Truckling to Treason: Belfast Newsletter reflects on the Rebellion, 4th May 1916

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.