Wild Geese… the romantic name given to Irish Catholics who fled their homeland for France and elsewhere in the wake of continued persecution in the 17th and 18th centuries. Noted Irish writer Eilís Dillon's novel expresses the adventurous spirit and plaintive longing found in those words. Memories of Ireland haunt her novel's characters. Its soil remains in their blood, even though they seek a new start elsewhere, even though their old lives brought them little happiness. Wherever they go, they continue to love and yearn for a land that didn't always welcome them.
Louise and Robert Brien, sister and brother, come from a long-established family of Catholic gentry, one whose rights to their ancestral lands are tolerated only because of their connections to powerful English relations. In 1779, their weak-willed father, Maurice, acquiesces to his second wife's wishes by sending them abroad to live with their French cousins. Louise's mission is to obtain her rightful inheritance from her grandmother's cousin, Charlotte. Once in France, however, the siblings prove to be no match for their selfish, snappish relations and the decadent artificiality of the Parisian aristocracy. The hypocrisy of her cousins' social circle is made plain to Louise: "Everyone was talking philosophy and the rights of man, but she had noticed that as soon as one applied these ideas to real people, one met with a blank stare, as if some gross vulgarity had been committed."
Robert, devoted yet extremely naïve, falls into the seductive web of Charlotte's treacherous daughter, while Louise discovers an unexpected ally in Count André de Lacy, another French-Irish cousin she had briefly met back in Ireland. An outrageous scandal then separates brother from sister, sending Robert and André across the Atlantic with the French army to fight for American independence. After escaping to the household of other distant cousins, the Countess de Rothe and her daughter, Madame Dillon, Louise soon finds herself languishing in Angers, the "city of bells," trapped into wedlock with an elderly nobleman.
Eilís Dillon devotes much time to Irishmen's experience fighting with Rochambeau in France in America's war, though her prose comes alive mainly when depicting more domestic scenes -- such as André's visit to the Lally farm in Hartford, Connecticut. One can't help but feel for Pauline Lally, a bitter woman whose five American-born children failed to thrive, and who longs to return to France despite André's warning that its people are growing restless under monarchical rule. At some point, Dillon may have realized that André made for better romantic hero material than Robert, for André's viewpoint takes over the story partway through. There are some humorous moments, for Louise's Irish maid, Biddy, has a delightfully sarcastic side, but overall the novel's tone is understated and restrained. While it suits the subject, it has the effect of keeping readers at a distance. The romantic feelings between Louise and André, which develop fully only after their separation, are not quite as palpable as they could be.
Robert's and Louise's stories take unexpected, ironic turns throughout the novel. Often their actions (or lack thereof) result in the exact opposite of what they and their families hoped for them, but both triumph in their own ways over society's restrictions. Not all of the novel's many characters find happiness, and if they do, it's an achievement hard won. Clearly written and tinged with melancholy, Wild Geese will interest readers looking for a unique perspective on the American Revolution, the lead-up to the French Revolution, and the Irish experience abroad.
Unlike some other novels in my Obscure Books series, Wild Geese is easy to find (and cheaply, too) from out-of-print book dealers. I got my copy for $1 at the Carbondale Public Library's book sale last year. Eilís Dillon (1920-1994), a popular writer in Ireland, was the niece of Joseph Mary Plunkett, a poet and leader of the 1916 Easter Rising. Wild Geese garnered rave reviews upon its publication in Ireland and England, though her bestselling epic about Irish independence, Across the Bitter Sea, was more widely celebrated. You can find more details on her novels (many of which are historical) at the Eilís Dillon Irish Writing Pages.