Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan

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Victoria Glendinning

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Thomas Flanagan is no Tolstoy and he has not written a new "War and Peace"; but "The Year of the French" is sufficiently colored by his intense and informed obsession with place and period for the reader with plenty of time (this is a long, dense novel) to be drawn deep into County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, in the year 1798. (p. 12)

Mr. Flanagan's method is mainly documents-with-dialogue, and one of his problems has been that the [French invasion of Ireland in 1798] is fairly well documented. If he had used contemporary accounts verbatim, he would not have been writing a "novel." So he cooked the books a bit. For example, one of the chief sources for what went on in Killala is a manuscript narrative by Bishop Stock, the Protestant prelate whose palace in Killala was used as a headquarters by the French. Mr. Flanagan substitutes for Bishop Stock an imaginary clergyman named Broome, whose house is likewise taken over by the French, and who contributes a similar—but not too similar—narrative. Mr. Flanagan works largely through fictional journal entries of this kind, creating an illusion of authenticity by editorial mock-documentation. Anyone who wants to sift fact from fiction will find the story of 1798 well told in Thomas Pakenham's "The Year of Freedom."

Where Mr. Flanagan scores is in his overall historical vision. He has a concept of "mental maps" that is the key to his own perspective. The Mayo peasant's map, for example, is bounded by his own fields; for him, "Dublin, Belfast, Cork, words scattered across the map of a small island, were cities more remote than Rome or Bethlehem." Differences in mental geography explain the disjunction of aims. The cultivated leaders of the United Irishmen were "intellectual" patriots; they had read Rousseau and Tom Paine, and discussed them in drawing rooms in Dublin, London and Paris. They wanted self-determination for Ireland….

The French general [Humbert] was seeking glory for himself first and for the Revolution second. The Mayo peasants whom he came to lead knew nothing of the French Revolution; their bitterness was not against the English monarchy, or the English Parliament, or even the Dublin Parliament. They knew next to nothing about them. They hated the punishing tithes they were forced to pay, and they could, if worked upon, hate Protestants. They were unlikely allies of the revolutionaries from the cleanlinen world of order and "civilization."…

It is on the evocation of these dispossessed, fanatical, hungry Mayo peasants that the book stands or falls, and it stands…. This was a people trapped in, yet sustained by, their own myth and their own tongue…. It is they, whom the French came to "free" for their own imperialistic purposes, who were the losers in 1798. Thirty thousand people were killed in Ireland during that year. (p. 35)

Victoria Glendinning, "Mission to Mayo," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1979, pp. 12, 35.

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