STILL a teenager when he started collecting people’s stories, Tomás Mac Conmara’s new book The Time of the Tans is backboned by many years of work.
It’s an oral history of the War of Independence in Clare and he said the fact that he spent so long gathering the information and accounts at the core of the book, means The Time of the Tans means a lot to him. “I’d say it is the most important one at a personal level. Anything you do like that, in terms of publishing a book, you put a lot of years and time into it, and you should do so as a historian. But because it has been 20 years in the making, almost all of the people who I interviewed and who were good enough to share their memories with me have passed away. It’s very sad in one sense, but it was always my point, that they would be gone. Historian friends of mine would have been pushing me for years, asking when are you publishing, but for me it was always more important to get the recordings and there’d be time for writing after that.”
Tomás first developed his interest in the revolutionary period through visits to his elderly neighbour Jim Mac in Tuamgraney, and the anecdotes he heard there fascinated him. “I probably started hearing stories about the Black and Tans from maybe the age of 12 or 13 or so. I have folklore journals at home from the age of 16, I would have dated them. They wouldn’t be very professionally done, but still there were notes taken. That kind of built up then and at 19 or 20 I would have started recording.”
Very passionate about having captured people’s stories, he knew that he needed help given that so much work was required and he established Cuimhneamh an Chláir, bringing in others to share the work.
Over the years he personally carried out hundreds of interviews, with the stories and accounts in The Time of The Tans not even coming close to mining all of his endeavour.
More than statistics
Much of history as it is learned in the classroom is concerned with dates and statistics, but he believes the real value is in hearing people’s own stories.
In the introduction to the book Tomás writes that “the historian must metaphorically get down on his or her hands and knees”, to reach a greater understanding.
“History for me is more than just statistics, it’s trying to build some account of that experience in the past. You don’t do that with just statistics. You need those of course, but it’s not enough to bring you back as close as is possible,” he reflects.
Explaining how his work is a little different to more conventional, perhaps less – or at least differently- informed histories, Tomás explains that personal, and very human, stories have all been included on the pages of The Time of the Tans. “There’s lots of oral tradition that zones in on particular episodes. Seán Breen was killed in Kilmihil in April 1920 in a shootout with the police. Millie Enright remembered hearing the shots, she looked out the window and saw the British soldiers running down into the village. She saw Sean Breen later that night, his dying body, as a sixyear- old girl.
“The majority of history books will not provide that kind of detail. You can’t end an account of an ambush when you’ve listed the participants, listed the killed, listed the ammunition used, described how people got to the ambush and how long they waited. That’s not a historical account, that’s just a statistical account of what happened. You’ve to follow the ambush. Memory has the ability to come along after the ambush, when the bodies arebeing picked up, go home with the family and live with them for 50 years.”
In later life many who were alive during the War of Independence or born in its aftermath, referred to that era by the book’s title, he says. “Whenever I was interviewing people, particularly people who were children at the time, they’d always say ‘I was going to school the time of the Tans’. Even people who grew up afterwards would say they were born just after the time of the Tans. The use of that term is commonplace, but it’s also very conscious. It reminds you of the fact that this was a landmark moment in their lives, the lives of their parents. In that whole century, it just became obvious to people who lived through it and in the aftermath of it, that those years were an incredibly significant time in Irish history.
“For people to be connected to it through being children at the time, or their parents being involved, or whatever the connection may be, not to be too academic about it, but that temporal location of the time of the Tans is actually really significant.” The term Tans became a shorthand for all the forces fighting under the British flag here. “I do tease out in the early part of the book that a lot of the murders or burnings mightn’t have been carried out by the Black and Tans, it could be Auxiliaries or regular British soldiers. But when people referred to the Tans it wasn’t that they were ignorant of the fact that there were other forces, it was the fact they could acceptably label the people on the British side as the Tans.”
The book is concerned more with the years, rather than the hated Black and Tans. “Now the book is about the time, more than the Tans if you get me. That period, even the broader period than when the Tans were here, is nearly always referred to as the time of the Tans, because the Tans became symbolic of that overall experience. You had RIC, Auxiliaries, even regular British Army, all involved during this period, but the Tans became the symbolic focus of it, and very understandably.It’s about the time,it’s about the way in which the events of that time became
such a landmark in people’s consciousness and the national consciousness. It’s also about the events that occurred broadly and also how they’re remembered. That’s critical, it’s a book of memory, not a historical account of the War of Independence, it’s an assembly of memories and experiences, and a kind of exploration of how memory works to a degree as well.”
The Black and Tans are seen as the real monsters of modern Irish history, universally despised.
Tomás says that their indiscipline and brutality played a huge role in strengthening the resolve of the people, and while the hatred of them is quite reasonable, the real villains were their political masters. “The behaviour of the Black and Tans was a real uniting force and made people more determined. I make the point that blaming the Black and Tans is completely understandable, when you hear the stories you almost get angry yourself. I grew up getting angry about the Black and Tans, but the Black and Tans are the edge of the axehead and it’s the fella wielding the axe that is doing the damage. You have people like Winston Churchill, who you have Hollywood movies about what a great man he was, but the Black and Tans were the brainchild of Winston Churchill. People like Lloyd George, Hamar Greenwood, Hugh Tudor, senior British imperial figures who conceptualise and direct forces like the Black and Tans into Ireland. They’re the people who are responsible.”
Fury at the actions of the Tans never left those who saw their brutality, he says. “I interviewed people aged over 100 who got furious about this. The whole body language changed. You could sense the anger and the sense of grievance at Black and Tans and British forces generally coming into their homes and townlands, maybe murdering local people.
Without a doubt that anger lived on within those and it was inherited too, people inherited a sense of anger and injustice against the Black and Tans.”
The book is dedicated to the late Mae Tuohy of Feakle, who was born in 1916 and died in 2017, and the age gap of more than 60 years between Tomás and one of his interview subjects wasn’t a barrier to a firm friendship being established.
It’s clear that he has a great capacity to engage well with people and over the years most were largely happy to speak to him when approached. “If you are trustworthy, approach people in the right way, and you demonstrate that you are sincere about what you are doing, then people will open up and explain what they feel is the true sense of what
*The Time of the Tans will be launched at the Temple Gate Hotel, Ennis, on Friday, February 15 at 8pm.