Friday 17 January 2020

Breandan Mac Suibhne: 'Remember dead Black and Tans with pity - for how can it be with pride?'

Should we commemorate the dead, in equal measure, on both sides in the bitterly fought Tan War, asks Breandan Mac Suibhne

Members of the Black and Tans, an armed auxiliary force of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Members of the Black and Tans, an armed auxiliary force of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Breandan Mac Suibhne

Tom Devine was a Black and Tan and he died in Lifford Infirmary on July 15, 1921. It was four days after the truce agreed between the British and the IRA had come into effect, and he was 34.

A miner, from Lancashire, Devine had joined the "colours" at the declaration of war in 1914. And after more than three years' "distinguished service", during which time he was wounded seven times, he was discharged "unfit for further service" a few months before the armistice.

Returning home to the north of England, he had worked as a shell inspector in a munitions factory and then, in October 1920, he had joined the Royal Irish Constabulary and landed in Ireland. Nine months later, at Kilraine, near Glenties, Co Donegal, he had been shot in both thighs when a small IRA flying column ambushed a convoy of Crossley tenders on June 29, 1921.

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Evacuated to Lifford, Devine died a slow and painful death over two and a half weeks. The matron of the infirmary, Anna Heslin, attended his funeral in Strabane. Years later, EJ Mullin, a Catholic curate in Glenfin, remembered that, on the day after the funeral, she had remarked to him that the only others present at the graveside had been the dead man's mother who had come over from England, four policemen, and the chaplain.

And, according to Mullin, she had said that when the grave was closed, Devine's mother, herself an Englishwoman, had addressed the little group, not only forgiving those who had shot her son but wishing them success: "I want the Irish people to know that I did not send my son on this mission to Ireland and that I forgive the people who shot him. I have another son, and if he came on the same mission to Ireland, I should also forgive the people who would shoot him. I have the greatest sympathy with the Irish people and I wish them every success."

Mullin's mention of a small group of mourners is at variance with a report in the Strabane Chronicle that puts 150 RIC men at the funeral; that report also has both of his parents (not just his mother) present and it identifies them as Jane and Thomas Devine, a miner.

Breandan Mac Suibhne's 'The End of Outrage' (2017) received the inaugural Michel Deon Biennial Prize from the RIA
Breandan Mac Suibhne's 'The End of Outrage' (2017) received the inaugural Michel Deon Biennial Prize from the RIA

But those differences are of no great significance. And consistent with the story ascribed to Heslin, other contemporary accounts noted that Jane Devine had made an emotional address at the graveside, with the Freeman's Journal reporting that she had asked God to forgive those who shot her son, as she forgave them and that, despite her sorrow, she had sobbed aloud, "God Save Ireland".

"God Save Ireland" uttered in an English accent - therein lies the pity of it all. Thomas Devine Sr (born 1868) was a native of Mayo. His wife Jane (born 1870) was indeed an English woman, but she was the daughter of Irish parents, Mary (born 1831) and James Manley (born 1825). Her mother was a native of Cork, as most likely was her father. Part of the great human haemorrhage occasioned by the Famine, the Manleys had spent the 1850s and 1860s moving back and forth between Liverpool and Manchester, making ends meet and getting by, before finally settling, in 1871, in Wigan, where men dug coal in the deepest collieries in Britain.

And here, surrounded by the dusty faces of the immigrant poor - among them the evicted, the orphaned, and the unwanted of Cork and Mayo - Jane Devine would have early learned the cost of the union of Great Britain and Ireland.

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Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has implied that there was some moral equivalence between the RIC and the IRA, that is, between Tom Devine and the men who killed him. In fact, Flanagan has suggested that the Tans were somehow morally superior. In September, Flanagan attended an inter-denominational service for members of the RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police killed during the War of Independence: they were "murdered", he said, doing their "duty". And on January 17, he and Drew Harris, the Garda Commissioner, will address an event in Dublin Castle commemorating men who served in those forces prior to 1922.

Denying what was at issue in past dissension is a maneuver not uncommon in societies that have experienced violent conflict. In the last three decades of the 19th Century, many white Americans sought to bind up the wounds of the US Civil War (1861-65), and hide class and other tensions, by remembering Confederate as well as Union veterans as brave men who, in Flanagan's phrase, had done their duty.

Frederick Douglass, who had been born in slavery and escaped north before the Civil War, was having none of it. On Decoration Day 1871 (May 30, the day when people decorate veterans' graves, now better known as Memorial Day), he gave a speech in Arlington National Cemetery, deploring this tendency:

"We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation's life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

"I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant - but may my right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict."

His point was that the US should not remember the dead for having been brave or "manly" or "doing their duty" but because they had fought for a high ideal; it was the cause not the courage of the dead that mattered.

"If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier. But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause."

Douglas repeatedly returned to this theme in the last decades of his life. "Death has no power to change moral qualities", he argued in a speech in Rochester, New York, on Decoration Day 1882: "What was bad before the war and during the war, has not been made good since the war."

"I am not indifferent to the claims of a generous forgetfulness," he told another crowd in 1894, "but whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the republic and those who fought to destroy it."

Jane Devine would have understood Frederick Douglass. And so should we, that is, we should not be indifferent to the claims of "generous forgetfulness", but it is the cause for which people fought a century ago - not their courage in the fight nor, indeed, the conclusion of it - that demands remembrance.

Ideas matter, and much as Douglass described the American Civil War, the Tan War was fought "between men of thought as well as of action" - there was no moral equivalence between those who fought for a sovereign republic and those who fought, against the will of its people, to keep this country in the union and the British empire.

We should not forget why we remember, and if we remember Tom Devine at all, let it be with pity, for how can it be with pride?

Breandan Mac Suibhne's 'The End of Outrage' (2017) received the inaugural Michel Deon Biennial Prize from the RIA

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