I can see my well-worn copy of "The Year of the French" from where I am sitting right now. It was published in 1979, nearly 200 years after the events it portrays. I was a college freshman. I bought it in hardcover, though I hardly had money for whiskey.
I read it that year and I read it again every year – I’m due to begin again mid-March. Flanagan's book is inextricably tied up in whatever precious sense of Irishness I have been able to reclaim from my fractured personal pedigree as an Irish/German half-breed bastard raised by Czechs. In that, and in the facility with which I can now finish its sentences, it is an old and important friend. Indeed, so a good a friend that in kindness, I now leave the first edition on the shelf and read it on my Kindle.
In briefest precis, the book is the story of the '98 Rising, fomented by United Irishmen and a host of other lovers of liberty, men and women of a diversity that will surprise those used to thinking of the more modern variety of Troubles in strictly sectarian terms. Framed by the story of a fictional poet and hedge school master -- a man with equal affections for the jug, comfortable women and Greek, but having no particular inclination toward revolution -- it is a towering work, a staggering literary accomplishment. It is huge and funny and tragic and just so fookin' good.
And that would be enough. Dayenu, to steal the perfect term from another people of words and woe. Except that while that would enough, that's not all. What boggles the mind to this day, what fills me with a mixture of powerful awe and no little writer’s envy, is that this was Flanagan's first novel. The utter gall of the man, to write such a work as a first thing. Dayenu. Except even that isn't all. Because I will read TYOTF with special attention this year, as I will be 56 – the age Flanagan was when he published it. His first novel – this novel – at 56!
With the exception of its protagonist, the TYOTF comes under the ambit of mostly true historical fiction. Nothing you will learn in it is false, even if there are those -- mostly British, I'd expect -- critics who might complain of what it leaves alone. But frankly, if you wish, you can leave the history alone altogether, if it bores or angers or discomfits you. [I spoil nothing to say this Rising ended more less as you will have come to expect, although with perhaps, thanks to French involvement, with even more treachery and disappointment than was strictly usual.] But you must read this book –at last or again, as the case may be for you.