The Tenants of Time, by Thomas Flanagan. New York: E.P. Dutton. 824 pp. $21.95. A modest project, really. Some 25 years in a small Irish town. Typical of today's graduate school approach - narrow, manageable, even trivial.
But Thomas Flanagan's novel is no graduate thesis. There are no wearisome footnotes, and his scope is anything but narrow. Here is a failed rebellion that becomes famous. Here are famine and homelessness. This is as familiar as today's headlines. That Ireland's champion for home rule is disgraced just as he seems about to succeed is no surprise to Americans during their 1988 presidential campaign. Charles Stewart Parnell was charged with adultery in a divorce suit. It ruined him and it ruined hopes for his cause.
``Tenants of Time'' opens as young Patrick Prentiss arrives in the small West Cork town of Kilpeder. He has come to research the years between the Fenian uprising in 1867 and the fall of Parnell in 1891. Prentiss finds a schoolteacher who was part of the rising. He finds an aristocrat who saw it happen. Prentiss sets these men, and others, to remembering, and their reminiscences tell us part of the tale.
In 1865, three young men from Kilpeder took the Fenian Oath to rid Ireland of British rule. Hugh MacMahon is a schoolteacher, Vincent Tully is the ne'er-do-well son of a prominent shopkeeper, and Robert Delaney works for Vincent's father. (Ned Nolan is sent later to help them get ready.) But in Kilpeder, as across Ireland, the rising is a flop. Sixty (wasn't it 66?) men attack a police barracks. They are captured in nearby Clonbrony Wood. It is only as the political climate changes that the rising becomes the stuff of ballads.
In the meantime, MacMahon is ever the schoolteacher, Tully ever the ne'er-do-well, Nolan ever the terrorist. But Delaney is ever on the move. He marries the boss's daughter and becomes a barrister. He documents the horror of evictions in his county, and he rides the crest of the land war that follows, right into Parliament. Delaney becomes friends with Thomas, Earl of Ardmore, and his wife, Sylvia Challoner. He becomes Parnell's lieutenant and as his rise patterns Parnell's, so does his fall. ``...All for the love of a woman.... It can happen to the most careful of men.''
As the narratives spin out, we see that Patrick Prentiss sometimes gets the facts wrong. The gap between what Prentiss discovers (and doesn't discover) and what the other narratives tell us actually happened shows just what a messy business history is. But messy as it is, it transforms Patrick Prentiss. He comes to terms with his father and his future.
At the end of this 800-page novel, Prentiss tells the schoolteacher that he has given up on writing a history book. At the heart of Clonbrony Wood is a mystery he can only guess at. ``...The answer could not be part of a book,'' he says, ``any more than Sylvia Challoner, or the ways in which my own feelings have changed in the course of these years, talking to improbable men - retired gunmen, ruined landlords, tavern boasters. The book would not be a history in the eyes of our ancient universities, or those less ancient for that matter.''
But the book that Prentiss could not write is the book that Flanagan has written. There may be altogether too many peasants whose faces look like wizened pippins, altogether too much stopping for tea, altogether too much musing. Still, these are characters you would like to know. Ah, to hear Thomas, Earl of Ardmore, say, ``Damn the appearances. This is my house, this is my land, and I will do what I wish upon it.'' That high-handed tone about his decision to rebate the rents of his hard-pressed tenants and his friendship with Delaney. And there is Sylvia Challoner: ``Take me as I am. If you cannot love what I am, that is ill-fortune for us both, because I cannot change. And I would not if I could.''
From 1867 to 1891, the fight is between the landed gentry and the tenants, but as commercial interests buy up land, precious little changes. ``And if we win,...'' said Robert Delaney, ``there will still be men walking and other men on horseback.'' Delaney also says of some paintings he has seen that they show a different way of seeing reality. In a curious way, that is what this novel has done for the history of these obscure, violent years.
Carol des Lauriers Cieri is a free-lance book reviewer.