War Louis de Lacy Gaultier and his Spanish counterpart Gonzalo O’Farrill were of Irish origin. Soldiers of Irish origin on both sides of the Napoleonic wars would fight each other and die in the six long years of the war.
The Peninsular War, which lasted for six years from 1808 until 1814, was fought between the armies of Napoleon on the one side and an alliance of the Portuguese, Spanish and British on the other. It was a particularly brutal war, the horrors of which were later made famous by the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. A secret treaty had been negotiated by the French in which Spain agreed to allow France access to Portugal in order to prevent the British establishing naval bases there. In February 1808, Napoleonic troops entered Catalonia in accordance with that treaty. Once there however, Napoleon proceeded with plans to take control of all of Spain. King Fernando VII was forced to abdicate and the throne was handed over to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte.
In Madrid, while the upper classes quietly submitted to the foreign yoke, a spontaneous rising by the lower classes took place. On 2 May 1808, French soldiers fired into the rioting crowds that had attacked them, causing the deaths of between 1,200 and 1,500 insurgents and wounding many. The repression following the crushing of the initial rebellion was terrible and hundreds of prisoners were executed the following day - a hugely symbolic event that Francisco José de Goya commemorated in one of his most famous paintings The Third of May 1808, The Shootings at Mount Principio outside Madrid
(1814). As news of these massacres spread, an insurrection broke out in other parts of Spain, and soon encompassed the whole country. It was the beginning of the Spanish War of Independence.
After the start of the Spanish uprising in the spring of 1808, Guillaume Philibert Duhesme, the French general at Barcelona, found himself isolated from the main French armies in Spain. He decided that he needed to secure his direct line of communications with France, and so Duhesme left Barcelona in mid-June at the head of a column of 6,000 soldiers, reaching Girona on 20 June. He encircled the town with his troops and sent messengers to negotiate a surrender. Local tradition has it that it was an Irishman from the French army who was sent over and found himself talking to another Irishman from the Spanish Army. When the demand to surrender was refused, the French general then sent an attack against the bulwarks but, despite the bad condition of the fortifications, the garrison, with the help of civilians, managed to rebut the attack. Two further assaults by the French general cost him around 700 men. After the failure of the third attack, Duhesme decided that he was too weak to capture Girona and withdrew under the cover of darkness. It was the end of the first siege.
After the furious attack of 20 June, additional Spanish troops arrived at the city of Girona to reinforce the garrison. A renewed and much stronger French assault was expected by all. The Ultonia regiment was increased to the number of 800 men and was assisted by 102 grenadiers of its sister regiment the Hibernia and various other forces of the Spanish army, including guerrilla forces and militias - in all a force of 5,723 soldiers.
On 20 July, General Duhesme appeared again, this time with a much larger force of 11,000 men, which included 5,000 commanded by Honoré Charles Michael Joseph de Reille (of Irish O’Reilly ancestry) and with numerous and potent artillery pieces. He rapidly deployed and positioned the artillery along the waters of the Monar rivulet and directed the attacks against the city and its various outlying forts. The French artillery bombarded the city, causing severe damage and destruction. A breach was opened in one of the walls of Montjuïc Castle, an outlying fortress of Girona, but French troops were still unable to enter.
On 16 August 1808, a combined sortie from the defenders of Girona and an attack by Spanish troops outside the walls attacked the French siege works, overran the regiment guarding them and captured the siege guns. The French were forced to retreat, abandoning their cannons and provisions in their haste. After a dangerous and costly retreat along the coastline, Duhesme eventually reached Barcelona on 20 August, having been subjected to constant guerrilla attack and this time also to gunfire from British ships patrolling the coast. The siege of Girona was broken once more.
In early 1809, the Spanish government, now based in Cádiz, named Mariano Álvarez Bermúdez de Castro commander of the Army of Catalonia and military governor of Girona. The aristocratic Castro had previously been ordered to surrender the castle of Montjuïc in Barcelona to the French in early 1808 and was determined to recuperate what he felt was his loss of honour. He promptly set about organising the defences and personnel and posted notices stating that anyone found talking of surrender would be summarily executed. A women’s company, called the Compañía de Santa Barbara, was also set up to look after the wounded and to bring provisions and munitions to the men. These women would fight very fiercely in the months to come and earned many citations for bravery which were awarded to them after the war.
On 9 May 1809, the French besieged the city for the third and last time. This new siege was initiated by General Laurent Gouvión Saint-Cyr, with an excess of 22,000 troops. They mounted forty gun batteries that over the next seven months would blast the city with some 20,000 explosive shells and 60,000 cannon balls, causing wide-scale destruction and deaths. By October, all the food inside the city was gone. Mice, rats and household pets were being eaten, and so many priests fell fighting on the walls that no services were held in the churches. By December, the situation in the city was desperate; many houses were in ruins due to the constant bombardment, serious illnesses raged as a consequence of the hundreds of decomposing corpses inside and outside the walls, and the inhabitants began to fall in the streets to a foe more terrible than bullets. Eventually, Álvarez Castro himself fell victim to disease and relinquished command. The city promptly capitulated on 10 December 1809.
The following day, while Spanish troops evacuated the city via the St Père Gate and were led off into captivity, French troops entered and took control of the partially-destroyed city. The civilian population had been reduced by half to a mere 4,000 inhabitants; 349 of its houses were destroyed and 1,000 men were injured or sick in hospital. The Ultonia garrison had lost 550 men and the Hibernia Grenadiers 51. Altogether it is estimated that some 10,000 people, soldiers and civilians, had died inside the walls. French losses were around 15,000, over half of those to disease.
Sadly, to date, neither sculpture, street, nor plaque records the gesture of these Irish soldiers who during the sieges helped to write with their blood the epic pages of Girona’s history.
Oisín Breatnach is a historical researcher and genealogist specialising in the genealogy of the Irish in Spain, France and Austria. He is also a well-known artist.