Sir Walter Scott, inventor and first master of the genre, recommended in his prefaces to the Waverley novels that historical fiction should focus on periods of intense change and examine the triumph of one culture over another. Not long after, the German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel despaired of ever seeing a true historical literature in his homeland, simply because nothing of any consequence ever happened in the political arena.
Historical novelist Thomas Flanagan has claimed as his fictional domain exactly the sort of political situation that Hebbel found so barren: the centuries-old stalemate that has characterized the Irish bid for independence. Flanagan’s widely acclaimed first novel, The Year of the French (1979), took as its subject an actual historical incident, an unsuccessful attempt by the French revolutionary government of 1798 to strike a blow against Great Britain by supporting an Irish uprising. The rebellion was quickly put down, its instigators were rounded up and punished, and the incident was forgotten. The glorious cause of Irish independence was no nearer to realization than it had been before the uprising.
With a cast of thousands, multiple narrators, and rapid changes of scene, The Year of the French deservedly earned for Flanagan critical recognition as a brilliant new voice in historical fiction. In The Tenants of Time, Flanagan again blends fact and fiction, historical figures and invented characters. The historical basis of the novel is the abortive Fenian uprising of 1867. To explore the background and the consequences of this event, Flanagan has created a fictitious town, Kilpeder, where the tragedy of Ireland is played out on a small scale.
At the center of The Year of the French is the Irish poet Owen MacCarthy, caught up in the French conspiracy after being seduced by his own propaganda. The main character in The Tenants of Time is another writer, the young Oxford-trained historian Patrick Prentiss. In 1904, Prentiss travels to Kilpeder, in a remote corner of Ireland, to collect firsthand testimony from any surviving participants in the uprising.
In his study of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle remarked that history is a distillation of rumor. Prentiss is all too familiar with the popular history of the Kilpeder rebellion, a history that consists mainly of pothouse ballads and apocryphal eyewitness accounts. He hopes to go beyond the rumors, to “see” the historical event in a way that the great masters—Macaulay, Jules Michelet, Thomas Carlyle—never managed to do. Prentiss’ goal is to know this one particular moment fully, something his intellectual London friends warn him can never be done. “It is like those kaleidoscopes we had when we were children. Such lovely patterns, but then a turn of the wrist, and the bits of colour would fall about, and make an entirely new one.”
The basic facts of the case are clear enough. In 1867, a determined young captain in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Ned Nolan, is dispatched from his native New York City to Kilpeder to take control of an enthusiastic but undisciplined group of partriots. The planned uprising in Kilpeder is supposed to take place in conjunction with similar Fenian attacks all over Ireland: This is the grandiose ambition of the Brotherhood. Nolan bears an elaborately lettered set of papers from the Brotherhood’s leaders, all of whom are living in America, “Our New Ireland Beyond the Waves.” He wins the group’s loyalty, drills them in the techniques of modern warfare (which he learned fighting in the American Civil War), arms them with stolen weapons, and leads them in a bold attack on the British Constabulary, or the local police barracks. The skirmish, as it is called in the British tabloids, ends in a rout. The frightened, defeated rebels are pursued through the snow-filled Clonbrony Woods, captured, and speedily brought to trial.
The fate of the rebels at Kilpeder mirrors that of the entire uprising. At first, public sentiment is unanimously opposed to the Fenians, who are looked upon not only as dangerous renegades but as incompetents as well. As they are gradually released from prison, however, reports of excessive British cruelty work to shift opinion in their...
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