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The Stains of Ireland

The Year of the French

by Thomas Flanagan
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 555 pp., $12.95

In Irish history the year of the French is 1798, when the French after several failures succeeded in landing soldiers on the northwest coast of Ireland. On August 22 a force of 1,099 French officers and men landed at Kilcummin strand, five miles west of Killala in Mayo. These men were supposed to be the first troops of a major French invasion. If the winds had been favorable and the French as fully committed to an Irish invasion as the Irish were led to believe, thousands of French soldiers would have joined with Irish rebels and driven the English into the sea.

This did not happen. The rebels were untrained and unarmed. The French under General Humbert knew that they were outnumbered by the English under Lord Cornwallis and General Lake. Still, the English were routed at the first battle in Castlebar. There were skirmishes at Killala, Ballina, Tobercurry, Collooney, and Granard. Lake defeated Humbert at Ballinamuck, and the Irish, led by Ferdy O’Donnell, were broken at Ballina. By September 23 it was all over. The French who surrendered were sent home, but many of the Irish rebels, guilty of treason, were imprisoned and executed. The year of the French was only a month.

Thomas Flanagan’s novel tells the story of that month, so far as it affected the lives of the people of Mayo. But it also recites its events as they bear upon Irish history. The narrative really begins in 1791 when a Dublin barrister, Theobald Wolfe Tone, mindful of American success in revolution and glowing with the fervor of the revolution in France, founded the United Irishmen to free Ireland from England by force of arms.

In 1793, England was at war with France. On December 21, 1796, Tone’s attempts to persuade the French to invade Ireland seemed successful: on that day, a French fleet of thirty-five ships and 1,200 men reached Bantry Bay. But a storm prevented the ships from landing, and they were driven back to France. On May 24, 1798, Irish rebels started their own rising in Dublin, Wicklow, and Kildare. Within a few days the fight spread to Carlow and Wexford: by the first week of June, it had broken out in the north, where Tone’s colleague Henry Joy McCracken led his men in Antrim and Down. By July, the rising in the South had ended in defeat at Vinegar Hill, and the northern rebels were beaten at Ballynahinch.

When the French landed at Kilcummin, they were joined by Irishmen of two kinds: United Irishmen and Whiteboys. The Whiteboys were not interested in revolution or current events in France, they wanted to destroy the landlords who had evicted their tenants and driven them from reclaimed land. The United Irishmen were true revolutionaries, animated by a vision at once Irish and European. The Whiteboys have been discussed in prose, but the United Irishmen have dominated the popular poetry of Ireland. Nineteenth-century Irish poetry is pervaded by the vision of French and Irish joining to make Ireland free of the English. And in Joyce’s Ulysses, as in Flanagan’s novel, Ireland, personified as the sean bhean bhocht, the poor old woman, is recalled in her song:

Oh, the French are on the sea,
Says the Shan Van Vocht,
The French are on the sea,
Says the Shan Van Vocht,
Oh, the French are in the Bay,
They’ll be here without delay,
And the Orange will decay,
Says the Shan Van Vocht.

The last stanza asks and answers the only question:

And will Ireland then be free?
Says the Shan Van Vocht;
Will Ireland then be free?
Says the Shan Van Vocht.
Yes, Ireland shall be free
From the center to the sea;
Then hurrah for Liberty,
Says the Shan Van Vocht.

The folklore of Ireland has never forgotten that song. In Ulysses Mulligan explains to the Englishman Haines how the Martello tower in which they are living came to be built: “Billy Pitt had them built when the French were on the sea.” In the “Cyclops” chapter, when the Citizen exults in the rhetoric of Irish freedom achieved with the aid of “our greater Ireland beyond the sea,” Ned Lambert says, “we are a long time waiting for that day, citizen; since the poor old woman told us that the French were on the sea and landed in Killala.” “The French!” says the Citizen: “Set of dancing masters! They were never worth a roasted fart to Ireland.” In The Year of the French, the voice of history is not as spirited as the Citizen’s in Ulysses, but when Flanagan’s poet Owen MacCarthy sings the song of the Shan Van Vocht, the rueful United Irishman Malcolm Elliott says that if the French are on the sea, “it’s because it suits them.”

The Year of the French is the first novel Flanagan has published, but not his first book. In 1959 he published The Irish Novelists 1800-1850, a study of the fiction of Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, John Banim, Gerald Griffin, and William Carleton. While working on that book, he evidently read more Irish fiction than any other scholar before or since. He was sustained, I imagine, not only by an interest in Ireland far beyond the call of a scholar’s duty but by his feeling that the historical material might be turned to a fictional account; that something good in that way might be done which had scarcely been done since Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830-1834).

One of the many novels Flanagan discussed in The Irish Novelists is Banim’s The Croppy, which deals with the rising in Wexford in 1798. But a more immediate source of Flanagan’s novel is probably The Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1820), begun by Edgeworth and completed by his daughter Maria. A passage in the Memoirs tells how Edgeworth and his daughter rode to Ballinamuck a few days after Cornwallis had defeated the French and the Irish there. The French, as Flanagan mentions in The Irish Novelists, had been granted amnesty, “but the Irish had been bayonetted almost to a man, and their bodies lay in heaps upon the ground.” The Edgeworths and their journey to Ballinamuck become a splendid chapter in The Year of the French. I have a sense, reading the novel, that over the years the passions and confusions of 1798 have become living presences in Flanagan’s mind. He shows no sign of entertaining the modern misgivings about history, or doubt about the validity of historical writing. The landing at Kilcummin is deemed an important moment in the story of Ireland, and privileged for that reason.

The first chapters of the novel deal with conditions leading up to the invasion. Wolfe Tone is said to have offered the French “a sullen and discontented island sailing on England’s flank, a peasantry armed with pikes and aching for insurrection, a wide-flung revolutionary network controlled by radicals.” These chapters are recited by an impersonal narrator, the voice of history uttering its disinterested truth. Most of the later events are conveyed from different points of view and in suitably different styles. In certain chapters we hear the voice of history not in complete impersonality but as it yields itself to a particular character: it may be the historical Wolfe Tone; it may be John Moore (an ancestor of the novelist George Moore), a member of the Catholic gentry who was seen as a traitor when he went over to the United Irishmen; or it may be the wholly fictional poet Owen McCarthy who hovers on the edge of events, the observing, word-mongering poetic soul of Ireland, who is finally hung by the British. Still other chapters narrate the events through fictitious documents, such as An Impartial Narrative of What Passed at Killala in the Summer of 1798, by Arthur Vincent Broome, the local Protestant minister in the novel.

These devices make for variety in a long novel: the several points of view keep the reader sensitive to the proportions of ignorance and knowledge in any account of an experience. Another effect is that the characters and events in the novel are held at a certain distance, as if to prevent the reader from having only an immediate relation to them; he is to see them not only as they were but as they have become. I imagine, too, that Flanagan was reluctant to produce his characters when they had nothing to show for themselves but their bewilderment: he chose to let them stay in the shadow until they had come to understand the various forms of darkness in which they had lived.

I assume that this is what it means for Flanagan to be a historical novelist: every event, every character, has a dual existence in which past and present are diversely engaged. The reader is not gripped by the events as they occur: his concern is drawn to the events as they have occurred and to the stain of outrage and desolation they have left upon the people who suffered them. Mostly we come upon the events when their form and consequence have already been assessed. There is a loss of immediacy, our interest is not allowed to fasten upon a character as distinct from his role in the story as a whole.

But there is a gain in the depth and resonance of the characters; when we meet them, they have already been changed by their experience. Broome, for instance, is given to us not when he is in the throes of his suffering but when he has survived it; his tone of bewildered care shows that he has been transformed, driven far beyond the range of qualities he would have produced as the local Protestant minister in a peaceful town. We are interested in him mainly for what he has been through, and for the generosity of his vision, flawed as it is:

I know myself to be vain and affected when I bring Gibbon to mind as I turn the pages of my own poor narrative. Against the enormous fall of mighty empire, I set a squabble in a remote province, a ragbag army of peasants, files of yeoman and militia, ploughboys hanged from crossroads gallows. And the chronicler is but my poor self, a confused clergyman with an indifferent education, a lover of comfort and civility and buttered toast. How confident and false now sounds to me my opening chapter, where I would be the Gibbon of Mayo, setting forth the contending parties upon the eve of conflict, the several social classes, the topography, the weather…. Yet now my words lie dead upon the page, like blackened hulls upon the sands.

Each event is seen not only in its immediate light but in the light of the idea it embodied or humiliated: the mediations issue from Flanagan’s sense of modern Irish history, the shapes it has taken in his mind.

It is my impression that Flanagan organized the novel in this way not chiefly for the pleasure of managing several viewpoints and styles but to ensure that the conflicts of class, religion, tradition, and self-interest would be disclosed and interrogated. Impartiality is achieved by admitting to the narrative several different forms of partiality. If, as Walter Benjamin remarked, history is invariably recited in favor of those who have won, Flanagan is alert to the fact that in Ireland the narrative of history is still indecisive. His rhetoric does not say that we Irishmen are brothers under the torn skin, or that our differences are the kind that can be sunk. But the many different attitudes in the book at least reveal in the characters motives far more diverse than those proclaimed by our warring ideologies. Given a favorable wind, the book might do something to make the antagonists a little ashamed of themselves, but I do not expect such a wind.

Flanagan’s own position in the novel deserves a few words. He does not speak in his own person; nor does he identify himself with the voice of history. Strictly speaking, he does not come into the book at all; but in another sense he is pervasive. Most readers will feel, as I do, that the novel is handsomely written, but the urge to remark upon its prose arises from the fact that the book is indeed a written thing. We are made aware of the writing, not because the sentences are histrionic or self-regarding but because a pervasive unity of tone suggests that ultimately the prejudices of each style may be reconciled. Since each viewpoint is acknowledged, it is allowed to speak for itself and given an appropriately positive style: one man, one rhetoric. But the tone of the whole book is also felt as issuing from a certain perspective, and the perspective must be pretty high if it is to accommodate every viewpoint decently. None of the styles is transparent, because none can be given the privilege of appearing to issue directly from the events, undarkened by prejudice. Even the voice of history is allowed to sound troubled.

The organization of Flanagan’s novel is an act of rhetoric: that is the main point. Prejudices can be entertained only by a style which runs to a certain grandeur of implication: decency, like the historical novel, requires a certain latitude of sympathy. But I must admit that Flanagan favors a rather high style even for the daily purposes of scholarship. He likes a rich mixture of tropes. In a sullen mood, you would accuse him of fine writing: even in a genial mood, you would sometimes tremble for the safety of his soul, so ardently given to the webbing of words. At the end of The Irish Novelists there is a sentence which incorporates one of Yeats’s most flashing phrases, without quotation marks, as if Flanagan thought the poet’s rhetoric indistinguishable from his own:

To understand the Ireland which shaped two such different men as Yeats and Joyce, one must move back, as we have done, beyond the thronging murmurs of the Dublin streets, beyond the waste of the empty decades, beyond the fields and valleys swept bare of all life, beyond the final delirium of the brave.

True, a writer is not under oath in the last few paragraphs of his book. Still Flanagan takes notable risks and evidently enjoys surviving them. In the novel, he insures himself against a sullen reader by ascribing most of the lush passages to the poet MacCarthy. A poet who comes from the Irish bardic tradition, bringing not only the Irish poetry but Ovid and Virgil, can get away with nearly any excess: drink, lechery, high talk. But there are also high passages in which the normally impersonal narrator leans down and gives a helping hand to a character supposedly in need of such assistance. Here is a description of Ellen Treacy, fiancée of the rebel leader, John Moore, riding home to Bridge-end House:

On a rise of ground from which she could see the distant bay, she stopped and sat motionless, the reins slack in her thin, capable hands. The bay was empty, not a sail or a hull in sight, the water lifeless and gray. History had come to them upon those waters, three foreign ships riding at anchor, filled with men, muskets, cannon. History had come ashore at Kilcummin strand, watched by fishermen standing beside their huts. Poetry made actual. Not her mother’s, not Goldsmith or The Seasons by Mr. Thomson. “Now the soft hour of walking comes for him who lonely loves to seek the distant hills.” That other, older poetry inscribed on sheets of parchment in her father’s study, the black letters of an alphabet remote from English, with prophecies of ships from France, gold from Spain, the deliverance of the Gael, History, poetry, abstractions, words which had transformed and shattered her world.

It is beautiful, I would not want a word changed. But I would find it hard to refute the charge that “poetry made actual” is Flanagan’s perception, not Ellen Treacy’s, and that the invocation to history is Flanagan or the Voice of History putting notions into Ellen’s simple mind. It is ventriloquism, a sullen reader would say. Or it is Flanagan drawing Ellen Treacy toward the high perspective of his narrative style, lest some of her remote possibilities remain undisclosed. That, too, is a way of putting it, a more persuasive one.

Flanagan’s knowledge of Irish history, mythology, religion, local customs has colored his style, but it would be absurd to ask him to bleach his style or empty his mind. When his poet MacCarthy says, “You were slaves on this land before Christ was crucified,” a reader may recall that the last phrase turns up in Yeats, who received it from Frank O’Connor, who translated it from the Gaelic. The recollection doesn’t matter, we are not playing the flat historic scale. Only one passage in the novel seemed wrong to me; a bout of military talk, two soldiers mouthing obscenities in Castlebar in 1798 which I would find convincing if ascribed to soldiers in Belfast today. For the rest, while the styles are rhetorically daring, I find them justified or at least justifiable. And there are hundreds of passages in which the question of risk or justification doesn’t arise, they authenticate themselves.

The novel ends with the fictitious diary of the local schoolteacher, Sean MacKenna, in the summer of 1799. The French invasion and the battle of Castlebar are already moving from fact into mythology. The three French ships that landed at Kilcummin are now fancied by a local peasant to have “masts so tall that you could not see the tops of them and on the tallest mast of all was an eagle called King Lewis.” The eagle, so they say, went with the soldiers into the midlands, “but on the night before the battle the eagle flew off and the battle was lost.” Flanagan implies that we must go back through lore and mythology to find the motives, noble and shoddy, which provided the events and the need to transform them into poetry. But he is not cynical, he lets the reader see how natural it is that events are transformed, out of need and desire. The facts are not to be thought away, but they cannot be transfixed, arrested in their nature; the novel recognizes the need to transform them from their own nature into ours, so that they become at last indistinguishable from ourselves.

Such facts as these persist, and are invoked at the end of Flanagan’s novel. In November 1798 Wolfe Tone committed suicide while waiting to be executed. In the summer of 1800 the English persuaded the Irish Parliament to vote itself out of existence. Catholic Emancipation was not included in the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland which became law on January 1, 1801. Those prisoners who had not been executed were transported to the West Indies and Botany Bay. There was a plan to send some of the United Irishmen to America, but President Adams would not have it, they were too dangerous. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805 ensured that the French would never again try to invade Ireland. The next phase of Irish history was concentrated upon Catholic Emancipation, with Daniel O’Connell its leader. “A people sheltered within his voice,” as Ulysses says. That is another story, and it starts where Flanagan’s splendid novel ends.

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