Olé – Ulster’s oldest regiment is Spanish
The PETER BERRESFORD ELLIS Column
What is the oldest Ulster regiment? I would lay a wager that you are thinking about the regiments in the British Army like the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, raised in 1689, which are now known as the Royal Irish Rangers.
Well, think Spanish. The Ultonia (Ulster) Regiment and its early forms have a history in the Spanish Army stretching back to 1597. It was then known as El Terico Irlanda, then as the Regiment de Tyrone, then O'Neill’s Regiment and finally as the Ultonia Regiment. It became part of the famous Irish Brigade of the Spanish Army.
As well as producing Spanish victories in campaigns in Europe, the Irish Brigade spearheaded Spain's expansion in the New World bringing Cuba, Louisiana, Texas, California and Mexico under the flag of their adopted country.
The Irish Brigade was finally disbanded after the Napoleonic Wars, due to pressure from England, Spain's allies. The English had helped Spain drive the French out of the country. However, the Ultonia Regiment was then reformed as the 23rd Regiment of Spanish Infantry and carried on its flag the legend ‘Irlanda el Famoso’. When Franco overthrew the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, even that remembrance of their service to Spain was banned.
It was during the Elizabethan Conquest that the first Ulstermen went to serve Spain in the El Terico Irlanda which, in 1605, changed its name to the Tyrone Regiment and was commanded by Prince Henry O'Neill, son of the famous Red Hugh. In 1628 the regiment appears to have disbanded into independent companies. In 1698, Captain John Jordan was commanding a Tyrone company’ of the Spanish forces in Florida.
In 1691, following the Williamite Conquest, many thousands of Irish soldiers were forced to leave Ireland for Europe. France had formed its own Irish Brigade.
On November 1, 1709, Felipe (Philip) V of Spain decided to collect all the Irish units into one brigade. The Ultonia Regiment came under the command of Diarmuid Mac Amhlaoibh (Dermot MacAuliffe) who had distinguished himself in defending Cork City from the Williamite forces.
Also included in the brigade were the Hibernia Regiment, commanded by Lord Castlebar; the Irlanda Regiment, commanded by John Wauchope; the Limerick Regiment, commanded by the Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duc de Vendome (1654-1712), a relative of the Spanish king and the only non Irish commander in the brigade; and the Waterford Regiment commanded by Colonel John Comerford.
They soon distinguished themselves during the Wars of Spanish Succession, especially during the Siege of Barcelona in 1710 and capture of Palma, in Majorca in 1711. Don Tadeo (Tadhg) MacAuliffe succeeded Dermot as colonel of the Ultonia in 1715 but he was mortally wounded during Spain's attack on Sicily in 1718.
He was succeeded by Michael MacAuliffee who was also killed while leading his troops in battle in 1720.
Over the next hundred years, the regiment saw service in various parts of Europe and especially in South America.
When Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother on the throne in 1808, the Spanish fought back, in spite of 300,000 French troops and their allies pouring into the country.
In northern Catalonia stands the town and province of Girona (Gerona) protected by the fortress of Montjiuch. It was a strategic entrance into north-east Spain. At the time it was garrisoned by 800 men of the 1st Battalion of the Ultonia Regiment. The battalion commander was Colonel Anthony O'Kelly from Roscommon. The Ultonians were reinforced by 102 grenadiers from the Hibernia Regiment, commanded by Colonel Juan Sherlock.
Among O'Kelly's staff were Major Henry O'Donnell, Commandant John O'Donovan, Captains MacCarthy, Sarsfield and Fitzgerald and Sergeant-Major Ricardo MacCarthy. Many officers and men had their wives and children with them as was customs in those days.
At the beginning of 1809 some 6,000 French troops, commanded by General Jacques Duhesne, laid siege to the town, demanding the surrender of the Ultonia Regiment. O’Kelly refused. The siege was to last eight months.
During this time, the wife of Captain Patricio Fitzgerald, Lucy, sought permission from the Spanish Army High Command, to organise a women's unit, the 12th Company (which became known as the Company of St Barbara, after the patron saint of gunners) to take ammunition to the troops and care for the sick and wounded. Permission granted, Lucy was elected commandant and the company consisted of the wives of the Irish soldiers. The Spanish Minister for War in 1808, incidentally, was General Jose O'Farrill.
French artillery fell on Gerona and still there was no surrender. Lt. General, the Marquis de Gouvion Saint-Cyr was sent to overwhelm the town with 33,000 troops. He ordered Duhesne to make a final demand for surrender on June 19. It was made clear to O'Kelly that there would be little quarter given if surrender was not forthcoming.
O'Kelly decided to put the matter to the citizens and allow them a democratic vote. The decision the people of Girona was that they would not surrender.
Lucy Fitzgerald's last despatch concerning her company of Irish women, survives in the Spanish archives. It was dated August 10, 1809. For two months the Irish had held back an overwhelming force.
All ranks behaved with distinction. They administered untiringly to the needs of the defenders at the various points of attack. They brought much needed water and brandy to the fort of Montjiuch and carried back the wounded on litters and in their arms. Despising the dangers of shells and bombs, which rained about them without stop, they displayed heroic zeal, chairty and supreme courage. Lucy Fitzgerald, Commandant.’
Two days later, when the French artillery pounded the shattered walls of Girona into dust and overwhelmed the fortress, their infantry flooded into the town. Of the 800 Ultonians and 102 Hibernians 253, mostly badly wounded, were led off into captivity.
A diarist who managed to survive the slaughter wrote: ‘In the square of San Pedro were the Irish women of the company of St Barbara, noblest of their sex, who only moments before were filing under a rain of shells, bombs and grenades to administer to the needs of the defenders; with the silent eloquence of example, more persuasive than any words, they communicated their spirit and courage to the soldiers; in their arms they carried the wounded to the blood covered floors of the hospital. Certainly Girona was that day the abode of heroines.’
Over 600 soldiers, along with Colonel O'Kelly, perished at Girona. Lucy died by the side of her husband, Patricio Fitzgerald.
When a new battalion of the Ultonians was raised to replace the losses they were given the honour by King Ferndinand to put on their flag ‘Disinguidos de Ultonia’.
In 1815 the Irish Brigade of the Spanish Army was officially disbanded but the regimental flag of the Ultonia Regiment can still be seen in the town in memory of their exceptional and heroic defence.