Terminology: ‘Tan War’ or ‘War of Independence’?

So is the ‘Tan War’ or ‘War of Independence’ the preferred term to describe the period from 1919 to the truce in 1921? Next year will be the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, which was known at the time as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ and other variants of ‘Rebellion’ (‘Easter’ or ‘Irish’ or just ‘1916’). All these were gradually displaced over time by the name ‘Easter Rising’ which it will be almost universally known as next year.

One way of measuring this is to compare the frequency with which the terms ‘Easter Rebellion’, ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ and ‘Easter Rising’ are found in Google Books or The Irish Times in the decades after 1921. Up to the 1960s, they all appear with more or less the same frequency, apart from the 1940s when ‘Easter Rebellion’ was the main term used. From the 1960s, ‘Easter Rising’ became the common term used. In that decade it was used twice as often as the other terms combined.

A variety of terms are also used to describe the post-1916 revolutionary period in Ireland. But even defining the time span in question is tricky. Can you even, meaningfully, regard it as merely post-1916? Indeed, it can be taken to mean the years that begin with the militarisation of independence with the formation of the UVF in 1912, or the mass importation of weaponry starting with the Larne gun-running of April 1914. Clearly, a case can be made that it was the Easter Rising of 1916 that really draws a line between the unsuccessful constitutional Home Rule projects of the mid-1880s onwards and the eclipse of constitutional nationalism in favour of militant revolutionary separatism.

It is possible to argue for an earlier date if you believe that it is all unified within a historical continuum that includes the founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1858, or more loosely, back through the famine to 1798 and beyond. Alternatively, it is possible to argue for a post-Great War date of 1918, by when the Home Rule on offer had also been watered down to nothingness, and, linking it to the election of that year and subsequent formation of the First Dáil.

Two of the most commonly used terms can both be regarded as unsatisfying. Many republicans deride the use of the phrase ‘War of Independence’ since, obviously, independence was not what emerged at the end of the ‘war’. In the 1920s (and after), it was more common to cite the actions and strategies of both the Dublin and Belfast administrations as evidencing the lack of independence achieved. Based on its frequency of use in Google Books and The Irish Times, ‘War of Independence’ seems to have gained currency after the Republic of Ireland Act came into force in 1949. Up to then ‘Black and Tan War’ or ‘Tan War’ was more commonly used.

The ‘Tan War’ term though, is relatively meaningless in Belfast where the reprisals and killings carried out by the Black and Tans, and, Auxiliaries from the summer of 1920, were, instead, carried out by RIC officers and unionist militias. It is clear from the tenor of contemporary and later correspondence, such as the Pension Award archives, that the Belfast Brigade’s limited engagement with the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries was used to minimise the Brigade’s overall contribution. This in spite of the fact that around 25% of all casualties in Ireland from 1919 up to the outbreak of violence in Dublin in mid-1922 occurred in the Belfast Brigade’s operational area. The violence deployed by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries was supplied, instead, by the unionist militias and RIC in the north. With honourable exceptions, the proportional intensity of the northern violence is largely understated in accounts of the period. Arguably, the phrase ‘Tan War’ similarly fails to address the reality of the period in ignoring the Belfast (and general northern) experience.

Once the 1916 centenary is out of the way and attention drifts to the period after 1918, it will be interesting to see what becomes the prefered terminology.

Mobilising in Belfast for 1916

In a previous post on Belfast in 1916, I had added the list of Irish Volunteers from the Belfast Companies involved at Easter 1916 compiled as part of the military pensions committee’s work in 1936. The list contained 156 names which didn’t seem consistent with other figures given for the number of Irish Volunteers from Belfast who had mobilised at Easter 1916 (the suggested figures seem to vary from 90 to 130).

In the witness statements made by those involved to the Bureau of Military History, the actual numbers are a bit clearer. Excerpts from three statements are included below that shed some light on the Belfast contingent that mobilised. It was effectively divided into four sections, three companies that were to travel to Dungannon and Coalisland on Easter Saturday, a fourth that was to arrive on the Sunday morning, along with an expected contingent that was to arrive by boat in Belfast from Glasgow then travel onwards with the Belfast Volunteers on the Sunday. Once linked up with the Irish Volunteers from Tyrone they were to travel to the west and serve under Liam Mellows command, including the provision of a  defensive screen along the River Shannon.

1916 service medal

1916 Easter Rising service medal

The first account is by Cathal McDowell, who was Captain of A Company in the Irish Volunteers and also an IRB member. He gives an exact figure of 114 Volunteers travelling on the Saturday in three groups, one of 30, one of 20-25 and the remainder in a third. If the list of 156 names compiled in 1936 is credible, then that would mean 42 were travel on the Sunday morning, which seems consistent with the groups travelling on the Saturday. Frank Booth, another Belfast IRB man, describes what transpired with the Glasgow contingent. Booth was to travel on the Sunday but the remaining 42 men never left Belfast that day but are included on the list (showing that the list indicates only that they mobilised, not that they travelled to Tyrone). Finally Pat McCormick, who represented the IRB’s Scottish Division on the Supreme Council, explains what happened to the Glaswegians.

Cathal McDowell:

From Tuesday or Wednesday previous to Easter Week we had orders to march to Coalisland, Co. Tyrone. The rifles were transferred by taxi on Holy Thursday, and the contingent for Coalisland was divided up into three batches.

The first batch to move were unemployed man and men who had the weekend off – I had charge of this batch. The second batch was under the command of Archie Heron who had been made an officer a short time previously. The last batch was under the charge of Peter Burns and Sean Kelly. The first batch left midday on Saturday; the second batch left about 5 or 6 o’clock on Saturday, and the third batch arrived around midnight. There was a further batch to leave on Sunday morning – men who were working late on Saturday night such as barmen – and also a contingent that was expected by boat from Scotland. This Scotch contingent did not arrive in Belfast, and the Sunday morning contingent did not travel.

On my arrival in Tyrone I met a man whom I met previously in Belfast. His job when I met him in Belfast was a travelling inspector who visited the different circles, and it was in this connection I had met him. I can’t remember his name just now, but he walked with a limp. I discussed with this man the problem of billeting the men in Coalisland. He made arrangements for billeting and the protection of the district where the men were to be billeted.

I informed him that there was 114 men in all due to travel from Belfast. My first contingent numbered 30 men. The second contingent numbered about 20/25 and the remainder of the 114 were due to arrive on the last train. The 30 men who travelled with me were to occupy billets three miles outside Coalisland, The second contingent under Archie Heron were to occupy billets about a mile from Coalisland. The third batch were to occupy the town of Coalisland. This batch was under the command of Peter Burns and Sean Kelly.


Frank Booth:

On Friday night – I think it was Friday night as the moat of the Belfast Volunteers had left for Tyrone before Saturday night – I got orders to remain in Belfast on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, to proceed to the Scottish boat and contact a party of Glasgow Volunteers expected that morning, and to guide those men to Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, by train on Sunday morning I think it was also on Friday evening that Sean Cusack came to my house and showed me a note signed by Sean McDermott. This note mentioned names of 2 men Cusack should contact. Cusack told me of his plans for leaving for Co. Cavan. it was after 8 P.m. on Saturday night when I finished my work as a bread server. All the Belfast Volunteers who were travelling to Tyrone had left Belfast by then. On Sunday morning at 6 a.m. I proceeded to the docks to make contact with the Glasgow contingent as per instructions. No Volunteers arrived by the Glasgow boat. I got no instructions as to how I was to introduce myself to the Glasgow crowd had they travelled to Belfast. On thinking back of this mission of mine to the boat I feel that had the Glasgow Volunteers arrived in Belfast on Easter Sunday morning I and they might have round ourselves in a pretty difficult position as I had not procured any cash for railway tickets to Tyrone. I might have had finance sufficient for a fen men and myself, but the others would have had to provide for themselves. In the afternoon of Sunday I and Marry Osborne travelled to the Northern Counties Railway to get a train for Coalisland. When we were waiting at the station for our train, a train arrived from Cookstown with all the Belfast men returning from Coalisland.

Pat McCormick:

I travelled to Belfast, arriving there on Holy Thursday morning. I contacted Dan Branniff who then worked in Belfast. Dan and myself came to an arrangement that I should travel with the Belfast men on Saturday to Dungannon and that Dan was to remain in Belfast and meet the Glasgow boat due to arrive there on Sunday morning and put the Glasgow men travelling on it in touch with a Belfast contingent due to leave Belfast on Sunday morning for Tyrone. As it turned out, none of the Glasgow men travelled to Belfast on Sunday morning. There was about 40 to 50 young Glasgow men already in Dublin with the Kimmage garrison.

Republican Congress on #poppyfascism, 1934

In 1934, Republican Congress held a public rally in Dublin that was a “demonstration of protest against the exploitation of their dead comrades and, against the mockery of the living in these Imperialistic displays”. Two Belfast representatives, whose names were not given, also addressed the meeting. Relations between many of those in Republican Congress and the Belfast IRA had been quite fraught for several years dating back to before the split that led to Republican Congress being formed. So it seems unlikely that those who spoke were officers of the Belfast IRA and were more likely drawn from a small group of Belfast republicans like Peter and Paul Carleton, Robert McVicker and Willie McMullen.

Tensions over the wearing of poppies and displays of the Union Jack were very contentious in the 1920s and 1930s in Dublin. ‘Poppy-snatching’ – where people had their poppy grabbed from their coat – was common place in Dublin. Indeed, from 1926, the Easter Lily gained prominence as a republican symbol that was in response to both the poppy, and, the Free State (since Easter Lily sellers refused to acknowledge the authority of the Free State and apply for a peddlers license, they were often prosecuted). In Belfast, republicans were often prosecuted simply for wearing an Easter Lily symbol, which judges derided as a ‘Sinn Féin poppy’.

The Irish Times account of the meeting (published on 12th November 1934) is below:

About noon yesterday a small number of people assembled at the corner of Middle Abbey street. in response to a notification issued from the offices of the Republican Congress, 112 Marlborough Street, Dublin. The notice was that ex-Service men and Republicans would hold a meeting. About 12.30 a procession was formed and some 200 persons. mostly young men, but including a body of men wearing War medals and ribbons, marched from Abbey Street up O’Connell Street to the Parnell Monument, then to College street and back to Abbey Street. The procession was headed by a cart, which later served as the platform for the meeting. There was frame-work formed round the cart, which bore many inscriptions, such as “Republican Masses March Again,” “Neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland.”
Behind the cart was carried a painted banner, The chief feature of this was a man in a blueshirt and the inscription “Workers’ United Front Against Fascism.”

At the meeting a crowd of persons, many wearing poppies, listened to a series of speeches, which, as time progressed were delivered to am ever diminishing audience. There was a disturbance of the proceedings about half an hour after the speeches began. A man made a dash towards the platform. He was closely followed by a number of Civic Guards, who held him.

Mr. Peadar O’Donnell, seeing the arrest, cried out from the platform, “I demand the release of that man.” Several men jumped from the platform and ran Into the confused crowd of protesting people, who closed about the Guards. In the crowd voices cried that the Guards were trying to break up the meeting. Superintendent Hurley spoke to the people on the platform, apparently explaining the situation, and meanwhile the man was bundled into a police lorry and taken away. There was no further disturbance at the meeting.

Mr. B. Smith (ex-Tank Corps) presided at the meeting. and said that it was demonstration of protest against the exploitation of their dead comrades and, against the mockery of the living in these Imperialistic displays that had taken place for the past ten years in the City of Dublin. It proved a definite break of the Irish ex-Service men with the Imperialist forces which had ruthlessly exploited them since 1919.

Mr. R. Connolly said that if ex-Service men had been given medals for a cause which the workers despised it must. he remembered that those medals were rewards of valour and they should salute them. He wanted the youth of Ireland kept out of the next war. It was only the peace policy of Soviet Russia which was keeping back the dogs of war.

Mr. T. Ellis (ex-Royal Garrison Artillery) said that since the overthrow of the last. Government the position of the workers had been made ho better. Mr. Frank Ryan said that he was proud to he on that platform for they saw united men of the British Army, of the Irish Republican Army and of the Irish Citizen Army, and they had there also representatives of the Belfast working-classes. The Jacobs and the Guinnesses had come out that day with their moth-eaten Union Jacks and sang “God Save the King,” but at the meeting they had the plain men who had borne the brunt of the war.

Mr. Sean Murray said that those who fought under Mulcahy, Blythe and O’Duffy were not better than those who fought under the King.

Mr. Peadar O’Donnell said that such a band of ex-Service men could walk through the streets without fear from the mass of the people because they were standing with the mass of the people.

Two representatives of Belfast, whose names were not announced, also addressed the meeting.