What did the Irish Ever Do For Us?

An Irishman's Guide
to the History of the World
In my travels overseas I am often accosted by locals in an Irish-themed bar -sometimes after they have consumed four pints of Guinness, two Jameson whiskies and one large glass of Bailey's Cream Liqueur before completing what seems like a never-ending rendition of 'The Irish Rover'- and asked the eternal question, "OK then, what the hell did the Irish ever do for us?"
Sadly my highly illuminating replies too often get lost in the noises and bustle of a busy pub night. So in order to solve this problem and allow me to enjoy a pint in peace and comfort in the future, I decided to publish here a 'History of the World as told by an Irishman'.

Though brutally oppressed and occupied by those nasty British for over 800 years, nevertheless we Irish managed to take time out from our own endless struggles to help raise the torch of freedom and learning amongst nations and peoples across the globe. Where ever there was conflict, revolution or famine you can be sure that there was some bright young thing from Ireland’s green shamrock shore doing their best to help bring peace, justice or much needed merriment to troubled lands.

Over the next few weeks in a spirit of global enlightenment, this website will focus in on individual countries and nations to highlight the great debt of gratitude that the world’s population owe to the Celtic Irish & Anglo-Irish. We will view the planet through ‘green-tinted’ glasses.
Countries covered will include Mexico, Romania, India, United States, Israel, Australia, Scotland, Greece, Spain, France and virtually the whole South American continent.

The History of Austria as seen through 'Green-tinted' Glasses

As the university research institute (DERI) that I work in has had a strong Austrian input over the years, I decided therefore to start our tour of the world with a focus on the ‘Jewel of the Danube’.

The image of Austria conjures up the beauty of Vienna, the famed ecclesiastical architecture of Salzburg, the economic importance of the city's salt mines, the country’s Catholic heritage, its proud tradition as a centre of learning, its once great military prowess that enabled it to withstand the constant merciless onslaught of the Turkish hordes and other nasty invaders such as Napoleon and build a great Empire that straddled across central Europe.
Well without the Irish, none of these successes might ever have occurred!

Vienna, Bertie Ahern & the Irish Government connection
The land that is now called Austria was inhabited by Celtic tribes long before the arrival of the Romans circa 2,000 years ago.
The name ‘Vienna’ is Celtic in origin and could possibly have the same roots as ‘Fianna’ a mythological elite band of warriors led by the Irish hero Fionn MacCumhaill that gave the name to today’s main Irish political party –‘Fianna Fáil (English= ‘warriors of destiny’).
However the subsequent arrivals (Romans & later Germans) could not quite get their tongues around the ‘f’ sound and mispronounced it as a ‘v’.

Irish Bring Urban Life, Business Acumen & Learning to Austria
During the ‘Dark Ages’ after the fall of the Roman Empire to marauding German tribes, Austria was left desolated, its once great cities with their libraries and manufacturing enterprises reduced to dust, its economy destroyed. The poor natives lost the ability to write, to enjoy the arts and to take part in international trade. It was a time when there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Hope, happiness and learning only returned to this God-forsaken land in the 7th century with the arrival of a merry band of brave young Irish lads and lassies. Their leader was a highly intelligent and saintly entrepreneur known to history as St. Rupert who had been sent by the Duke of Bavaria to evangelise the region after his successful efforts in Germany. As well as founding the abbey of St. Peter’s in the ruins of the old Roman town of Juvavia along the River Danube, his establishment of a salt mine nearby gave the area its new name of Salzburg.
Though the French claim Rupert as one of their own, the evidence reinforces his Irish ancestry. Rupert took on the dual title of ‘abbot’ and ‘bishop’, a feature of the Irish Celtic Church of the time.

Irish Women do their bit for Austria
Furthermore it was written that Rupert once returned from a trip home bringing with him his sister (or niece) who went by the name of Erintrude and who established Nonnberg, the world’s oldest convent. ‘Erin’ or ‘Eirinn’ is the Irish Gaeilge term for Ireland. Furthermore promoting women to positions of authority in the church was also a contemporary Irish characteristic. Female emancipation appeared early in Irish society!

Builder of
Salzburg Cathedral was an Irishman
Over 50 yrs after Rupert's death, the city’s bishopric was granted to another Irish man Saint Virgil (trans. ‘Fergal’ in Gaeilge Irish). Fergal O’Neill laid the foundations of Salzburg Cathedral (where his statue and that of St. Rupert still stands at the entrance) and is reputed to have transported the bones of two famous Irish female saints(St. Brigit & St. Samthana) to its hallowed grounds. Just goes to show that few Irishmen, even celibate saints, can survive without their womenfolk (dead or alive)!
Nicknamed ‘the Geometer’, Virgil was a clever lad and renowned scientist who was vehemently condemned by his contemporary St. Boniface (an Englishman of course!) for his statements on the Earth being round and on the existence of other worlds! A man well ahead of this time.

Austria's First Patron Saint: Murdered Irish Tourist
Sometimes the Austrians could be a xenophobic lot taking their frustrations out on innocent foreign tourists. One such unlucky traveller was an Irishman by the name of Colman passing through the country in 1012 on pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Palestine. Unfortunately some hostile locals at Stockerau near Vienna accused him of being a spy. He was tortured and hanged. The fact that he couldn't speak German and hadn't a clue about what he was being accused of didn't help his survival chances! His accusers soon learned they had made a big mistake and had killed an innocent man. Mortified, impressed by the Irishman's bravery under torture and noticing that people were being miraculously healed from disease whilst praying at his graveside they soon had Colman (or Koloman) declared the country's first patron saint.
Colman became the patron saint for hanged men.
Sadly the incident didn't improve Austrians' attitudes towards tourists. In the next century the great warrior Richard the Lionheart, after fighting wars in France, Sicily, Cyprus and the Holy Land as well as surviving shipwreck, was kidnapped by Duke Leopold and his troops near Vienna and held until a king's ransom was paid by his mother.

‘Sound of Music’ & how the Irish Taught the Austrians to Sing
(& probably how to Dance!)
(...The Hills were Alive with the Sound of Irish Music...)
The internationally acclaimed Roger and Hammerstein musical ‘The Sound of Music’ is based on the true life story of the Austrian ‘Von Trap’ family. The story’s main protagonist is Maria Kutschera who, while a novice at a convent, was asked to teach the children of the widowed war hero Commandant Georg Ludwig von Trap. Her great gift was singing. Ludwig was so enamoured with Maria that he later married her. The rest as they say is history.
The convent that Maria came from was in fact Nonnberg founded by the Irish woman Erintrude in the early 8th century. The chanting of daily evening vespers by Erintrude and her female companions was obviously the beginning of the (Austrian) hills coming alive with the sound of music.
Jolly Group of Dancing Irish Nuns?

Austrian Navy- an Irish invention!
Yes, landlocked Austria once had a large powerful navy whose founder was an Irishman. Up until 1918, Austria controlled a vast empire stretching from the southern Poland to the Adriatic coast along what is now Croatia and Italy.
George Forbes from Granard in Co. Longford was made Vice-Admiral by Emperor Charles VI in 1719 and established the first Austrian Habsburg naval force in the Adriatic waters.

Austrian's Most Decorated War Hero- had Irish ancestry
Known as the ‘Eagle of Trieste’, Gottfried von Banfield was one of World War One’s most famous flying aces. A naval officer and founder of the Austrian air force, he was the last recipient of the Austria-Hungarian Empire’s Order of Maria Theresa. Gottfried was a member of a well-known Irish-Austrian military family, his grandfather being a Banfield from Castle Lyons in Co. Cork.

“The more Irish in the Austrian (military) service the better…”
On the principle of the ‘enemy of my enemy is by friend’, hundreds of thousands of Irish during the 16th, 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries served as soldiers in the armies of European powers at war with an English state that was occupying their homeland. Their departure from Ireland was looked on with great sorrow by the families they left behind who romanticised them as wild geese flying across the seas to distant lands many never to return. Hence the popular term for these Irishmen - 'The Wild Geese'. They found though a hearty welcome in the armies of the continental empires of their Catholic coreligionists where their military prowess was much valued. This was especially true in the Austrian Habsburg Empire where many Irishmen reached the ranks of field marshals, generals and military governors and whose descendants continued to serve the monarchy until its collapse in 1918.
The Irish American writer Brian McGinn, who has written extensively of the Irish that served in foreign armies, gave details of a letter written by Emperor Francis 1 (husband of Maria Theresa) in 1765 which summarised the esteem that they they were held in by the Habsburgs: "The more Irish officers in the Austrian service the better; our troops will always be disciplined; an Irish coward is an uncommon character; and what the natives of Ireland even dislike from principle, they generally will perform through a desire for glory."

St. Patrick’s Day Palace Party , Vienna 1766
How influential these Irish became in Austria can be shown by a review of the attendees at the world’s first recorded St. Patrick’s Day house (well actually palace!) party that took place on March 17th 1766 in Vienna hosted by the Spanish ambassador to the Imperial court.
First of all the host himself, Ambassador Count Demetrio O’Mahony, was the son of the Irish war-hero Daniel O’Mahony who won international acclaim for his bravery fighting with the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Cremona in 1702.
The guest list included Count Francis Maurice Lacy, President of the Imperial Council of War, along with generals O'Kelly, O'Donnell, Browne, Maguire, McElligott, and Plunkett as well as dozens of other Irish serving as governors, privy counsellors and army.
It must have been one hell of an ex-pats party!

Loss of Irish Soldiery Leads to Collapse of Austrian Empire
This tradition of Irish men attaining positions of high military authority continued into the next century. Lavall Nugent and Thomas Brady, two Irish officers in the Austrian Army who served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars were both conferred with the rank of Field-Marshal.
Another Irish Field-Marshal, Andreas von O'Reilly, was Governor of Vienna in 1809 when he was left with no choice but to surrender the city to the more powerful French Army of Napoleon.
However by the middle of the 19th century, the flow of Irish to the armies of Austria had dried up as they emigrated instead to the Americas and parts of the British Empire. This loss of talented Celtic warrior talent may explain why the Austrians were defeated in World War One and their Empire crumbled- Just a theory!

Popular Nationalist Support of Catholic Empress Visits to Ireland Scares British Regime. Leads to Government Banning her from country

Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) was the ‘Princess Diana’ celebrity of her day. Beautiful and stylish, she abhorred court convention, became an international fashion icon, loved equestrian pursuits, travelled continuously and in the process made many of her holiday destinations ‘must see’ tourist locations.

Not surprisingly, she was intensely disliked by her husband's old-fashioned conservative royal family but was adored by many of the ordinary people of the Habsburg empire.

In 1879, she spent a month hunting in Ireland staying at Lord Longford’s residency of Summerhill House in county Meath. In spite of the agrarian unrest caused by bad harvests, the increasing evictions of tenants by a hated Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the beginnings of a Land League campaign for a revolution in land ownership, crowds enthusiastically greeted Elisabeth wherever she travelled in the country. According to historian Tony Canavan, she had a horse called St. Patrick, owned an Irish wolfhound and wore a sprig of shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day.
Empress Elisabeth with her Irish wolfhound 'Shadow'
As the Empress of the greatest Catholic power in the world, the British regime feared that public support for her from a largely downtrodden Catholic, nationalist and angry peasantry could translate into calls for a Habsburg Catholic monarchy in Ireland as a way of ending foreign British Protestant rule. It was well known that Elisabeth was a sympathiser of the Hungarian rebellion that led in 1867 to the loss of sole Austrian hegemony and the establishment of the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Elisabeth returned to Ireland for another month of hunting in 1880 but was prevented from doing so the following year by the British authorities.

Irishman Saves Emperor’s Life

Except for Louis XIV, Franz Josef had the longest reign (68 yrs) of any European monarch. But his time on the throne would have been one of the shortest of any Habsburg Emperor where it not for the fact that his life was saved by an Irishman. On 18 February 1853, an Imperial officer Maximilian Karl Lamoral O’Donnell was out walking with the Emperor when he foiled an assassination attempt by a Hungarian nationalist Janos Libenyi.

O'Donnell was a descendent of a distinguished family who had served as high ranking Imperial officers for decades and were part of the Irish soldiery known as the Wild Geese who, throughout the 17th and 18th century, escaped repressive English rule in Ireland in their tens of thousands (even hundreds of thousands) to serve in the armies of Spain, France, Portugal and Austria.

As a result of his endeavours, Maximilian was made an Imperial Count, conferred with the Commander's Cross of the Royal Order of Leopold, and the O'Donnell coat-of-arms was augmented by the initials and shield of the ducal House of Austria and the double-headed eagle of the Empire. These arms are still emblazoned on the portico of his residency at No. 2 Mirabel Platz in Salzburg.

Galwayman Secures Global Stardom for Austrian’s Most Popular Composer

In a country that is famed for its music composers, Johan Strauss Jr. can rightly claim to be its most popular due to the public appetite across the world for his waltzes that included such classics as The Blue Danube and Tales from the Vienna Woods. It was Johann who made the city of Vienna synonymous with dance music.

But it was an Irishman, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore from Ballygar in County Galway, who made him an international star by bringing him to the United States of America to take part in the Boston International Music Festival where crowds of up to 120,000 watch performances in an outdoor coliseum. It began the trend that is still with us today of European musicians having to perform and ‘make it’ in the US in order to become global icons.

Gilmore himself was a composer who is recognised as the principal figure in 19th century American music. Among his many achievements was the revamping of US military band music, the writing of the marching song When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ (adopted from an old Irish song) , setting up Gilmore's Concert Garden in New York which became the Madison Square Garden and introducing the tradition of seeing in the New Year in Times Square.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very entertaining article....particularly as I am Irish and my husband is Austrian.

I particularly like the Fianna - Vienna slant. I should get some milage out of this with the inlaws!

Anonymous said...

Good Article Speedie.
Funny that the Vice Admiral to the Navy off a landlocked country came from a landlocked county! Maybe he learned in Lough Ree!

I am off to see if I can impress any Austrians with this info

EBairead said...


can anyone remember the name of the Irish-Austrian flier who was ennobled in the 1st World War?

Speedie's Blog said...

Greetings Eoin,
The pilot is Gottfried von Banfield & I provide information on him in the article under the heading 'Austrian's Most Decorated War Hero- had Irish ancestry'

Anonymous said...

The Irish get on all sides in almost all wars. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Irish made a huge contribution towards defeating Napoleon,especially in the Peninsular War, in which the French, including the Irish Legion, were repressing Spain. The Legion took part in the suppression of the 2nd May Revolt in Madrid in 1808, and later in the suppression of Spanish partisans. At Fontenoy in 1745, the Irish fought on the British side and with the Austrians on the same side, while 7 regiments of Irish made up the Irish Brigade on the French side. Its all very fine to talk about Irish contibution to the freedom of other countries, but we have also contributed to repression. I suppose one cancels out the other.

Speedie's Blog said...

Some good points in the comment posting above.
For there is no doubt that, as with all poor conquered nations, many Irish took the 'Saxon Shilling' (money) & joined the forces of the British Empire to escape extreme poverty & starvation.
However to say that "one cancels out the other" would be incorrect.
Many of those that fought with the 18th century French (e.g. Wolfe Tone & co) saw it a means to eventually liberate the homeland from the common enemy and/or were inspired by the great ideals of the French Revolution.
Interesting too that Irish soldiers serving in the Peninsular War were consistently racially abused by their British officers.
However on a wider scale, the Irish fight for independence has inspired & given hope to revolutionaries on all continents.
It is also the deeds of Irish rebels that have formed the backbone of popular Irish folklore in song & in verse for generations.
Furthermore, this Irish mentality formed out of centuries of struggle against repression led many exiles to earn fame for defiantly standing with the victims against injustice in their new homelands

Anonymous said...

Dont forget on the Political front Count Edward Taaffe Minister President of Austria.Of whom Kaiser
Franz Josef said on Taaffe standing
down from office, "i Will never be
able to replace him ".History states this charming bohemian Irish
man held the whole Iron Ring together 10 Nationalities and he
Taaffe the Chancellor