Friday 15 November 2019

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Taking flight with the Wild Geese

Ulick O'Connor
Ulick O'Connor

Ulick O'Connor

The Wild Geese was the name given to those Irishmen, over 30,000 of them, who left Ireland in the second half of the 18th century rather than serve under British occupation.

That they did well in Europe would be an understatement. One of them, Peter Lacy from Limerick, would become commander -in-chief of the Russian army under Catherine the Great. Another, Maximilian Ulysses Browne, was in charge of Empress Maria Theresa's army in Russia. Butler, Fielding, Dillon and O'Brien were names of other regiments called after their colonels.

There is a marvellous poem by Emily Lawless called 'After Aughrim' which brings alive the success of these Irish exiles. Lawless has been rather forgotten these days. She was from a landed family and was one of the noted poets in the English language of her time. Three of her poems are in the Oxford Book of Irish Verse. William Gladstone, the English Prime Minister, was an admirer, and King Edward VII was known to quote her.

It wasn't unhelpful to Ireland at the time that the honorable Lawless, daughter of Lord Cloncurry, was able to put her case in the language of those whom she sought to convince. She died in 1913 and I am sorry to say is not sufficiently recognised in her own country.

It was Padraic Colum, whom I knew well and was a friend of Emily's, who told me of an extraordinary habit of hers. She was addicted to swimming and after she had finished her day's work, she liked to clear her head by diving naked into the Atlantic off the Clare cliffs.


She said 'They gave me of their best,

They lived, they gave their lives for me;

I tossed them to the howling waste,

And flung them to the foaming sea.'

She said 'I never gave them aught,

Not mine the power, if mine the will;

I let them starve, I let them bleed, -

They bled and starved, and loved me still.'

She said 'I never called them son,

I almost ceased to breathe their name

They caught it echoing down the wind,

Blown backwards from the lips of Fame.'

She said 'God knows they owe me nought,

I tossed them to the foaming sea,

I tossed them to the howling waste,

Yet still their love comes home to me.'

Emily Lawless 1845-1913

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