At 2.30 pm on 3 February 1921, two lorries of Black and Tans were rattling their way towards the village of Dromkeen in bucolic Limerick, Ireland when they were fired upon as they rounded the bend at McCarthy's farmhouse. In an instant the ambush site was alive to the sound of Enfield rifles and frantic voices, Irish and English. The man who led the ambush, Donncadh OhAnnagain was my great uncle. Although the British called him Denis Hannigan he always used the Irish spelling. His own uncle, John Cleary - my great grandfather - also spoke Irish. Neither man accepted the English occupation of his country.
By the time the Battle of Dromkeen was over, eleven Black and Tans were dead and one of the IRA Volunteers, Liam Hayes, was missing a finger. In the days that followed, ten local houses were torched and civilians harassed and brutalised. On 6 February the Tans rounded up local farmers and forced them to set fire to the wounded Hayes' home. No matter how unpalatable it might be to those of English descent, history is not kind to the British soldiers who occupied Ireland in those dark days before the Truce of 1921 and the Treaty that precipitated the devastating civil war. What makes it worse is that in the December 1918 election the Sinn Fein party - committed to an independent Irish republic - won 73 of the 105 seats.
Yet as Ken Loach's confronting new film The Wind That Shakes the Barley so tellingly confirms, brutality was not confined to the British. In the Irish Military Archives are documents which reveal how O'Hannigain executed two Black and Tans captured at Dromkeen and later ordered the execution of a man who'd been involved in the burning of the houses. However, one underlying fact cannot be erased. No amount of state terror - endorsed by the British War Cabinet of Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill - could bring the flying columns of Irish farm boys to heel. As much as it upsets supporters of the invasion of Iraq, the lessons are unmistakable. History shows that people simply do not give up their piece of turf and their traditions without a fight.