The Year of the French

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The exportation of revolution has become a common international pastime in our own century, but it is nothing new. The American colonists, successful in their rebellion against the British crown, served as an example to others but were too busy settling a new nation to play any really active role in foreign upheavals. The French, however, were both more militant and more evangelical. When their own successful revolution of 1789 had been accomplished and the ensuing bloodbath had subsided, they looked to the world around them with speculative eyes. They sensed the opportunities that foreign rebellion might offer, and the imperialist urge was upon them. Like many of the revolutionary nations that have arisen since their time, they were far less interested in liberation of the oppressed than in their own enhancement as an instrument of power.

The French Directory had, from the time its position was consolidated, been petitioned by Irish revolutionaries. These activists were firmly convinced that if French troops could be provided to assist them, their own people would rise up and overthrow a British occupation force that had oppressed them for centuries.

To the French, Ireland presented tempting possibilities. England was a formidable adversary, and Ireland was England’s granary. In 1796, a French invasion fleet sailed for Ireland but was held offshore by gales known forever after among the Irish as “the Protestant winds.” The expedition returned to France; Theobald Wolfe Tone, emissary of the Society of United Irishmen, renewed his petitions.

By this time the French were turning their attention to a rising young military genius named Bonaparte, whose ambitions lay in Egypt. By 1798, Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign was well under way, and the French military effort was directed to his support. Wolfe Tone nevertheless managed to persuade General Humbert that Ireland was closer than ever to a general uprising and that another French expedition could not fail to free his country from British domination.

Humbert gambled on Ireland, hoping to upstage Bonaparte by winning victories while his competitor was bogged down in Egypt. He obtained three frigates and assembled a modest force: 1,066 officers and troops, some field artillery, and five thousand muskets for distribution to the rebels. After delays that were to prove costly, he embarked for Ireland; he had been given assurances that a larger fleet would follow him when his military successes indicated that further support was justified.

Humbert’s campaign was doomed before it started, for he sailed too late to aid the Irish rebels who had already risen, and his supporting fleet sailed too late to retrieve his own situation. When it finally arrived in Irish waters it was intercepted by Admiral Warren’s squadron. In a military sense, the Irish campaign lasted only three weeks, but in terms of inception and aftermath it covered some seven months. Thomas Flanagan’s brilliantly evocative novel tells the story of that summer and autumn, which subsequently passed into Irish history and folklore as Bliadhain na bhFranncach—the year of the French.

This novel is no romance, replete with derring-do and high-spirited adventure set against an exotic background. It is instead a sober and painstaking account of human struggle, an evocation of a land and a people. A study of human ignorance as well as human character, it explores those vast gulfs that can lie between individuals or groups and prevent any semblance of understanding.

Although these gulfs always exist in a revolutionary climate, they were unusually pronounced in Ireland. British colonial policies, often beneficial to the nations governed by them, simply did not work in Ireland unless implemented in draconian ways. The Irish were never pacified, but they were thoroughly fragmented; it is doubtful whether the complexities of animosity have ever reached a higher level in any other setting. The English living in Ireland had in many cases been there for generations, and some of them wanted freedom for the country, but they remained essentially English. To these Protestants, the Irish were always an incomprehensible and alien race. They spoke an outlandish tongue, were superstitious, and believed in myths and legends going far back into prehistory; they laughed or wept as the spirit moved them; they loved music and poetry; they were convivial, they brawled, they danced—even under conditions of the most appalling poverty. Worse, they were Papists. The sober English Protestant, still carrying his burden of Puritanism, equated all this with savagery and sloth. Richard Edgeworth, who appears briefly in the novel, provides a splendid example of insight that implies neither approval nor...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)