The Irish imagination is dominated by the idea of circles and it tends to view history passively as a pattern of cycles. Although this can be a dangerous view to take, it subtly informs Thomas Flanagan's remarkable historical novel [The Year of the French]. (p. 61)
Flanagan has an unerring sense of the parallels between the political situation in 1798 and the events in Ulster over the last ten years. Thus the Mayo yeomanry are the shadowy and bigoted forerunners of the "B" Specials, the secret society called the Whiteboys of Killala is the Provisional IRA, while the brief "Republic of Connaught" parallels Free Derry nearly two centuries later. Flanagan has considerable sympathy for the aims and ideals of the United Irishmen … but he is also aware of what happens when ideology is translated into action….
Particularly interesting is Flanagan's presentation of Owen MacCarthy, the Gaelic poet who is caught up in the revolution. Through MacCarthy (he is partly based on Seamus Heaney) Flanagan explores the difficult relationship of poetry to politics in Ireland, and he expresses the historical reality which informs Heaney's powerful conclusion to "Triptych"….
[Through] the eyes of the sceptical historian, George Moore, we see how Ireland has always been "a maidservant to others"…. [The] French general, Humbert, becomes a prototype of those American congressmen who periodically interfere in Irish politics. Flanagan is also subtly aware of the "equivocal" nature of Loyalism, and by admitting every shade of political opinion he builds a rich, intelligent and exciting fiction. Although there are purple passages and moments of costume-drama in this novel, it is a splendid and heartening achievement which must prove influential and enduring. (p. 62)
Tom Paulin, "The Fire Monster," in Encounter (© 1980 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 57-64.∗