Season 7 of Game of Thrones opens with a revealing spat between siblings Sansa Stark and Jon Snow. Sansa has unwittingly drunk from Cersei’s flask of ruthlessness and realpolitik. She argues for confiscating the estates of disloyal Stark bannermen. Jon opposes dispossession and accepts oaths of fealty from the heirs of treacherous Stark allies.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England tried Sansa’s way in its Irish domain. It systematically stripped land from disloyal Irish Catholic chieftains and handed the property to Protestant, English soldiers. The result was an impoverished Irish Catholic peasantry clinging to tiny plots of land as tenants on the often heavily mortgaged estates of absentee Protestant landlords. Others tried to sustain themselves on bog land and mountains. The worst off were the spailpeens, Irish migrant laborers. For good measure, England imposed Catholic penal laws that barred the predominantly Catholic population from voting or holding office, prohibited Catholics from buying land or bearing arms, forbade Catholic schools, and required registration of Catholic priests. Rural unrest intensified as landlords evicted not only tenants who didn’t pay the rent but tenants who occupied tracts that the landlord wanted to convert to more profitable grazing. In the 1790’s the Society of United Irish, a group of middle-class Irish Protestants, Presbyterians, and Catholics, inspired by the rhetoric of the American and French revolutions, added tinder to the powder keg. The United Irish supported Catholic emancipation, democratic reform, and ultimately separation from England. Wolfe Tone, a United Irish leader, negotiated with the French for military support.
The 1798 Rebellion started with a rural uprising in County Wexford on Ireland’s southeast coast. The uprising was vigorously suppressed by the British army, which both outmanned and outgunned the rebels, many of whom were armed with only scythes and pikes. A token French force of about 1000 arrived on August 22, 1798 at Kilcummin on Ireland’s western coast, defeated loyalist troops at Castlebar, installed a puppet republic that lasted all of twelve days, and lost decisively at Ballinamuck on September 8, 1798. A larger French force attempted to land in County Donegal but was intercepted by the British fleet. The French were treated as military combatants and were repatriated in a prisoner exchange. The United Irish and their rural allies were treated as traitors and punished with imprisonment, transportation, or summary execution.
Thomas Flanagan was a professor of literature at University of California, Berkeley, and later State University of New York at Stony Brook. He became renowned for a trilogy of novels chronicling Irish history. The Year of the French is the first volume of the trilogy and deservedly won the National Critics’ Circle Award in 1979.
The Year of the French is one of the best historical novels that I have ever read. Flanagan’s writing is luminous, and his characters, even the historical figures, are full-blooded. Using multiple POVs, Flanagan limns the cleavages of class, culture, and sect that fractured Ireland and even the rebellion itself: the middle-class United Irish little understood the anger of the peasantry, who were more concerned with economic justice than democratic principles and whose propensity to fire estate houses offended bourgeois notions of property rights. Flanagan describes a receding culture of Gaelic, bards, harpists, prophecy, myth, and superstition.The landscape itself is a character: bogs, mountain paths, and even mass rocks (rocks that served as alters at which Catholics clandestinely celebrated mass) all have their places. It’s a hopeless rebellion. In Flanagan’s retelling, it’s a tale with few villains and even fewer heroes.
Not only was the rebellion crushed, but two years later, the Irish Parliament, salted with abundant bribes, voted its own demise by passing the Act of Union of 1800. Ireland became part of the United Kingdom. The British officer presiding over these events was good old Lord Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis may have failed miserably in America, but Britain gave him a second chance. From an imperial standpoint, he acquitted himself well in India as Governor-General and commander-in-chief from 1786-1793. He instituted measures to reduce corruption in the East India Company, established courts and legal codes, reformed taxation, and triumphed in the Third Mysore War. As Lord Lieutenant and commander-in-chief of Ireland, he stamped out the 1798 rebellion and pushed through the Act of Union. King George III withheld approval of Catholic emancipation (full repeal of the penal laws), a step Cornwallis maintained was essential to the success of the Act of Union. Would earlier adoption of Catholic emancipation have made a difference in the nations’ forced marriage? Probably not. The landholding system that resulted from following the Sansa policy centuries before doomed the relationship.
Cornwallis got his second chance. Time to give one to The Year Of The French.