The Wild Geese: Helping Gram Discover Mary Pat Kelly’s “Galway Bay” and Our Family History
Submitted by Kim from San Diego
War battered dogs are we
Fighters in every clime;
Fillers of trench and of grave,
Mockers bemocked by time,
War dogs hungry and grey,
Gnawing a naked bone,
Fighters in every clime-
Every cause but our own
-Emily Lawless 1902 “With the Wild Geese”
The term “Wild Geese” refers to people of Irish descent scattered across the world. It has been frequently associated with Irish mercenaries who went to Europe in organized units because Ireland had nothing to offer. The origin of the term is more accurately associated with Patrick Sarsfield who commanded the Stuart King James II army in the Jacobite Wars against William of Orange. After James’s II defeat by William of Orange, Sarsfield led 11,000 Irish troops to France in 1791. These soldiers later became the famous “Irish Brigade of France”.
French ships which arrived Ireland’s west coast smuggling in brandy and wine would smuggle out recruits for the Irish Brigade. The paper work of the ships would list the troops as “Wild Geese,” thus the origin of the name. But the true Flight of the Wild Geese took place in 1607, when the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell set sail from Loch Swilly in Co. Donegal. They never returned to their native land.
Finding a Connection with the Wild Geese
This fall, I had the great fortune of taking my Grandmother, Margaret Fallon-Sharpe, now 92 years young, to an event at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, CT. The event was sponsored by an organization called the Wild Geese. The organization’s purpose is “… to enjoy and transmit the Irish experience…” by sponsoring events that reflect Irish culture. The organization began with a group of friends, originally from Ireland, who got together in their homes to talk about Irish history and culture. It has grown over the years into a larger and more active organization.
The event my Gram and I attended was “Irish College Day” featuring several speakers including former US Ambassador to Ireland, Thomas Foley; Dr. William Abbott, Professor of Irish History at Fairfield University; and Larry Kirwan, playwright, musician, and founder of rock group Black 47.
Enchanted by “Galway Bay” Author Mary Pat Kelly
But for me the pièce de résistance was author Mary Pat Kelly! Mary Pat delivered a witty talk on the events which lead to writing “Galway Bay.” Her book focuses on Irish life and legends surrounding the Great Famine which killed 2 million Irish men, women, and children and resulted in the flight of another million from Ireland.
The main figure in Mary Pat Kelly’s story shares the same unusual name as my Great Grandmother, Honora — who, as it turns out, could have been a Wild Goose! In the past several years my grandmother’s eyesight has failed her and she could not read the book herself. Fortunately Irish College Day allowed my Gram to still share in the spirit of the book by hearing Mary Pat’s stories. I thought they would be similar to those that her mother and aunts shared with her as a child. And I was able to deliver and share this experience with her!
The Pieces Falling Into Place for a Perfect Memory
The day was also a pleasure for me on many levels! I have been fanatical with all things Irish for some time now. I had read “Galway Bay” in October, and couldn’t put it down. Not since the summer I read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” had any book kept me as absorbed as “Galway Bay.” Plus, I hadn’t seen my Gram in two years since I live in San Diego.
While reading “Galway Bay” I frequently went to the world wide web for more information and to follow Mary Pat’s speaking schedule, but they were always too far away. Then, finally there on her website, I saw she would be speaking at Sacred Heart University in my hometown! But there were no details, no date, time, or exact location. It was just a few short weeks away, and I was desperate to make it happen. I launched a full blown crusade to get into this event with my Gram, but I was afraid it was open only to the school or the members of the Wild Geese organization!
After several searches that surely took the better part of a weekend, I finally found the information I needed. In one of my searches the Wild Geese Organization in Stamford, CT, popped up and lo and behold… I uncovered who would be hosting the event! Yep, the Wild Geese, and sure enough, there were the details I needed. To my delight, it was open to the public! Ms. Eileen Heaphy, the contact at Wild Geese for the event was so gracious when I called to inquire. I wasn’t sure my Gram would last all day, so I asked her if we could do half a day. She agreed and gave us a two for one deal!
My Gram’s loss of vision to macular degeneration and some difficulties hearing makes it bit unsettling for her to journey out of her home. She needs absolutely no assistance ambulating around her two story Dutch colonial house, but take her out of her environment and she is timid and afraid of falling. The dependency this creates is a great frustration for a very independent woman. Yet, she remains as bright and informed on current events and is nearly as active she was during the prime of her life. So she really misses the intellectual stimulation that she had enjoyed when she was independent and could drive and get around.
Our outing proved to be an uncommon treat for Gram. I knew she would be excited, but I didn’t know she one of the original graduates from Sacred Heart University School of Social Work and served as faculty there. I had intended to treat her, but I had no idea what an impact I had made until we were walking out to the car. She stopped and said “Kimmie, do you know you are making a memory for me”. Then she quipped, “And I don’t have many more of them left to have, so Thank You”! That just made the trip for me!
What It Means to Be Irish
To say we were not disappointed is an understatement. Ms. Kelly, much like me, thought she fully understood her “Irishness.” The Kelly family happily lived in Chicago where along with scores of other 2nd and 3rd generation Irish Americans, were essentially celebrated simply for the fact that they said they were Irish and drank green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day. They were descendants of Irish immigrants to “Amerkay,” and had risen to some degree of success and status in the community. It wasn’t until a young Mary Pat visited England and then Ireland in the 1960’s that she began to appreciate she knew nothing of Ireland.
Mary Pat immersed herself in the Irish culture, explored all things Irish, and wanted to know more about her family origins. This journey in search of her people led her to tell the story of her great grandmother, Honora Keely-Kelly (another Wild Goose) which is, “Galway Bay.”
Mary Pat Kelly’s journey to discover how she came to be Mary Pat Kelly, great granddaughter of Honora Keely-Kelly, is an event worth taking in if you get the opportunity. And if you have the opportunity to surprise someone special by taking them to hear Mary Pat, I would give it 2 thumbs up rating. The rest of the day at Sacred Heart University was a quality Irish event as well — though we did not stay for Larry Kirwin! I will look for additional events hosted by the Wild Geese and hope that I have more memories to make for my Irish Gram!
Here is link to Mary Pat’s website. Look for events coming to a town near you!
You can follow this link to learn more about the Wild Geese Organization and events around Fairfield County CT. www.thewildgeese.org
The Wild Geese Heritage Museum and Library in Portumna, Co Galway provides more history about the Wild Geese, Irish Genealogy, and Portumna Castle. http://indigo.ie/~wildgees/index.htm
I hope you enjoyed my contribution to the Irish Fireside!
Kim from San Diego!