Epic portrays passion, price of Irish fight

April 14, 1994|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

When Patrick Prentiss comes home from World War I to Dublin in the spring of 1919, he finds a city and country changed not so much by the war overseas as by the failed Easter 1916 rebellion against British rule. "Ireland's true battle had been fought not at the Somme, but in the streets of Dublin, in buildings held for almost a week against artillery fire."

Home rule is now no longer enough for most of nationalist, Catholic Ireland. "Republic" is the word on everyone's lips, and revolution is in the air. But few, if any, foresee that three years down the road, "at the end of the day, at the end of the hunt," civil war awaits.

Thomas Flanagan began his eloquent trilogy of the centuries-old struggle for an independent Ireland with 1979's award-winning "The Year of the French," about the unsuccessful rebellion of 1798. Next came his 1988 epic "The Tenants of Time," which focused on the ill-fated Fenian Rising of 1867. "The End of the Hunt" brings us to the time of the Troubles of the early 1920s, and again Mr. Flanagan, in lovely, lilting language, uses multiple narrators and shifting perspectives to tell a grand and tragic story.

A handful of fictional characters provides the tale's ballast and balance. Patrick Prentiss, who was a young historian in "The Tenants of Time," is now a British Army veteran and Dublin lawyer, seeking to understand history in the making. A major source of information is historian Christopher Blake, a veteran of the Post Office battle of Easter 1916 and close friend of charismatic independence leader Michael Collins.

Janice Nugent, daughter of Galway Catholic gentry and widow of an Irishman who died at Gallipoli, finds herself falling in love with Blake, not wanting to know that his intelligence work for the Irish Republican Brotherhood means his involvement in the guerrilla tactics carried out by men such as Frank Lacy. The cold-eyed Lacy, who keeps Virgil in his knapsack and reads Balzac by candlelight, moves from one West Cork village to the next, drilling young volunteers, organizing flying columns, leading raids -- and taking no prisoners:

"Each coffin that we send home to England will be a message to some town or other, and at last the people over there will ask is it worth it, are we worth it."

Eventually, it is a question the Irish must ask themselves when the tension-filled treaty negotiations with the British result not in the longed-for republic but in the splitting off of Northern Ireland and the creation of the Irish Free State. For those involved first-hand in the negotiations with Lloyd George and a wily Winston Churchill -- men such as Blake and Collins -- the treaty is a realistic solution. But for many, such as Lacy, it is nothing short of treason.

"The word 'Republic' might go stale in the mouth, as any word will if you say it often enough and fast enough, children knew that. But the Republic was no mere word. It was the Republic which justified ambush and murder and translated willed starvation from suicide into sacrifice."

Mr. Flanagan masterfully handles his complex material without romanticizing the terrible cost of idealism. The result is a tale both epic and intimate, woven out of incidents large and small: the shooting of a bemused informer, a rosary twined between his young fingers; the burning of the Custom House, its copper dome melting in the heat; the weeping of journalist Elizabeth Keating as she tries to write of the hangings of young Republican volunteers at Mountjoy Prison.

Although the fictional characters carry the story, "the Big Fellow," Michael Collins, strides out of history to center stage. Brought to life, too, are many other real-life figures: Eamon De Valera, "a bespectacled crane"; Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein; Cathal Brugha, whose words against Collins' perceived treachery and on behalf of the republic "had the hysterical intensity of the devout."

In the midst of civil war, Keating tries to write of Brugha's death, but the words won't come. "Ireland and the Republic were one, inseparable. But the words, after three years of using them, had become slippery counters, coins with the legends worn through. It was not the words which she blamed, but herself, as though she had lost, or more likely had never truly possessed, the powers by which language and passion are joined, language and history."

To be sure, Mr. Flanagan is never at such a loss. "The End of the Hunt proves as much."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The End of the Hunt"

Author: Thomas Flanagan

Publisher: William Abrahams/Dutton

+!Length, price: 627 pages, $24.95

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