THE TENANTS OF TIME By Thomas Flanagan Dutton. 820 pp. $21.95

THE STRUCTURE of this novel is based on the efforts of Patrick Prentiss, a young Irish historian who, in 1904, is trying to explore the causes and results of the Fenian uprisings of 1867. From the one survivor of three friends in the small West Cork town of Kilpeder, he learns of their part in the armed assault on the barracks there, and what became of them in the next 30 years. The narrative, told from various viewpoints, moving backwards and forwards in time, covers a wide stretch of Irish history, showing the social pattern of Anglo-Norman landlords and indigent peasantry, the potato famine, emigration, the Land War, boycotting, acts of terrorism (often funded from America by migrants or children of migrants), the rise of Parnell and his downfall.

Prentiss, slowly piecing together the information he gathers from living witnesses, will not be able, the reader soon realizes, to pick up more than a partial and distorted glimpse of what really happened -- which is all that any historian can hope for. But Flanagan extends this by, from time to time, going beyond what Prentiss can discover to give us the direct experiences and interior processes of his main characters. The three friends -- MacMahon the schoolmaster; Delaney, farmer's son turned shop assistant, lawyer, then M.P. at Westminster; and Vincent Tully, shop-owner's son, social climber and playboy -- have disparate but intertwined lives, giving glimpses of Irish society on all levels, from hunt breakfasts to evictions, from small-town lawyers' offices to scenes in the House of Commons. The 1867 uprising at Kilpeder, insufficiently supported and soon suppressed, is used as a kind of metaphor throughout the novel; Clonbrony Wood, scene of the rebels' ignominious defeat, becomes in myth and folklore something quite different, a glorious battle, a motto and war cry for succeeding generations of patriots or, to the more skeptical, an example of Irish poetic self-delusion. The ringleader of the enterprise, Ned Nolan, a professional sent over by "the organization" in New York, receives a long and savage jail sentence in the notorious Portland prison, from which he emerges embittered, confirmed in his revolutionary career; later he will be responsible for the Phoenix Park murders. But the three friends, MacMahon, Tully and Delaney, defended by a shrewd lawyer, paid for by Tully's father and Delaney's employer, the richest storekeeper in Kilpeder, serve only short terms, which prove assets to their future careers. Delaney marries the boss's daughter, makes friends with Lord Ardmor, the local aristocrat, and later becomes the lover of Ardmor's wife, paralleling Parnell's disastrous liaison with Kitty O'Shea. In the same way this affair will prove his downfall, as local pressure blackmails him out of his successful position as M.P. and replaces him by a lesser man. Vincent, the playboy, corroded from within by an incident in his past, will achieve nothing; only MacMahon remains uncorrupted by events. The interwoven careers of the three friends and Nolan the activist produce, in the end, a climax that has the inevitability of Greek tragedy, and this is most meticulously prepared for by Flanagan so that, rereading, one can see that every small episode points the way to the final revelation. Almost too meticulously; if Flanagan has a fault, it is that of planning ahead with such extreme care, each character playing such a particular part in his structure, that they are not allowed space to develop idiosyncracies and become individuals; each is a type, observed only from a distance, the gombeen man, the aristocrat with poetic leanings, his Bohemian wife, the town wencher, the town intellectual. The reader follows their fortunes with interest, because this is a powerful and absorbing story, but there is no urge to identify with any of them. What comes across, with immense force, is the sad repetitiousness of Irish history.

HISTORY is the curse of this country, a character named Patrick tells Prentiss. "Who would settle here when there was anywhere else upon the globe to settle?" Yet from century to century outsiders, Normans, Queen Elizabeth, Cromwell, have sent invaders to harass the peasantry and wring their scanty takings from them; from century to century the peasants have defied these incomers, usually with minimal success.

One of the most striking scenes in the book is the start of the uprising at Kilpeder, 50 or so country men and boys gathered together, marching through an unseasonable morning's snow towards the police barracks, and MacMahon thinking how strange it will be to have to shoot at Sergeant Honan with whom he has sung ballads in the town snug. The chill strangeness and fright of that moment are most marvelously conveyed. And so is the horror of an eviction when, after the potato blight had struck and tenants are unable to pay their rent, the landowner's agent comes with bailiff and constables to turn them out of their cabin, battering down the door with a tree trunk, then tearing down the turf walls and thatched roof, so that the family cannot creep back in under cover of dark.

The Tenants of Time is a massive book; after reading it I feel I have more grasp of Irish history than ever before. And many of the problems it surveys have still not been solved.

Joan Aiken is the author of many novels with historical settings, including "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" and "Dido and Pa."