‘The Wild Geese’ was my third book for Reading Ireland Month, a historical novel set early in the eighteen century.
Britain and Ireland were ruled by the House of Hanover, but the throne was contested by Jacobite rebels, supporters of the descendants of the deposed King James II. Catholics were repressed by their Protestant rulers: they could not own land, enter many trades and professions, educate their children in their faith, or worship as they chose.
Many could not live with those laws, and this story tells of the implications of those laws for one family
It’s a story told entirely in letters.
Gerald Kinross and Garrett Ahearne were cousins; one Catholic and one Protestant. There was an understanding between them, with the Ahearnes legally owning the estate where the Kinrosses lived and worked, but treating it in every was as the Kinross estate. There was friendship too; the first exchange of letters has one man telling of his decision to send his two sons to France so that they could be given a Catholic education and the other expressing his concerns but acknowledging and accepting his reasons.
Those two sons lose their father while they are in exile. Brandan – the elder – comes home to run the family estate, and his brother, Maurice, joins an Irish regiment abroad ; becoming one of the Wild Geese who, for conscience’s sake, will fight for the Jacobite cause. While his uncle lives Brandan is secure, but when his uncle dies things change.
Thomas Ahearne, his father’s only son, inherits everything that had been his father’s, but he doesn’t see the world as his father did. He is the owner of the Kinross estate and he sees his cousin as his tenant; he questions his failure to pay rent, he questions his management of the property, and he ultimately decides that he must bring Brandan’s tenancy to an end.
Letters between the brothers illuminate Maurice’s experiences abroad and Brandan’s life on the estate. Letters between the cousins track Brandan’s journey from frustration into black despair as Thomas is unmoved and immovable. And threaded through this correspondence is the story of the coming of age of Catharine, the youngest of the Kinrosses, and her falling in love with a friend of her brothers’, another of the Wild Geese.
That this story is told in letters is both its strength and its weakness.
The letters tell the story very effectively and bring the characters to life while remaining utterly believable as correspondence. They caught the emotions of the writers, and I felt for them and reacted to them. But they also limited the story, and stopped it opening out as it might have.
I would have liked to spend more time with Catharine and her friend Mary, who Maurice loved and who Thomas courted. That the cover shows a woman is a little misleading, because they have secondary roles in a story of men. This is a story of history and its consequences rather that a story of a family and emotional lives.
I would have loved to have Catharine tells her family’s story; and I would have loved Bridget Boland, who became a very successful screenwriter, to have turned The Wild Geese into a film with her at its centre.
I did like the book, as a story of a time in history and as the story of a family.
But I have to say that it’s a ‘pick it up if you see a copy’ book, rather that a ‘go out and find a copy’ book.