In 1798, Irish patriots, committed to freeing their country from England, landed with a company of French troops in County Mayo, in westernmost Ireland. They were supposed to be an advance guard, followed by other French ships with the leader of the rebellion, Wolfe Tone. Briefly they triumphed, raising hopes among the impoverished local peasantry and gathering a group of supporters. But before long the insurgency collapsed in the face of a brutal English counterattack.
Very few books succeed in registering the sudden terrible impact of historical events; Thomas Flanagan’s is one. Subtly conceived, masterfully paced, with a wide and memorable cast of characters, The Year of the French brings to life peasants and landlords, Protestants and Catholics, along with old and abiding questions of secular and religious commitments, empire, occupation, and rebellion. It is quite simply a great historical novel.
Named the most distinguished work of fiction in 1979 by the National Book Critics’ Circle.
…a circumspect and grippingly authentic account that stands as a stark warning against the romanticisation of torrid times. The result is a classic of historical fiction
—The Times (London)
I recall the excitement when this book was published in the late 1970’s - and then discovered (not always the case) that the book merited it. Flanagan, an American history professor of Irish descent, pulled off a substantial coup in that he brought a historian’s training to bear upon a romantic moment, the period when the French landed in the west of Ireland in 1798 and all Ireland thought liberation was at hand. His research never lies around the novel in pools, it stains the entire fabric, so that when his character’s point of view is emerging from a dispossessed farmer’s clay hovel or a small town merchant’s table in the local hotel, we smell them - their clothes, their breath and (this is Ireland after all) their politics.
—Frank Delaney, The Guardian
A masterwork of historical fiction.
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
The book’s wide-ranging scope and erudition are reminiscent of Tolstoy.
This deserves every major literary prize.
In his prodigious first novel, Thomas Flanagan grants this historic episode a new and panoramic life….[a] thoughtful, graceful elegy.
—Mayo Mohs, Time
Such a brutal and pathetic story would alone have sufficed to make this book absorbing, but Flanagan has much more on his mind. He means to create not only a plausible sense of place and character, and an accurate account of evens, but to recreate, from barroom to manor hall, the entire intellectual and emotional climate of the time….not only a serious book…but a distinguished one as well.
—Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek
I haven’t so enjoyed a historical novel since The Charterhouse of Parma and War and Peace.
—John Leonard, The New York Times
…handsomely written…[a] splendid novel.
—Denis Donogue, The New York Review of Books
Thomas Flanagan was one of Irish-America’s—one of the literary world’s—great treasures. He wrote in flowing, baroque sentences that defied literary conventions born of minimalism and the modern attention span. His novels had texture and context, and were—astonishingly—critical successes and popular bestsellers.
— Terry Golway, The Irish Echo