'Wild Geese' was a romantic term used to describe the tens of thousands of Irish men who left for foreign armies during the early modern period.
The English administration encouraged recruitment levies to wars in Northern Europe in the early seventeenth century because they were anxious to get rid of the mercenary troops attached to the Gaelic and Old English lordships. After the battle of Kinsale, the Cromwellian victory and the Treaty of Limerick, large numbers of Catholic mercenaries emigrated to armies in Spain and Spanish territories and also to France and Austria.
There were Irish districts in cities like Brussels, Bruges, Barcelona and Madrid and recent research in continental sources turns up details of the lives of women who accompanied soldiers abroad. Soldiers' pay was often irregular, employment uncertain and death a hazard. Their dependants had to be resourceful but in the 1630s it was noted that many poor soldiers married,
|for no other cause than to be kept by the said women's work, either with sewing, washing, spinning ... selling old clothes and haggling or even with stealing ... others did provide tobacco and provide pipes ... another was a seamstress ... another ... collecting snails ... salad herbs ... birds' nests ... which might augment the soldiers' meagre and overdue receipts.
Quoted by Gráinne Henry, 'Migration to European armies' in Patrick O'Sullivan (ed.), Irish Women and Irish Migration, London, 1995, p.28.
Wealthy Irish Catholic men had suffered political and military defeat, lost possession of their lands and were forbidden access to formal education and genteel careers in politics, law, church and the army in Ireland. Many sought employment in the higher ranks of foreign armies. They hoped to reconstruct the status and standard of living they had previously enjoyed at home and often brought their families with them. Continental records show Irish gentry women seeking influential social contacts to further the prospects of their families and arranging convent education for their daughters.
Continental royalty and aristocracy often took an interest in those Irish who could present convincing evidence of high status at home. The infant son of Marianna MacCarthy and her husband Thadeo O'Mouroghu attracted the attention of the queen of Spain when they received a royal audience in Madrid in 1622 and,
|The young Spanish queen, grieving over the loss of her first child, was moved by the sight of the couple's beautiful baby, who was consequently taken into the royal household and raised in great favour at court. The parents were well cared for by life allowances.
Jerrold Casway, 'Irish Women Overseas' in Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O'Dowd (eds.), Women in early modern Ireland, Dublin, 1991, p.122.
But widows and other dependants of wounded or dead soldiers could spend years making humiliating requests for pensions as these were often delayed by careless or corrupt officials.
|A list of pensions for army dependents in 1635 noted several female relatives of soldiers, among them Captain Teig MacCarthy's sister, Elena, and the sister and daughter of Ensign Denis MacCarthy. Mothers too seem to have accompanied their sons who had come to serve on the continent, and their heartrending petitions were sometimes recorded by the Spanish and English bureaucracies.
Gráinne Henry, 'Migration to European armies' in Patrick O'Sullivan (ed.), Irish Women and Irish migration, London, 1995, p.26.
|A typical case involved Daniel O'Farrell, an officer in the Irish regiment in Flanders who complained that he lost everything after he left Ireland for the Spanish service. The reduction of his monthly pension by two-thirds forced his wife and three children in Brussels to sell their clothing to survive. 'Without hope,' he applied for a licence for his wife and children, 'to go about the country begging' until his reformed pension was reviewed.
Jerrold Casway, 'Irish Women Overseas' in Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O'Dowd (eds.), Women in early modern Ireland, Dublin, 1991, p.121.