The Wild Geese in World War One


The ‘Wild Geese’ is a phrase which has long been in use, to describe those Irishmen who have left their homes to fight in foreign wars.

The phrase is particularly apt, in relation to the years 1914 to 1918.  Several of the most celebrated aces who died flying biplanes in France had strong links with Ireland.  One had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps following a refusal to fire on his countrymen during Easter 1916.

No winner of the Victoria Cross gained greater renown than Michael O’Leary.  Born close to  Inchigeelagh, he found in soldiering his real vocation – yet resigned his commission when the War of Independence began.

The lives of these Irishmen formed the stuff from which legends were built.  But ‘wild geese’ is not a metaphor alone.  Millions of migrating geese visited the valley of the Somme during the years 1914-1918, as they still do today.  It seems likely that, during 1915 or 1916, they carried the virus H1N1 to that place, infected domestic fowl, and hence the troops behind the front lines.  The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was about to begin.

‘Wild geese’: an accident of language, perhaps.  This year’s Daniel Corkery Summer School will study the realities which underlie both sides of the phrase.