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  • “No ‘Wild Geese’ this time”? IRA Emigration after the Irish Civil War*
  • Gavin Foster (bio)

In July 1923, two months after the Irish Republican Army abandoned its armed campaign against the Free State government, Éamon de Valera issued a defiant statement on behalf of the anti-Treaty cause. “There will be no ‘Wild Geese’ . . . this time,” he vowed. “The soldiers of the Republic have been ordered to live and die in Ireland, and they will obey. Living or dead, we mean to establish the right of Irish Republicans to live and work openly for the complete liberation of our country.”1 By referencing the Wild Geese—the folk term for Jacobite soldiers exiled from Ireland after their defeat in the Williamite War—de Valera was telegraphing a deeper historical truth that was on many people’s minds in the aftermath of Ireland’s Civil War.2 Well-versed in Irish history, the “revolutionary generation” knew that failed nationalist risings tended to produce “mini-diasporas” of exiles.3 Along with the Wild Geese, there had been the earlier Flight of the Earls, [End Page 94] thousands of United Irishmen who fled government repression in the 1790s, the scattered remnants of the Young Ireland Rising of 1848, and a stream of Fenian émigrés in the postfamine period.

De Valera was optimistic that by maintaining discipline and redirecting energies into the political arena, the republican movement could arrest this historical cycle. Nevertheless, emigration took a heavy toll on the losers of the Civil War. The members of this “Lost Legion”4 primarily ended up in the United States5 where, among other things, they shaped labor history through their sizable presence in New York City’s powerful Transport Workers’ Union.6 Republican émigrés even entered American popular culture by way of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel, The Big Sleep, whose menagerie of underworld Los Angeleans includes Terence “Rusty” Regan, an ex-IRA officer turned bootlegger and bodyguard. It has even been suggested that Irish-American support for the IRA during the recent “Troubles” owes a great deal to Civil War exiles who passed their militant republicanism on to their children and grandchildren.7

An episode recalled with great bitterness by the generation of republicans who lived through it, and a significant revolutionary outcome [End Page 95] in its own right, the flight of the republican “Wild Geese” has been all but ignored by historians.8 Several factors have contributed to the scholarly neglect of this episode. For one, political historians tend to pass quickly over the messy aftermath of the Civil War, focusing instead on state formation and the emergence of a viable two-party system from the mid- and late 1920s. A similar lacuna exists within the subfield of Irish migration studies, which has treated transatlantic emigration in the 1920s as an afterthought.9 It might also be argued that as simultaneously a political and a demographic phenomenon, the republican exodus falls between the cracks of political and migration history as each is typically conceived. Although a small body of literature bridges this divide by examining the demographic consequences of revolutionary violence, most of these studies are concerned with the departure of southern Unionists, ex-service men, members of the disbanded Royal Irish Constabulary, and others tainted by their association with British rule.10

Of course, republican activists were merely one current in a much larger outflow of emigrants from Ireland in the 1920s. But given their experience of internment and defeat and their continued fraught relationship with the new state, republicans faced unique pressures and conditions that shaped their collective identity as exiles rather than as emigrants per se. These push factors included police harassment and government repression, poor employment prospects and poverty [End Page 96] due to blacklisting, and a broader sense of postrevolutionary disillusionment.11 Yet given the minimal research on the subject, the relative importance of political, economic, and other catalysts to republican emigration remains unclear. What follows is the first sustained analysis of the IRA’s emigration problem following the Civil War. Volunteers (as members of the IRA were known) were joined overseas by thousands of republican noncombatants, but strictly speaking the...


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