In 1688 William and Mary were invited take the throne – thus deposing Mary’s father James II (pictured left) after the birth of a Mary’s half-brother also called James by Mary of Modena. But not everywhere took to the Protestant usurpation of James’ throne so easily. I usually steer clear of Irish history and its complexities but the Treaty of Limerick on 3rd October 1691 saw Patrick Sarsfield first Lord Lucan, a Jacobite come to terms with William’s army and bring the Williamite War in Ireland to a close.
Under the terms of the treaty Jacobite soldiers could freely leave Ireland with their wives and children. They also had the option on becoming part of William’s army. The rest could stay in Ireland so long as they gave a pledge of allegiance to William. The nobility would even be allowed to carry weapons. So far so good. Unfortunately by the mid 1690s the terms of the treaty were being ignored by the victors as they enforced new Penal Laws – though that is not what this post is about.
The men who chose to leave their home for a Catholic country such as France or Spain became known as wild geese. Regiments of Irish can be found in the French army from the sixteenth century onwards. In fact Sarsfield had experience of warfare from his years in the French army during the 1670s. He returned to Ireland in 1689 in support of James II.
The so-called “flight of the wild geese” refers to the large number of Jacobites, with Sarsfield at their head, who chose to leave their homes rather than swear allegiance to William. The Irishmen formed James II’s army in exile but in 1692 became part of the French army which also had an Irish Brigade composed of men who’d left their home shores in previous years.
The tradition of the wild geese continued into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – Napoleon had an Irish legion clad in green tunics.
And why wild geese? Well apparently that’s how the men were described on ship’s manifests when they sailed from Ireland to the Continent disguising their identities and protecting the ship’s captain.