The Year of the French, the first novel of Thomas Flanagan,… tells an astonishing and terrible story. It is certainly the finest historical novel by an American to appear in more than a decade.
The center of Flanagan's book is a combined French-Irish military venture, with a bright beginning and a deadly close, during a single summer in 1798. Around this Irish rebellion against the British he builds up a complex, brilliantly styled narrative that plays off omniscient survey against the partial views of no less than five contemporary witnesses—a Church of Ireland minister, a Catholic village schoolmaster, a youthful English aide to General Cornwallis, a solicitor member of the Society of United Irishmen, and the solicitor's English wife. Through these marvelously evoked and distinct voices the very complicated and conflicted social realities of late 18th-century Ireland come to life. Dozens of vividly conceived characters of both sexes—Protestant and Catholic fanatics, peasants and poets, landowners and militia men, the historically noted and the nameless obscure—take the stage in his epic drama.
In 1798 in counties Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny, thousands of country-people, commanded by gentlemen republicans belonging to the United Irish movement of Wolfe Tone, and by some half-mad priests of charismatic character, fought British army regulars and well-armed bands of loyalist yeomenry. There were frightful atrocities committed on both sides before the native insurgents gave way to superiority of arms, numbers, and organization. The next theater of rebellion was in the north, where insurgency failed quickly owing to seeds of distrust between Catholic and Presbyterian rebels. Finally, during that summer of '98, the revolutionary spotlight switched to the remote coast of North Mayo.
There, at Killala, to everyone's surprise, a French expeditionary force of one thousand soldiers under the leadership of the well-known General Humbert came ashore and headed inland….
Humbert, after making contact with local leadership in the United Irish organization and with "White Boy" agrarian terrorists, marched to Castlebar where he defeated a large army of British regulars under General Lake….
[But] General Humbert's quixotic, possibly mad adventure ended at Ballinamuck—"the place of the pig"—in a dismal part of County Longford. Hordes of British cavalry surrounded his exhausted and disoriented force. The French immediately surrendered and were escorted to Dublin where they were billeted in comfortable inns before being repatriated to France. But the Irish were not allowed to surrender. Instead they were driven out onto the bog, where the cavalry and foot dragoons had a field day sabering and bayoneting them to death over a period of several hours.
As he masterfully traces the full course of this most brutal and eccentric military campaign, Flanagan avoids partisan myths while deploying his ironies, wryly, compassionately, authoritatively. In part he benefits from the recent harvest of Irish historical scholarship. But The Year of the French is itself a permanent contribution to the new, demythologized history of Ireland. Without doubt it will find a wide audience of serious readers here in the United States and in the three European countries from which the book's cast of characters is drawn.
Julian Moynahan, "Historical Fiction at Its Finest," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), May 13, 1979, p. K5.