On Thomas Flanagan (1923–2002)

On March 16 this year Thomas Flanagan reviewed a history of St. Patrick’s Day for The Irish Times and was identified by the paper’s literary editor as “a novelist and scholar…currently working on a book about Irish-American writers.” When he died in Berkeley from a heart attack five days later, he had submitted to this magazine his piece on William Kennedy and with that had completed a first draft of the work in progress.

But Tom had completed more than a manuscript. As his recent essays on Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, John Ford, and others continued to appear in The New York Review there was a sense of a life’s work being rounded off. His 1959 study, The Irish Novelists 1800–1850, not only rescued the work of Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, John Banim, Gerard Griffin, and William Carleton from critical neglect, it turned the novelists themselves into vividly imagined figures and created a country of the mind as well as a field of study. Here was somebody whose narrative gifts and feel for the historical conditions in Ireland made him an artistic heir of the writers in question, a role that he would fulfill ever more copiously in the ensuing years with the publication of The Year of the French (1979), The Tenants of Time (1988), and The End of the Hunt (1994). These novels, covering the history of Ireland from the 1798 Rebellion to the War of Independence and Civil War, have earned Flanagan a place in Irish literature alongside the writer friends he knew and loved: Frank O’Connor, Benedict Kiely, and many others.

Tom Flanagan amazed literary Dublin in the early Sixties by his encyclopedic knowledge of the history and topography of the country (the story goes that on his first taxi ride from the airport he was so immersed in Joyce he could name the streets and the buildings) but in the end he was reckoning with the American side of his heritage and the recent essays sound a definite valedictory note. He had spent the St. Patrick’s weekend in New York where he met his agent, linked up with old friends from earlier days in Manhattan, with poets and diplomats in town from Dublin, and watched the parade from the balcony of the American Irish Historical Society’s premises on Fifth Avenue. It was a lap of honor, and probably understood as such by all concerned, since he had grown frailer in the past year, after the death of his wife, Jean, and in the words of Hopkins, “a heavenlier heart began.”

Not that he had lost any of his earthly powers. Mind and tongue were as sharp as ever, slovenliness of style or banality of judgment still made him wince, and he continued to enjoy himself and exceed himself as he had always done, by reading, writing, and recounting his stories. Nobody I knew got more pleasure from the sheer doing of a piece of prose: he relished every cogency and cadence, every feint and…


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