I remember watching, as a very young lad, the 1982 RTÉ-Channel 4-France3 co-production The Year of the French, an adaptation of Thomas Flanagan’s novel about the 1798 Rebellion (or Revolution, as it has come to be erroneously known). It is striking how vividly I remember the mini-series, which I watched compulsively every Sunday night and despite not having seen it since I can still recall the title sequence where a sleándigs brutally into the ground in extreme close-up. Likewise I remember the scenes at the end where the rebels are hanged for their acts, especially the face of the Romantic hero, the rakish Gaelic poet-hedgeschool-master Eoghan Ruath MacCarthaigh. I had suspected that my admiration for the show might have been a bit misplaced because of how young I was at the time but a few people a good deal older than me have confirmed my memories of it. Which makes one wonder why it has never been screened since – to the best of my knowledge it did not even get an airing during the bicentenary commemorations nine years ago – or released on video or DVD.
Flanagan’s novel stood on the shelf at home for years when I was growing up, not too far from Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, another doorstopping bestseller that was adapted for TV at the time. Because of this I imagined for a long time that Flanagan’s novel was a Leon Uris-style potboiler, a novel that peddled comfortable truths about the glorious failure that was the rebellion and the foundation of modern Irish Republicanism. Last year I came across a re-issue of the book, published by the New York Review of Books, a publication that usually knows a good thing when it sees it. Flanagan, a third-generation Irish-American from Connecticut, and a childhood friend of Truman Capote, was a pre-eminent scholar of Irish literature – particularly the nineteenth-century, pre-Celtic Twilight variety, and published often in the NYRB, which has also re-issued his collected essays. He was one of those Americans (of whom there have been quite a few) that knew Ireland and its history better than many natives of the island, and he brought his extensive reading of 18th and 19th century writing to bear on the stylistic and political tour-de-force that was this, his first, novel.
The 1798 rebellion, like much of Irish history, is enveloped in the mists of collective memory and is usually evoked as an event far more cogent and straightforwardly noble than it actually was. From a modern perspective, it seems like an easy choice to make between the two principles: an avowedly non-sectarian Republican movement founded on Enlightenment ideals versus a foetid, decrepit oligarchy given free rein to rule at whim by a reactionary crown in London. Many of us – myself included – would naturally choose the former party though in doing so one runs the risk of extricating the event from its historical context. Flanagan’s great achievement is to flesh out that contemporary world of the rebellion and to people it with characters with credible (if sometimes venal) concerns and motives. His narrative is a masterpiece of dialectical story-telling; though his sympathies are clearly with the rebels, there are few outright villains to be found on the side of either the loyalists (many of them Catholic) or the British. Flanagan is a believer of Jean Renoir’s adage that ‘every villain has his reasons’.
The novel makes use of a polyphonic narrative, much like a 19th-century novel, using multiple narrators, some in the first and some in the third person. The main character is the poet-schoolmaster MacCarthaigh, emblematic of the old Gaelic world that is about to die out, no matter how the Rebellion might fare. He wavers between idealism and cynicism, trusting neither the United Irishman leading the rebellion nor the French prosecuting the military expedition, reserving his chief concern for the wretched Irish peasants, his own people. There is also the narrative of Malcolm Elliott, a Mayo solicitor and landowner and United Irishman, who leads the insurgency in Mayo (the scene of the French landings and the start of the latter part of the rebellion); that of Arthur Broome, the humane Protestant minister of Killala; some exhilarating passages involving Wolfe Tone in Revolutionary Paris cajoling the Directory and Bonaparte into sending troops to help the Irish, and other narratives from the British perspective, many of them laced with a mixture of paternal condescension for and disbelieving resignation at the status and behaviour of the Irish peasantry and their aristocratic overlords. There is much in their narrative that many Irish nationalists will recoil at and denounce (quite rightly) as racism but Flanagan never allows his convictions to cloud his cool command of the narrative.
Flanagan’s style (or styles, as they change as the narrators do) is elegant but never ostentatious and he has a meticulous eye for detail – both social and historical – that is indispensible in the historical novel. The build-up to the Rebel’s ultimate routing at Ballinamuck is masterfully rendered as is the chilling retribution meted out to the Irish peasants by the British afterwards (30,000 summarily executed) which, as Seámus Deane, in the introduction, points out, made the French Revolutionary Terror seem a cake-walk in comparison. But the novel is also thick with the air of tension between the peasantry and the Protestant Irish, bearing in mind that the rebellion spiralled out of control in places, such as Vinegar Hill in Wexford, where the local Protestants were massacred in a horrific sectarian attack. Given the animosity harboured by each for one another, it is remarkable how the rebellion, and later Irish history, avoided a level of savagery that marked many other ethnic disputes throughout 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Often the remarks of the Protestant gentry and their English backers regarding the Irish carry the echo of the pronouncements of many contemporary Israelis about the Palestinian people; there is a willingness to be generous tempered by both a deep mistrust and a failure of introspection.
The rebellion of course failed, having been badly-organised from the start (though the failure of Hoche’s 15,000 men to land at Bantry two years earlier was a crucial setback) and its leaders executed, leading to the abolition of the Irish Parliament and the Act of Union, and a century that was as tragic for the Irish as the previous one, though one which ended on a hopeful note, following the Land Wars and the Irish Cultural Renaissance. It is hard to guess how different things might have been had the United Irishmen succeeded in imposing their Revolution. After the fall of Bonaparte at Waterloo, the British would probably have moved back in, for the industrial jewel of Belfast, if for nothing else. Ireland may have become more economically-self-sufficient sooner though it is unlikely that the peasantry would have fared much better and the Irish language certainly would not have survived the United men’s ‘civilising’ drive any more than it did the one that the British later implemented. The ideals of the United Irishmen were admirable though this is no guarantee that they would have informed the state of Ireland that followed; both the 1916 proclamation and the (original, unamended) Irish Constitution were admirable progressive documents that failed to have much effect on the society that followed them. But 1798 was nonetheless crucial in sowing the seeds of Republicanism in Ireland without which modern Ireland would undoubtedly not exist. That a group of men in a small, underdeveloped country in Europe at the time could be so audacious and far-sighted to follow the examples of the US and France and attempt to force change was a remarkable thing.
The streets in the towns of Mayo and Sligo – where much of the rebellion took place, bear the names these days of Wolfe Tone, Teeling – the Belfastman who was a General in the French Revolutionary Army – and Humbert, the French General who led the expedition and whose name has been hardened into English – as it would later be in Nabokov’s Lolita – in towns such as Tubbercurry. Flanagan’s novel is one of the greatest of all Irish novels of the 20th century – it is, to all intents and purposes an Irish novels – and deserves a new, wider audience.
Originally published at The Pleasures of Underachievement.