Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)


He ran his hand along the stone.  When was it this keep had been built?  The fourteenth century or the fifteenth. The MacDermotts had held it in Cromwell’s day…When the Cromwellian army moved west from Sligo, the MacDermotts had been blown out of their keep, quite literally.  The yawning crater in the east wall was the work of Ireton’s artillery…

And here stand I, Manning thought, inheritor of that conquest, sick at heart because other armies are moving along the same road.  Faces flushed by candleflame in Daly’s gaming rooms, children, like himself, of Cromwell’s spawn, bank drafts written against the harvests of Muster and Connaught.  Ellen Kirwan, taken by right of Cromwell’s conquest, peasant’s daughter brought gawky and long-legged into the big house, her legs spread to receive that ancient conquest, Ireton’s battering cannon.  More wife than mistress now, fussing over him, reminding him to shave, knitting patiently by firelight as he worked and reworked the account books.  

“It is a sorry mess that history has made of us,” he tells Ellen.  “Old wounds and old debts.  God help us all.”

The book is also about the way in which history is driven by words and abstractions.  “Words have a splendor for us,”  observes Malcolm Elliott, “and so we send them off into the world to do mischief.”

Ellen Treacy:

On a rise of ground from which she could see the distant bay, she stopped and sat motionless, the reins slack in her thin, capable hands.  The bay was empty, not a sail or a hull in sight, the water lifeless and gray.  History had come to them upon these water, three foreign ships riding at anchor, filled with men, muskets, cannon.  History had come ashore at Kilcummin strand, watched by fishermen standing beside their huts.  Poetry made actual.  Not her mother’s, not Goldsmith’s or The Seasons by Mr Thompson…That other, older poetry, the black letters of an alphabet remote from English, with prophesies of ships from France, gold from Spain, the deliverance of the Gael.  History, poetry, abstractions, words which had transformed and shattered her world. 

An incredibly good, involving, thought-provoking, emotionally-affecting book.  I recommend it very highly.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)”

  1. Read this book following a previous posting of this article. Agree wholeheartedly that it is an excellent well-told story — thought provoking because it is based on the reality of the English treatment of the Irish. In those days, it was not only the Africans sold into European slavery who were treated badly.

  2. I read it also, long ago, and have good if vague memories.

    I would argue with Col. Peters’ opinion if I could think of more historical novels–especially for that period. The naval genre offers a lot of great stuff, but has little appeal to a wide audience.

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