The Black and Tans
“Mercenary and auxiliary troops are both useless and dangerous.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.
My previous overbold incursions into Irish history were occasioned by the need to rectify the traditional belief of English historians that the affairs of the other countries of the British Isles, and indeed, elsewhere, were of no significance in the divinely ordained progress of England.
Wider still and wider
Shall thy bounds be set
God who made thee mighty
Make thee mightier yet. (A.C.Benson, 1902)
This is jolly fun at the last night of the Proms, where the audience wave flags of all manner of countries (including the Irish Tricolor).
This essay, on the other hand, is being written on the hundredth anniversary of the British Government's last, doomed attempt to hold Ireland within the United Kingdom. One hundred years is enough time for everybody who was directly affected by the tragic events of that period to have died, and for revisionist historians to return to those events and check to what extent popular legend corresponds to historical fact.
Perhaps we should start with the U.K. Election at the end of 1918, known in Britain as “The Coupon Election” because the coalition between Lloyd George's faction of the Liberals and the Conservative and Unionist Party still held good. The Irish population, bar the Ulster Presbyterians, voted radically: they voted Sinn Féin. The Sinn Féin Members promptly (21st January 1919) founded Dáil Éireann and without any sort of legal authority set about passing their own laws. In particular, they called upon the public to boycott the Royal Irish Constabulary. Boycotting was no small sanction. Shops were forbidden to serve members of the RIC, for instance, and if any did they were smashed up. Unsurprisingly, a lot of policemen decided that resignation was the better part of valour. After all, the Victorian concept of policing was policing by consent of the general public, as is still supposed to be the case. Even worse, the IRA started ambushing police patrols and attacking barracks. Naturally, therefore, there was a serious shortfall in police numbers just at the time when law and order was giving way to anarchy and armed force.
The British Government's answer was to seek to recruit policemen from elsewhere in the United Kingdom to make up the shortfall. It is entirely untrue, contrary to legend, that they scoured the prisons and lunatic asylums. Persons with a criminal record were then, as now, disbarred from serving in the police. The RIC was against bringing in outsiders. After all, as outsiders they could not serve the Irish communities by consent. Most of the original imports were from southern England. They would have been mainly drawn from unemployed ex-soldiers. They were given two or three weeks' training, dressed in mismatched tunics and trousers because of a shortage of proper uniforms (hence the name “Black and Tans”) and sent out to pacify the Irish population. Some chance! The British Government therefore set up militarised support for the police, originally known as “Auxies” but quickly named “Black and Tans” like the earlier recruits. The Inspector General of the RIC, Joseph Byrne, objected. He did not like his police being militarised and he believed that ex-soldiers could not be controlled by police discipline. So he was sacked, and replaced by T.J.Smith, who was, believe it or not, an Orangeman.
The person in the British Government chiefly responsible for this lamentable lapse of judgment (May 1920) was, I regret to say, Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister was Lloyd George, whose original prejudices were pacifist and who should have known better. But Lloyd George was not the last British Prime Minister to believe that he was put upon this earth to arbitrate between nations at the expense of minding his own business.
It did not take long for war to break out between the IRA and the Tans. Both sides were well used to handling weapons and the discipline required to handle them effectively; they had been well trained by four years in the trenches. Persons who were thought to have given succour or information to the other side were shot. That included an 80-year-old Protestant clergyman in Cavan, shot by the IRA.
In all, approximately ten thousand men served in the Black and Tans. There was a rapid turnover. After all, only certain people were happy to shoot, and be shot at by, their fellow citizens. Even so, it is said that the worst atrocities of all were committed by the Ulster Special Constabulary, who became the feared and loathed 'B' Specials of a later age. The Black and Tans soon took to burning homes, meeting halls, businesses and farms. Hardly what the Americans call a “hearts and minds” campaign. On 20th September 1920 the Tans committed the Sack of Balbriggan, which represented an escalation in what had now become competitive terrorism. They moved on to sack a number of other small towns. The shooting of Father Michael Griffin in Galway added a sectarian flavour to the devil's brew.
Perhaps the worst day in the whole sorry affair was what was quickly labelled Bloody Sunday, November 21st, 1920. In the morning Michael Collins led his adherents to search out and assassinate the so-called “Cairo Gang”, a group of undercover British agents who met in the Cairo Restaurant in Dublin. Sixteen people were shot, some of whom actually were British agents. In the afternoon the Auxiliary Division, with members of the RIC, drove an armoured car into Croke Park, where several thousand people were watching a Gaelic football match, and shot them up. Among the fourteen dead were one woman and at least one child. More than sixty others were wounded. The government accepted the Chief Secretary's reiterated claim to “have the terrorists beat”. Lloyd George repeated this claim at a Mansion House dinner in November 1920.
Bloody Sunday taught the British Government nothing, for in December 1920 they officially approved reprisals against property. Soon afterwards (December 11th) the Tans set fire to the centre of Cork City. At last public opinion was starting to awaken. By January 21st 1921, revulsion had been expressed in Britain by King George V, senior Anglican bishops, MP's from the Liberal and Labour Parties, Sir Oswald Mosley (!), Jan Smuts (the head of the Afrikaner army who had made his peace with the British Empire in exchange for domination of the Union of South Africa (1910)), the Trades Union Congress, important sections of the press (especially The Times), Mohendas Gandhi, and most important of all, Clementine Churchill. The war continued, however, until the RIC, including the Black and Tans, were disbanded with the legitimisation of the Dáil on January 1st, 1922, and replaced by the Gardaidhe Siodhchana (contemporary spelling). In all, during the period in question, 500 police were killed and 600 wounded.
Former members of the Black and Tans were spirited away. Some went to Canada, but several hundred were recruited into the Palestine Police. Two were hanged for murders carried out in Britain subsequently. I am not aware that any of them were arraigned for their crimes in Ireland. That is probably because members of the Government might have had their part in this dreadful story more widely published. Interestingly, I have never knowingly met a Black and Tan. Nor have I ever met anyone else who has met a Black and Tan. Maybe that is suggestive.
Michael Collins and Winston Churchill, at Clementine's instance, became good friends. Collins supported the partition of Ireland in the interests of peace, and was murdered by his own men for doing so. Irish expats, particularly in the United States, formed an important pressure group that possibly delayed Roosevelt's assistance to Britain in the darkest days of the Second World War. The United Kingdom lost more territory in 1922 than Germany lost at the Treaty of Versailles. Irishmen continued to sing about the War of Independence.
The Tans in their big Crossley tenders
Came rolling along to their doom.
In 1941 the Irish authorities issued postage stamps overprinted “i gcuimhne aiseirghe” (In memory of the Rising). They also issued medals to those who had fought in the War of Independence. The medal ribbons were divided lengthways in two colours – black and tan.