Imagining Eire: History as Fiction in the Novels of Tom Flanagan

By O'Connell, Shaun | MELUS, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Imagining Eire: History as Fiction in the Novels of Tom Flanagan


O'Connell, Shaun, MELUS


In "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde sacrificed history and fiction to the art of aphorism: "The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction" (qtd. in Ellmann 106). In intention and execution, the historical fictions of Tom Flanagan refute Wilde's paradoxical epigram. Writing of the genre of historical fiction, Flanagan reveals his own purpose and practice: "We reach as far back into the past as luck enables us, as we are enabled by chance, urgency and curiosity; ff we are fortunate...we can make out of the past our continuing present" ("Contrasting Fables" 18). For Joyce's alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus, history "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" (28). For Tom Flanagan, history begins in mystery, resolves itself into myth and serves as prologue and paradigm for the present state of paralysis in Ireland.(1)

John Montague detects "a flowering absence" in Ireland (89) and Seamus Heaney evokes the "sunlit absence" of his grandmother's world (North 8). Broken towers, ruined abbeys, razed mansions, empty fields, bottomless bogs and dark tarns: such are the emblems of what has been called the hidden Ireland. Away from the Pale of Anglo-Irish icons, travelling through the West of Ireland, we pause before mysterious circles of rocks, roofless cabins and unmarked fields, where forgotten battles were fought; we brood amid untended turf mounds and wandering sheep; we wonder at the land's lost life. As in Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, in much of Ireland "the long grass o'ertops the mouldering wall" (203). History can tell us what happened there, can inform us about the words and deeds of those who shaped its history, but only poets - or their prose counterparts, novelists - can make the deserted villages of Ireland flower again; they illuminate our imagination with what Heaney calls a "bright nowhere" (The Haw Lantern 32).

This is where Flanagan's fiction begins: in reverie over the mysterious landscape of Ireland. During the writing of his novel on the rising of 1798, The Year of the French, Flanagan, joined by Seamus Heaney, visited Ballinamuck, in County Longford, where Lord Cornwallis English forces defeated the combined forces of the Irish and French, ending the rising.

In that area we each had the strangest feeling of attachment to the place,

which neither of us could explain as we both had originally come from

the northern counties. Then it turned out in research, as unlikely as it

may seem, that this little place in the midlands had been settled by

Catholics, including Heaneys and Flanagans, driven out of Derry and

Fermanagh by the Orangemen in the 1790s. I don't think this incident

played any imaginative role in The Year of the French, but it certainly stayed

in my imagination. (Clarke 27)

In the bogs of Ballinamuck, Flanagan, the Irish-American novelist, and Heaney, the Northern-Irish poet, discover their forgotten ties to the resonant landscape of Ireland's West country. The site of military defeat, which resulted in further division and dispersal of the Catholic Irish, relocations far and near, served these writers as an occasion of cultural renewal, a recovery of a lost sense of place. In another context, Heaney explores the implications of place, in words which suggest Flanagan's literary intentions:

I think there are two ways in which place is known and cherished, two

ways which may be complementary but which are just as likely to be

antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other is learned,

literate and conscious. In the literary sensibility, both are likely to co-exist

in a conscious and unconscious tension: this tension and the poetry

it produces is what I want to discuss. (Preoccupations 131)

At the beginning of Flanagan's first novel, a poet walks across a strand in North Mayo.

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