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.
Original publication date
We follow through the eyes of different
The weakness of the middle classes, and its reliance on the Irish peasants who want a Celtic Ireland free of all landlords tragically undermine the rebellion with serious consequences. Ireland looses its political independence for an 100 years and its Irish culture. And the failure of the French leaves the way open to the rise of Bonaparte as a key political General looses the ability to counter his rise to power.
Its not a dry historical account or an historical romance. The book uses live action with a range of letters, journals, histories etc to build up the complexity of motives, views of both sides so you the reader are involved as a judge of history to weigh up the whole picture rather then the myths of all sides.
I would recommend it but the different narrative formats require a concentration and can drag in places but if you pursue to the end it comes together in a grand sad ferocious sweep of a maybe moment in history.
My own view of Irish history, as a Socialist, has always been that Irish nationalism was a cul-de-sac into which the Irish allowed themselves to be led by escewing economic analysis in favour of romanticism. There is much to support that outlook in this novel; and also much to give pause to it.
Oh, and he does bring the period alive. One point the book makes, is that the rising was not an event with a clear end. It lived on in memory and history taking on new forms. But at the same time it was a real event in which real people lived, suffered, triumphed, and died.
I confess it was at times a bit confusing, there were perhaps a few too many different narrations, although contradictingly, I sometimes thought of viewpoints thet we were not being given. When I fot to the end I found a long list of the characters. Had I known it was there I would have found it useful to consult as I read.