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The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan
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The Year of the French (1979)

by Thomas Flanagan

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It must be said immediately, that [The Year of the French] figures among one of the "hardest" emotional reads of my life--perhaps disproportionately because of my immersion in Irish music (and therefore culture, as the two are completely intertwined)--as I had a strong and relentless emotional reaction the entire time I was reading this novel, which does not read like a novel, but like a first-hand account of what happened, in a few weeks in August 1798, when the French, under General Humbert, landed in Killala, Mayo and made a short, vicious, confused, and ultimately doomed attempt to make their way to Dublin and Irish Independence. It might be possible to read this novel without being deeply affected, but really, I find that unlikely. Frankly, I can't imagine anyone who doesn't care about Ireland bothering to read it, that being the way of things. Be that as it may, Flanagan manages to show EVERY point of view with compassion (with maybe the exception of English people in England--supremely oblivious to their own prejudices), from the schoolmaster poet, to protestant and papist gentry (involved and not involved), to clergymen, and to the women (it must be said, they figure in a minor way, but not shallowly the few who do figure.) I have learned much about how music figures in Irish life, "No people on earth, I am persuaded, loves music so well, nor dance, nor oratory, though the music falls strangely upon my ears, and the eloquence is either in a language i cannot understand or else in an English stiff, bombastic, and ornate . . . More than once I have been at Mr. Treacy's when, at close of dinner, some travelling harper would be called in, blind as often as not, his fingernails kept long and the mysteries of his art hidden in their horny ridges. The music would come to us with the sadness of a lost world . . . " "Terrible people, musicians, wedded to their wood and catgut, caressing them like lovers." The schoolmaster/poet Owen McCarthy: "Moonlight glancing from stone or metal washed across his mind, faded. That was the worst of it with poems. The meaning was right there, in the image itself, and you had no idea what it meant, but the image knew. The image was wiser than the poet. It disclosed itself when it was good and ready, casually, totally." A protestant clergyman sits in his house, one last night before the English take back the town of, with the young man who was both his captor and guard, both knowing the young man will die the next day, in silence and friendship with no words that could possibly said between them. "Neither of us speaks. Men are shouting in the street outside. At last he raises his hand, then drops it again to the table. I have a vivid recollection of the scene, and yet it lacks significance, a random memory. But what if the mysterious truth is locked within such moments?"
This same clergyman concludes we do not learn from history, from experience yes, but each generation starts new. Books can convey something, but not enough. Alas. ***** ( )
3 vote sibyx | Oct 7, 2016 |
Talk about a book freighted with weird and erroneous expectations. I was nine when it was published, twelve when the momentous occasion of the Irish-made (or half-Irish-made) production locked the nation to their screens every Sunday night. It was a big deal. The book was ubiquitous. It seemed to be in every library, bookshop, house, waiting room and - seeing as my Dad was a mechanic - left under the back window of half the cars in Ireland. All I knew was that I wanted nothing to do with it. Irish history is REALLY DEPRESSING. Also bloody. No matter what happens everyone dies in the end. And not peacefully in their beds surrounded by loved ones. They're hanged. Shot. Bayoneted. Blown apart by cannon balls. Ridden down by big cavalryman waving terrifying sabres. There's also the odd burning at the stake, being flayed with whips and, big favourite, being drawn and quartered to go with the hanging. And that's to say nothing of the wretched thousands in a constant state of starvation just filling in the background.

The same, it seemed to me, was also true of most Irish literature, whether it be books, poems or plays. Anytime I watch The Importance Of Being Earnest I almost expect it to end with the cast dangling wittily from a highly fashionable yet slightly disreputable gallows. Is it any bloody wonder I preferred the cosier, warmer, gentler escapes of Stephen King and Clive flippin' Barker? Irish history made The Books Of Blood look like See Spot Run.

I also knew, because I was taught history in an Irish school, that we have a way of valorising our struggles, complaining about our oppression, sentimentalising all the death and torture, ennobling the suffering of the peasants, and bitterly blaming it all on the Brits. It seemed only safe to assume that Thomas Flanagan did the same. At best it would be a torrid pot-boiler, at worst it would be a trudging rehearsal of every grievance and injustice inflicted on the long-suffering Gaels, a tragic failure of yet another struggle for freedom.

So, yes, I avoided the book and the series.

Given this attitude, I have no idea why I actually picked the damn thing up and read it. I simply saw a copy and made the decision. It seemed removed enough from my school days and Sunday nights in 1982 running through the living room and stealing glances at the television, terrified lest I see a hanging or a keening widda or a barefoot orphan being bullied by a landlord. The time had finally come to see what all the fuss was about.

If there is a better literary historical novel dealing with the subject of Ireland then I desperately want to read it. Heck, if there are any out there only half as good I want to know about them. This is an astonishing, sweeping, vivid, impassioned portrait of a deeply dysfunctional world thrown into an ugly state of chaos and violence that is as pointless and fruitless as it is sudden and appalling. Written with incredible skill, mimicking the disparate Irish and English voices faultlessly, invoking both the beauty and grim drudgery of the landscape, examining the lives lived on all levels of society and justifying them to the reader without ever trying to apologise or to avoid implicating them for their actions, this is a panoramic novel of intellectual weight and cumulative emotional power. It tackles the ugly sectarian, social, political, economic and cultural divisions that renders conflict and hatred inevitable. The various sections of Irish society are utterly alien to each other and there is no bridging the gaps save through small simple acts of humanity that are dwarfed by the sheer weight of history.

Flanagan deftly creates a series of fully realised characters to serve as witnesses to the tragic events. A poet, a parson, a United Irishman, a Catholic landowner. George Moore, the latter, is one of the few not carried away by the forces unleashed when the French land. His brother, however, is swept along by the tide, and not even his cold aloofness can protect him from the consequences.

As expected, it all ends very very badly for an awful lot of people. Flanagan absolves nobody for their actions, but neither does he withhold judgment from the conditions that make them almost inevitable. The two great powers, Britain and France, regard Ireland as little more than a distraction and the bulk of Irish people as little more than savages ruled by a corrupt, incompetent, self-serving gentry. It's a horrible mess, but a mess it must remain for reasons economic, social, religious and, thanks to the charming theories of Rev Malthus, ideological. It's almost unbearable, and this is only ONE incident, relatively insignificant, in centuries of bloody history. Is it any wonder we hate to think about it? Is it any wonder that those who do think about it are driven nearly half-mad by it?

Strumpet City is getting a lot of attention at the moment, and I hope to read it myself in the next few weeks. For now, though, I think I'll set aside this brilliant, shining, monumental work and pick up something less appallingly upsetting. Something with the end of the world and zombies. That should cheer me up and restore my faith in humanity a little.

( )
1 vote Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
This is one of the finest historical novels I have read for many years. I was about to write that it tells the story of the Irish uprsisng of 1798, but in fact "telling the story" is precisely what it does not do - at least not in the old-fashioned sense of a story: something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and (usually) clearly defined good guys and bad guys. Instead it teases out the "meaning" of the event by looking at it from different angles. The "point of view" changes every few pages, events beng seen through the eyes of different characters, sometimes in the form of first person accounts written at a later date. Even meaning, or THE meaning, comes to seem a bit too simplistic a term. The events have a different meaning for each character, and the tragedy that emerges has a lot to do with the blindness of even the most well-meaning of them to the outlook of the others. There are few actual villains - and those on whom I would put that description are basically those whose blindness has become pyschotic.

My own view of Irish history, as a Socialist, has always been that Irish nationalism was a cul-de-sac into which the Irish allowed themselves to be led by escewing economic analysis in favour of romanticism. There is much to support that outlook in this novel; and also much to give pause to it.

Oh, and he does bring the period alive. One point the book makes, is that the rising was not an event with a clear end. It lived on in memory and history taking on new forms. But at the same time it was a real event in which real people lived, suffered, triumphed, and died.

I confess it was at times a bit confusing, there were perhaps a few too many different narrations, although contradictingly, I sometimes thought of viewpoints thet we were not being given. When I fot to the end I found a long list of the characters. Had I known it was there I would have found it useful to consult as I read.
1 vote GeorgeBowling | Nov 3, 2012 |
Sadly I am coming to the end of this wonderful novel which has absorbed me for weeks. It is complex and harrowing in its account of a brutal period of Irish history, the rebellion of 1798. I now have a deeper understanding of the Irish rebel songs which so intrigued me when I fell in love with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem all those years ago. I can't wait to read the other novels of this master writer. With thanks to Melbourne City Library for the loan!
  leonie_b | Aug 19, 2010 |
1523 The Year of the French A Novel by Thomas Flanagan (read 28 June 1979) (National Book Critics Circle fiction award for 1979) Because of my great interest in Irish history, I decided to read this book, a current novel about the 1798 French expedition to Ireland. It is exceptionally well-written, though rather plotless. It tells of the matter, from the time before the French landed (in Mayo) till the entire matter was over. The book paints very vivid pictures, and one feels one knows Mayo in 1798 after one is finished. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jan 5, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 159017108X, Paperback)

In 1798, Irish patriots, committed to freeing their country from England, landed with a company of French troops in County Mayo, in westernmost Ireland. They were supposed to be an advance guard, followed by other French ships with the leader of the rebellion, Wolfe Tone. Briefly they triumphed, raising hopes among the impoverished local peasantry and gathering a group of supporters. But before long the insurgency collapsed in the face of a brutal English counterattack.

Very few books succeed in registering the sudden terrible impact of historical events; Thomas Flanagan's is one. Subtly conceived, masterfully paced, with a wide and memorable cast of characters, The Year of the French brings to life peasants and landlords, Protestants and Catholics, along with old and abiding questions of secular and religious commitments, empire, occupation, and rebellion. It is quite simply a great historical novel.

Named the most distinguished work of fiction in 1979 by the National Book Critics' Circle.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:02 -0400)

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"In 1798, Irish patriots, committed to freeing their country from England, landed with a company of French troops in County Mayo, in westernmost Ireland. They were supposed to be an advance guard, followed by other French troops with the leader of the rebellion, Wolfe Tone. Briefly they triumphed, raising hopes among the impoverished local peasantry and gathering a group of supporters. But before long the insurgency collapsed in the face of a brutal English counterattack" --Cover p. [4].… (more)

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