The Wild Geese - 20th Jan. 1945


The Wild Geese: Text Version

20th January 1945


One drear December evening I was standing by the edge of a great expanse of flooded lowland. A sickly sun had just gone to rest behind a distant peak and darkness was fast enveloping hill and plain. All was still save for the sighing of the wind among the reeds. Suddenly the silence was shattered by the urgent cries of a flock of wild geese flying high overhead in some unknown formation. They came out of the west, sailing above that watery waste and passed on, their calls growing fainter as they sped into the night.

I never hear the lonely cry of wild geese at night but I think of those other 'Wild Geese' who rose on clamorous wing from the shores of Ireland long ago. The very words 'wild geese' have a magic in them for me. I do not associate them with the timid grey birds of lake and marshland, but with –

'...those whose valour is a less tale,

Who stainless swords at Boyne and Aughrim drew,

Who from the darkened keening shores took sail,

To fall where France's lifted banner flew.'

The words bring thoughts of quixotic bravery and pitiful devotion to a lost cause. They conjure up pictures of thousands of gallant men fleeing from a war-ravaged land to seek service under all the banners of Europe, and they bring to mind the battles they fought and the glories they won in the lands of the stranger.

The sad and romantic story of the Wild Geese will never grow old. It began on that October morning in 1691 when the Irish soldiers marched out from Limerick to make their choice between 'exile for life or service in the armies of their conqueror.' In a field, near the city two standards were set up -– on one side the royal standard of France, on the other the standard of England. Into this field marched the devoted regiments, the Irish nation's best and bravest, the heroes of Athlone and Aughrim, the men who had ridden with Sarsfield to Ballyneety, and hurled Europe's proudest veterans from the unconquerable walls of Limerick. On they came with colours flying and drums beating – fourteen thousand strong. At their head marched the foot guard, the flower of the defeated army. The eyes of friend and foe were fixed on this splendid body of men. What flag would win their allegiance? Breathless silence reigned as on they marched. The moment of decision came: the guards reached the critical spot and without a pause, wheeled in a body to the colours of France. Their example was followed by the great majority of their comrades-in-arms; only one thousand men entered the service of England.

Those who elected to serve under the Fleur de Lis took ship for France with their own loved leader Sarsfield. It was the saddest embarkation Ireland had known since the northern chiefs set sail from Rathmullen eighty-four years earlier.

'So cold island we stand,

Here, to-night at your shore-

To-night but never again,

Lingering a moment more.

See, beneath us our boat,

Tugs at its tightening chain,

Holds out its sail to the breeze.

Pants to be gone again,

Off then with shouts and mirth,

Off with laughter and jests,

Jests and songs on our lips,

Hearts like lead in our .'

It was indeed with hearts like lead the Wild Geese sailed away. Home, friends and fortune they had left behind, and the cries of their loved ones were still ringing in their ears long after the land of their hopes and their dreams had disappeared in the rim of the sea. Aubrey de Vere gives a touching account of a young brigade soldier's last farewell before he sailed away from Limerick:-

'I ed a stone from the ied brook,

And hurled it at my household door!

No farewell of my love I took,

I shall see my friend no more.

I dashed across the churchyard bound,

I knelt not by my parents grave:

Then rang from my heart a clarion's sound,

That summoned me o'er the wave.

No land to me can native be

That strangers trample and tyrants stain:

When the valleys I loved are cleansed and free,

They are mine, they are mine again!

Till then in sunshine or sunless weather

By Seine and Loire and the broad Garonne,

My war-horse and I roam on together

Wherever God will. On! On!'

So began the great exodus that histories call the Flight of the Wild Geese. These gallant soldiers had one thought uppermost in their minds– to return again some day to Ireland to fight for her freedom. But, alas, not one of them saw Ireland more! They generously gave their services to foreign rulers who, for the most part were heedless of their cause. Wanderers without a home, they roamed across the length and breadth of a continent-

'War dogs hungry and grey,

Gnawing a bone;

Fighters in every clime,

Every cause but their own.'

Few were the nations that did not number Irish soldiers in their armies. Lallys, Dillons, Nugents, Wogans, O'Donnells, Lacys and O'Mahonys – the history of the 18th century Europe glitters with such names as these. At Namur, Cremona, Steinkirk, Malplaquet, Ramillies, Landen and Fontenoy they covered themselves with glory. As the years rolled on the sad news from Ireland reached them. The Treaty of Limerick had been violated and their native land was being ground to the dust under savage penal laws. They were powerless to help her in the hour of her martyrdom, but whenever fate permitted they struck hard at the ancient enemies of their faith and race, and many a gory field rang to the cry of:- 'Cuimhnighidh ar Luimnigh is ar fheill na Sasananch' (Remember Limerick and Saxon perfidy).

And so the Wild Geese fought and fell. Their story though sad, is glorious. In the strangers lands they upheld the honour of their country and won for it respect and admiration. Their flowed freely where the fight was fiercest, and their nameless graves are strewn all over Europe-

'For in far foreign fields from Dunkirk to Belgrade,

Lie the soldiers and chiefs of the Irish Brigade.'

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