Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Thomas Flanagan Trilogy

When I was young, growing up with Irish blood, I took the phrase "luck of the Irish" as a good thing. Made me think I was superior. It wasn't until I got into college really that I realized that no one ever attached "good" to the "luck." Once you read much of the last 500 years or so of Ireland's history, you figure out why.

Britain's first and last colony, Ireland has one of the sadder pasts of the Western world. History is filled with winners and losers and, despite our tendency to pride, we Irish have almost always been on the short end of that stick. But what it lacks in success, Irish history more than makes up for with drama and narratives. The heroes of Irish history have been tragic in the classical sense, and the villains (homegrown as well as external) are among the most despicable of humankind (people starving to death and you sell their grain and blame them for it--sounds like some current day US types, huh?).

There are a lot of good Irish histories and biographies out there, particularly if you find one written by guys named Coogan, Kee, or Forster. And as much as or more than any people, the songs of the Irish tell their tales in as much detail as beauty, and not all of them are Gaelic. But for the best feel of the events that led finally to the release by Britain of three-quarters of Irish land back to the Irish, you'll be best served by reading the novels of the late former English professor, Thomas Flanagan.

In three novels--The Year of the French, The Tenants of Time, and The End of the Hunt--Flanagan took three major events leading to the British withdrawal, filled the space around them with history before and after, and produced a trilogy that will get you from the late 1700s to Irish independence in the 1920s. The Year of the French relates the time the French sent ill-fated "help" to Irish rebels and got whipped for their efforts. Of course, the Irish themselves who came to their cause ended up much worse. Tenants and Hunt both tell stories of two fictional, second tier rebels whose own lives paralleled the rise and tragedies of two real heroes of the time, respectively Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Collins. If you're not familiar with either, Parnell turned Irish representation in Britain's Parliament into political power that gave the Irish their first real leverage on their modern future. Collins turned British rule in on itself with a masterful espionage and terror campaign and then led the forces consolidating a less-than-complete independence. Both ended up dead and their reputations controversial. Flanagan shows why and uses his own secondary heroes to delve well into why.

The air of tragedy and its subsequent melancholy, even in moments of success, hang over every word, phrase, scene of Flanagan's works here. The clear and elegant writing is vivid in elucidating both characters and environment. I hadn't been to Ireland before I read these books, but really I had. What I saw when I did finally get there felt like a familiar homecoming, not something surprising and new. The place where Collins was gunned down in an ambush was deja vu when I saw it. Each of the books is long, with multiple characters and subplots, and they hop around in space and time. The best criticism of them, I think, is that you can get the people mixed up, especially if you can't read in one gulp. But they also have helpful rosters of characters so you don't have to thumb back to where you first met them.

The common theme of the books, besides the inexorable stream toward Irish independence, is the sense that all the major characters have been pulled to where they are by that stream. The heroes are not necessarily noble people or even good. The most memorable to me is the IRA assassin Ned Nolan in Tenants, a guy who will without qualm put a bullet in the head of a turncoat and is himself killed possesing a copy of Shakespeare, the ultimate of ponderers on the fates of humans. But all the characters will mark you and leave you thinking about how their lives had no real options.

Which makes you realize that maybe yours doesn't either. They say when you look back on your life, it looks like a story that had to end up where it does, despite all the alternatives and choices that you had along the way. These characters could relate. Flanagan basically gives us Shakespearean stories and characters and shows how humans aren't so much in control as floating in historical streams, streams that echo earlier ones and presage those to come.

He really drives the point home in Tenants, in which a young historian (who turns up again in Hunt) tries to capture the whats and whys of a particular early event (an example of "boycotting" which got its name in Ireland) and concludes after reading and interviewing that he could write a history but could never relate the actual truth. He skips around through the Parnell period, back and forth in time, to make the point that we just live in the period we inhabit, just like we live in that space. We think we control our destinies but time rules, forcing us into the same patterns and outcomes that the tenants of other times ended up with. You leave all of Flanagan's works with the clear sense of common humanity, good and bad, and of the flows that our interactions create, flows that we can at best influence, but usually even then get swept along in ways that aren't clear until we get to the end of our story.

I could give you details on plots, but the Amazon links will do better with more space. I will tell you that I've read these long books multiple times, predictably finding things each time that mean more or different the next time through. Prepare to invest time and to be moved. The payoff is more than worth it. These novels touch. You'll have a better sense of modern Irish history, of the inexorable streams of time, and maybe even the luck of the Irish, which in Flanagan's hands is not "good" but definitely memorable. In the best of ways.