Recruiting on the Emerald Isle: Irishmen in the Guards

By the autumn of 1775, the American Revolution was underway and the British Army was in need of recruits. According to the Guards' history, measures were now taken to recruit the army generally, and with the view to increasing the establishment of the three regiments of Foot Guards, several sergeants were detached to Ireland to raise recruits in that country. Nine sergeants of the first, and seven of each of the other two regiments were dispatched from London on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd of August [1775] respectively, and proceeding by Chester reached their destination early in September, when they reported their arrival to the adjutant-general. (Hamilton, p. 211)
So what exactly is the context of Ireland as an implied priority recruiting location, particularly during a century where tensions between Catholics and Protestants had not yet subsided? After all, it would only be five years until anti-Catholic sentiments triggered the Gordon Riots of 1780.

Ireland at the close of the 17th century. Published by Nicolaes Visscher II around 1689.

In fact, recruitment of Irishmen (both Protestants and Catholics) had only recently resumed within the British Army of the 18th century. Following the Williamite Wars of 1689-1691, which had pitted Jacobite Irish Catholics against their Protestant brethren who supported King William III, penal laws in Great Britain banned Catholics from serving in the Army or even owning a weapon. Until 1745, the ban also included Irish Protestants, for fear that Catholics "might slip through." (Bowen, p. 13)

However, by the time of the Seven Years (or French and Indian) War, these regulations began to slacken. Lord Trimleston, a predominant Anglo-Irish landowner active in the Catholic cause, proposed recruiting Irish Catholics to augment the British military establishment, but the war ended before any comprehensive effort could be enacted. Yet anti-Catholic feelings were subsiding by this time, and "unofficial" recruitment of Catholics was approved in 1771. (Bartlett, p. 71)

But even as thousands of Irish enlisted in the mid-1770s and served in America, the British government still had an interest in keeping the participation of Catholics in the American War quiet; there was concern that knowledge of using Catholics to fight predominantly Protestant Americans would fuel the flames of independence. (Bowen, p. 19). It was not until 1793 that Irish Catholics were officially and legally entitled to enter the British Army.

18th century recruiting serjeant and his party.

So where does that leave the Guards at the time? Do we know how successful their recruiting trip to Ireland was? Were the Irish recruits to fill out the Brigade in its 1776 deployment to America? And how many Irish had been serving in the Guards for some time already?

Well, while we do have some copies of the Guards' muster rolls, we don't currently have any for those companies who stayed behind in London during the war. Instead, we have the Spring 1779 muster rolls for the 1st Battalion of those companies formed for North American service. And an analysis of those rolls tell us that it's unlikely that many of the 1775 Irish recruits were sent to least right away.

Thankfully the rolls list the service time for each rank and file private, the average service time for those coming over in '76 was 5-6 years. Of those with less, very few were Irish. So if the recruiting serjeants did make headway on their trip, they more than likely filled the ranks of the companies left behind in London.

Nonetheless, there were several Irishmen serving with the Guards in America. And - with the exception of Private John Gibbins of the First Foot Guards below - they were probably recruited "unofficially" during the earlier easing of regulations in the 1760s and 1770s. From the '79 rolls, we can pick out a few of their names.

In the Brigade Company (3rd Company in 1779, originally 4th Company):
  • Private John Hunter of the Third Foot Guards, born in County Antrim (Northern Ireland). Hunter was a weaver when he enlisted in the Army in 1757 at age 17, and he arrived in America with the Brigade in 1776.
  • Serjeant Francis Hunt of the First Foot Guards, born in Blaris Parish, County Down (Northern Ireland). Hunt was also a weaver when he enlisted in 1764 at age 19, and he also arrived in America with the Brigade in 1776.
  • Private John Gibbins of the First Foot Guards, born in Ballivor Parish, County Meath. Gibbins was a soap boiler when enlisted in 1775 at age 16, and he arrived in America with a new draft of Guards in November 1777. Gibbins is the only Irishman identified so far who ostensibly joined the Guards after the war had started.
Now obviously, with two of these three being from the northern counties, we might surmise that they were Protestants. And this certainly makes their presence in the Guards a bit more understandable. But looking at the Grenadier Company rolls and the fact that several of the Guards grenadiers came from Dublin or a nearby county, it's certainly likely that a few Catholics had entered the Guards' ranks by the late 1760s:
  • Private Benjamin Wilson of the Coldstream Guards, born in Fairban Parish, King's (now Offaly) County and enlisted in 1767.
  • Private Edward Streeter of the Third Foot Guards, born in St. James' Parish, Dublin and enlisted in 1768.
  • Private Robert Dillon of the Coldstream Guards, born in St. John's Parish, Dublin and enlisted in 1772.
  • Private Nathaniel Proctor of the Coldstream Guards, born in St. Mary's Parish, Dublin and enlisted in 1774.
Bottom line: While the Guards certainly made a big recruiting push in Ireland to augment their regiments, the few Irish that were serving with the Brigade in America had been doing so for some time and had joined during the period of "unofficial" Irish Catholic recruitment that would last for more than two more decades.


Bartlett, Thomas (1992), The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation: The Catholic Question 1690-1830 (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan)

Bowen, Desmond and Jean (2005), The Heroic Option: The Irish in the British Army (Barnsley: Pen and Sword)

Hamilton, Lieut.-Gen. Sir F. W. (1874), Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards, Vol. II (London: John Murray)