Published in Artefacts, Issue 3 (May/June 2024), Volume 32

By Lar Joye

Irish soldiers began to serve in foreign European armies in large numbers after the Nine Years’ War and the defeat at Kinsale in 1603. While many served in specific Irish regiments of the French and Spanish armies, many more served as individuals and officers in Austria and even as far away as Russia. Habsburg Austria was a multicultural monarchy spread over a vast area and was the main employer of the Irish in Central Europe. Over 100 Irishmen became field marshals, generals or admirals, and Declan Downey has estimated that c. 1,500 Irish or Irish-origin officers served between 1630 and 1830.

Above: A model of the seaplane of Gottfried von Banfield Löhner, the ‘Eagle of Trieste’, the last of the Austrian Wild Geese. (NMI)

The first was Colonel Richard Walsh of Carrickmines in Dublin, followed by the Walsh family and then by Sligo-born Francis Taaffe, who defended Vienna from the Turkish army in 1683. According to Harman Murtagh, the golden era of Irish involvement in Austria was ‘in the mid-eighteenth-century wars of the Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780)’. Field Marshal Maximillian Ulysses Browne was born in Switzerland, although his father was from Limerick and his mother from Waterford. While his father served as a colonel in the Austrian army, young Maximillian was sent home to Limerick to be educated before joining up as a teenager in his father’s regiment. He fought in the Seven Years’ War against Frederick the Great (1712–86), defeating him at Lobositz in 1756. He died in the Battle of Prague in 1757 and is buried there. One biographer said of the field marshal, ‘Browne probably possessed the most comprehensive military talent of his day’.

In the nineteenth century Andrew O’Reilly of County Westmeath fought against Napoleon (1769–1821) for the Austrians at the battles of Marengo (1800) and Austerlitz (1805), both French victories. He went on to become the governor of Vienna, but once again fell victim to Napoleon when he was forced to surrender the city to him in 1809.

Finally, the last of the Wild Geese was Gottfried von Banfield Löhner, nicknamed the ‘Eagle of Trieste’, who shot down between nine and twenty enemy aircraft during the First World War, according to differing accounts. His father and grandfather had served in the Austrian army and navy before him. An Austrian naval officer (yes, they had a navy in the Mediterranean Sea), he was the last person to be awarded the prestigious Order of Maria Theresa on 17 August 1917. The Order, established in June 1757 by Empress Maria Theresa, was awarded 1,240 times—26 of those to Irish officers born in Ireland or in Europe. The first Irish recipient was Field Marshal Lally in 1758; Gottfried von Banfield Löhner, who died in 1986 in Trieste at the age of 96, was the last.

Lar Joye is Heritage Officer of Dublin Port.


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