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Flanagan, Thomas

FLANAGAN, Thomas

Nationality: American. Born: Thomas James Bonner Flanagan in Greenwich, Connecticut, 5 November 1923. Education: Amherst College, Massachusetts, B.A. 1945; Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1948, Ph.D. in English 1958. Military Service: Served in the United States Naval Reserve, 1942-44. Family: Married Jean Parker in 1949; two daughters. Career: Instructor, 1949-52, and assistant professor, 1952-59, Columbia University; assistant professor, 1960-67, associate professor, 1967-73, professor, 1973-78, and chair of the Department of English, 1973-76, University of California, Los Angeles; professor of English, State University of New York, Stony Brook, 1978-92, distinguished professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1993. Awards: American Council of Learned Societies grant, 1962; Guggenheim fellowship, 1962; National Book Critics Circle award, 1979. Named Literary Lion, New York Public Library, 1994. D. Litt.: National University, Ireland, 1994; Amherst College, 1995. Agent: Robin Straus Agency, Inc., 229 E. 79th St., New York, New York 10021, U.S.A. Address: Department of English, State University of New York, Stony Brook, New York 11794, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

The Year of the French. New York, Holt Rinehart, and London, Macmillan, 1979.

The Tenants of Time. New York, Dutton, and London, Bantam, 1988.

The End of the Hunt. New York, Dutton, 1994.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Cold Winds of Adesta" April 1952, "The Point of Honor"December 1952, "The Lion's Mane" March 1953, "This Will Do Nicely" August 1955, "The Customs of the Country" July 1956, and "Suppose You Were on the Jury" March 1958, all in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (New York).

"The Fine Italian Hand," in Ellery Queen's Book of First Appearances, edited by Ellery Queen and Eleanor Sullivan. New York, Dial Press, 1982.

Other

The Irish Novelists 1800-1850. New York, Columbia UniversityPress, 1959.

* * *

Thomas Flanagan has written three novels of historical fiction that describe some of the most turbulent episodes in the history of Ireland. His first novel, The Year of the French, was based on an actual historical event in which a French military force landed at Killala, County Mayo, Ireland on 22 August 1798. The French, who came ostensibly to free Ireland from British rule, were apparently more interested in embarrassing and harassing the English than in actually aiding the Irish. The French troops were joined by many peasants and various Irish rebel organizations. After marching through much of western and central Eire and winning several battles, they were eventually badly defeated at Ballinamuk, near Longford, by a vastly superior army led by Lord Cornwallis, whose success redeemed his tarnished experience in America. One of the most fascinating aspects of Flanagan's novel, which gives it an epic quality, is his attempt to portray in depth all sides and viewpoints in the conflict: the high-born and the peasants, the Catholics and the Protestants, the French, Irish, and British military units, the clergy, the schoolmasters, the merchantsthese and other groups are delineated with flesh and blood realization. At one point Flanagan even switches the scene to England and conveys a memorable portrait of an absentee landlord. Among the personages who beguile the reader are Arthur Broome, the local Anglican clergyman in Killala; Owen MacCarthy, the heavy-drinking itinerant poet and hedgerow schoolmaster; Jean-Joseph Humbert, the wily, pragmatic French general; Malcolm Elliott, an upper-class Protestant estate holder committed to a more equitable economic order; and Captain Ferdy O'Donnell, a courageous, sensitive rebel leader.

Fictional characters are interrelated with real-life figures such as Wolfe Tone, George and John Moore, Dennis Browne, and Maria Edgeworth. The social, political, economic, and historical background and climate are presented and examined in thorough detail. Flanagan effectively intersperses dialogue and description with numerous imaginary diaries and memoirs of the era, and this technique adds immeasurably to the verisimilitude.

The novel is also distinguished by capturing the scene with marvellously rendered poetic lyricism exemplified in both the written and spoken language of the period. The book is a mellifluous delightmany of the pages are sheer poetry glowing with beauty and picturesque phrasing. Further, The Year of the French possesses considerable narrative drive.

The book is not without flaws. Flanagan's portrayal of the Catholic clergy is virulently hostile, whereas the Protestant ministers are always presented as decent individuals. Flanagan also understates the suffering and oppression the common people had to endured. He takes a distastefully snobbish attitude toward them on several occasions. He also unduly fantasizes about a magical humanitarian union between Catholics and Protestants, which is certainly desirable but, as he presents it, totally unconvincing.

Flanagan's second novel, The Tenants of Time, deals with the Fenian Rising in Kilpeder in 1867, the Land Wars, the Phoenix Park killings, and the career of Charles Stewart Parnell. Although Flanagan still conveys vividly the beauty of the Irish countryside and the lilt of the language, this novel does not have the consistency of lyricism that distinguished his previous book. Flanagan's poetic sensibility is effective in portraying the old Fenian schoolmaster Hugh MacMahon; at other times the prose is frequently flat and uninspired. Flanagan tries also to present too many characters in too many different locations. As a consequence, the book frequently becomes sketchy and superficial.

The End of the Hunt, Flanagan's third novel, however, recaptures much of the force, lyricism, and convincing historical re-creation of his first book. He now focuses on the violent years after the 1916 Easter Rebellion when Irish rebel forces fought the English with guerrilla-style warfare and, then, after the British had granted the country Free State status, a civil war broke out between those Irish groups who wanted a Republic, completely independent of England, and their fellow countrymen who were willing to accept the Free State arrangement. Flanagan depicts with considerable force the conflicts, betrayals, terrorism, and treachery that marked this era. Numerous scenes are unforgettable, with Frank Lacy's ambush at Dawson Crossings typical of the intensity of Flanagan's descriptions. Once again, historical personages, such as Eamon DeValera, Winston Churchill, and rebel leader Michael Collins, enter the narrative. Flanagan succeeds once more in conveying the musicality of the Irish language, whether spoken by uneducated farmers or by the intellectual leaders of the rebellion during battles, or in secret hideouts, or in the back rooms of public houses. The realism of speech and characterization is compelling, and the historical events in themselves provide a fast-paced, natural narrative movement.

The novel's only serious weakness is the love story between well-bred rebel Christopher Blake and the widowed Janice Nugent. It is obvious that this material has been superimposed on the narrative to add romantic interest. In general, throughout his writings, Flanagan is not as sure-handed in portraying female characters as he is in describing males.

After the relative failure of his second novel, several critics felt that Flanagan would not continue to write gripping fiction. His latest novel, however, disproves that notion and gives hope for more successful novels in the future.

Paul A. Doyle

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