Book Review: The Fighting Irish: The Story of the Extraordinary Irish Soldier


by Tim Newark

New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2013. Pp. xiv, 274. Illus., maps, appends., biblio., index. $25.99. ISBN: 125001882X

In this look at Irish military service since the seventeenth century, journalist and historian Newark reminds us that in this case there’s a great deal of substance to the stereotype of the Irish soldier.

Newark opens appropriately by reminding us that the Irish reputation for soldiering is o a great extent a consequence of the Battle of the Boyne (July 11, 1690 by the Gregorian calendar), in which the Protestant army of William of Orange crushed the Catholic forces of James II. Irishmen fought on both sides in the battle, but in the aftermath of the Williamite victory, great numbers of Catholic Irish went into exile, to fight for hire, most famously in the French, Spanish, and, eventually, American service, while their many of their co-religionists who remained behind, like their Protestant countrymen, often took the “King’s shilling” to escape grinding poverty at home.

The Fighting Irish is not a detailed history of the Irish soldier, but a survey of more than three centuries of military service by Irishmen, Catholic and Protestant alike, across the globe, at times often fighting against other Irishmen.  Following his account of the Boyne, Newark  (who rather soft-pedals the oppression of Catholics in Ireland that endured into the twentieth century) gives us a series of snap-shots of Irish military service down to the present.  So we get a look at France’s Brigade irlandaise, “Wellington’s Irish Storm Troopers”, the Napoleonic wars, the Latin American Revolutions, Queen Victoria’s little wars, America, notably during the Civil War and on the frontier, the South African War, in British and American service during First World War, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Cold War, Peacekeeping, and the “War on Terror”, closing with an account of the service of New York's “Fighting 69th” in Afghanistan.

Naturally, it’s not possible for Newark to give comprehensive treatments to all of these conflicts, in some of which there were Irishmen on both sides.  Rather, he gives us an overview of the situation and the service of Irish troops, usually with a focus on one or two particular events or individuals.  This give us an idea of how these men performed their duties and their influence on the outcome of the events.

The Fighting Irish is an excellent introduction to the military history of the Irish, which can be read profitably even by serious students of the subject.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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