Five years after Liam escapes Balbriggan and Ireland, much has changed. World War I is over, but Liam and many of the men who fought in the trenches have been scarred forever by the brutality and violence of the conflict. At the same time, Ireland is mired in a war of its own pitting those serving the British government like the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) police force against the Irish Republican Army, the military wing of the movement to create a free Irish nation.
In Tan: A Story of Exile, Betrayal and Revenge, author David Lawlor (@LawlorDavid) builds a wonderfully gripping fictional story against a backdrop of actual events during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), including the Sack of Balbriggan. Liam, his family and friends, and the other characters are richly drawn and complex, with ambitions and motivations that range from the most basic to the highest ideal. There are plenty of action scenes and a few romances along the way as the narrative builds to an intense conclusion — I was glued to my Kindle for the final five chapters.
Demobilized from the Army after the Great War and unable to hold a job in England, a sick and starving Liam has little choice but to join a new paramilitary group being formed to bring order to Ireland: The Black and Tans, so named because of the mismatched/grab-bag of uniforms they are issued. The ranks of the Tans are filled by veterans of the Great War, men who have not been able to reintegrate into society. Many are petty criminals and violent thugs, others — like Liam — suffer from what we today would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but was first termed around this time as “Shell Shock.”
The introduction of the Tans into the conflict was intended to provide enough manpower to tip the scales against the increasing popularity of the IRA, and it coincided with the decision of the British and RIC leadership to “take the gloves off” in their fight against the rebels. The result was predictable as the ill-disciplined Tans — to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from James Webb’s excellent Vietnam novel Fields of Fire — created more rebels than they stopped.
It is interesting to note that religion plays little role in Tan. Although many Americans are likely to view the history of Ireland through the lens of religious conflict (Protestant North vs. Catholic Republic), the truth is — inevitably — much more complex.
At the time when Tan was set by some estimates the vast majority, seventy-five percent, of the RIC were Irish-Catholic and several prominent members of the Irish Nationalist movement were Protestant. Although religion certainly became an issue later with “The Troubles,” during the Irish War of Independence the question wasn’t what church you attended but what your vision for the country’s future was: a free republic or some version of continued British rule.
Tan is the third novel I’ve read in the past year which in some degree has featured Ireland and the conflict there, although the first set in the War of Independence/Civil War time period. It is a beautiful country with a highly complex and rich history. I highly recommend Tan to anyone looking for a exciting read and am thrilled to see from his blog historywithatwist that Mr. Lawlor is working on a sequel.
I can’t wait to read it.