The End of the Hunt, by Thomas Flanagan

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As Ireland marks the centennial of the Easter Rising, Thomas Flanagan’s nearly two thousand page trilogy—The Year of the French, The Tenants of Time, and The End of the Hunt—immerses readers in Ireland’s struggles between 1798 and 1923, culminating with the creation of the Irish Free State.

The Year of the French describes the ill-fated attempt by the “Dublin Directorate,” a cadre of nationalistic philosophers and poets that attempted to bring a version of the French Revolution to Ireland. French soldiers joined the poorly armed Fenians of County Mayo against the landlords and the constabulary. After an initial Fenian success, the English army surrounded the rebels. They took the French soldiers as prisoners of war and bayoneted the surviving Irishmen.

The Tenants of Time tells of a later uprising, led by Irish-Americans who shared their military acumen developed during the American Civil War.

The third volume, The End of the Hunt—with a cast of thousands, including dozens of historical characters speaking in their own words—addresses timely and universal issues, including oppression, terrorism, and compromise. The story begins after the Easter Rising but reflects on the Rising’s leading characters and events: the survivors, those that died, and importantly the widows of the fallen Fenians. It tracks the careers of guerrilla operatives and their evolving relations with the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, progressing to their eventual choice of sides in the Irish Civil War.

Although the history of the period is a matter of record, Thomas Flanagan re-presents the facts in flesh and blood, with romance, adventure, glory and tragedy. He rotates the narration and point of view among six characters, exposing many facets of complex issues. One narrator may build suspense leading to a critical event. The next may look back at the consequences of the event, rather than the event itself. Early on, point-of-view characters work in concert. Later, some wish the others harm.

The brightest thread among the interwoven stories features a romance between a Castle Catholic widow, Janice Nugent, and Christopher Blake. Janice craves excitement through a relationship with Blake, a suave Fenian “gunman” with close ties to Michael Collins, a leading figure in the Irish Republican Army. This romantic tragedy forms the final knot in the skein of stories, and features prominently in the haunting conclusion to The End of the Hunt.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was neither the origin of the Irish struggle for independence nor its conclusion. The Irish had endured 700 years of occupation, humiliation and genocide, “but an enduring people were becoming a risen people … able to conquer because they could suffer the most.” Padraig Pearse at the burial of O’Donovan Rossa declared, “They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”  Within months “a Republic was proclaimed by Pearse from the steps of the GPO [General Post Office in Dublin], and it was ratified by his blood and the blood of the other men who were shot with him at Kilmainham [Gaol]” .

The English suppression of the Easter Rising of 1916, and the execution of sixteen of its leaders, gave rise to a unique reaction: a “different kind of war and a different kind of enemy. … Fellows with a few thousand rifles bringing an empire to its knees, an imperial army no less … .”  Unfortunately, these same Irish patriots were later to “fall fighting each other, killing each other.”

If the British Empire began with the capture of Ireland, then its demise began with Ireland’s liberation. A living nation, Ireland would rise from the graves of its martyrs. Prime Minister Lloyd George—his own government caught between the Tories, the Irish Republican Army and the demands of the Empire embroiled in World War I—confirmed Irish sentiments when he said, “Lose Ireland and the rot begins.”

The Fenians made a nuisance of themselves. Small, guerilla units—“flying columns”—waged an ugly war, and sooner or later, they hoped, the English would get tired of it and make a deal. When they ambushed their first lorry filled with RIC (Irish policemen working for the English), the Tories called them a “murder gang” and advocated the reincarnation of  Cromwellian genocide.

To compound Lloyd George’s difficulties, the flying columns of the IRA, which today might be called terrorist cells, continued their hit-and-run, take-no-prisoners attacks. They burned houses of loyalists and 258 abandoned RIC police stations. A massive attack on the Custom House in Dublin destroyed centuries of stored records belonging to nine government departments, wiping out England’s bureaucratic control of Ireland.

Both sides agreed to a truce and a potential solution to the seven centuries of England’s control of Ireland. Neither Éamon de Valera nor Michael Collins, leaders of the two factions on the Irish side, liked what Lloyd George and Winston Churchill had to offer—the division of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, both still bound to the King of England. They realized that Ireland would get no more than England would give. The alternative was to continue the war, but against a much larger and better organized British military. They also realized that those who fought and the widows of those who died would accept nothing less than a Republic. Furthermore, should the government of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill fall, a Tory-controlled Parliament would bring fire and the sword into Ireland.

A compromise could give the Irish freedom to run their own affairs. To the Republicans (as in IRA), compromise betrayed the sacrifices made in the name of the Irish Republic, proclaimed on the steps of the GPO during the Easter Rising.

Mick Collins led the delegation to London and eventually compromised, accepting the Irish Free State. The Tories considered him nothing more than a gunman, although liberal Englishman and the newspapers had developed a crush on Collins, as if he were a Twentieth Century Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise and intrigue, the brains behind the “flying columns.”

De Valera led the debate against the Free State. Although the Provisional Irish Parliament approved it, factions of the IRA rebelled, leading to the Irish Civil War.

Flanagan’s storytelling charms the reader, although at times strays into a maze of seemingly unrelated prose. Elsewhere, clarity prevails in both the narration and dialogue. In the heel of the hunt—the final chapters—the reader feels the pain of separation from a host of tragic, but all too haunting characters who must remain locked between the covers of the book.

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