The Black and Tans as a subject still arouses controversy in Ireland. The Black and Tans were mostly former soldiers brought into Ireland by the government in London after 1918 to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in their work.
For a number of years, the RIC had been a target for the IRB and then the IRA. RIC barracks were frequently attacked and members of the RIC were murdered. Therefore, recruitment to the RIC started to be hit and the RIC found it difficult to carry out its duties effectively, especially in the remote rural areas of southern Ireland. Never knowing if you were going to be the next target did a great deal to undermine morale in the RIC.
In 1919, the British government advertised for men who were willing to “face a rough and dangerous task”. Many former British army soldiers had come back from Western Europe and did not find a land fit for heroes. They came back to unemployment and few firms needed men whose primary skill was fighting in war. Therefore, there were plenty of ex-servicemen who were willing to reply to the government’s advert. For many the sole attraction was not political or national pride – it was simply money. The men got paid ten shillings a day. They got three months training before being sent to Ireland. The first unit arrived in Ireland in March 1920.
Once in Ireland it quickly became apparent that there were not enough uniforms for all those who had joined up. Therefore they wore a mixture of uniforms – some military, some RIC. This mixture gave them the appearance of being in khaki and dark police uniform. As a result, these men got the nickname “Black and Tans”, and it stuck. Some say that the nickname came from a pack of hunting hounds known as the ‘Black and Tans’.
The Black and Tans did not act as a supplement to the RIC. Though some men were experienced in trench warfare, they lacked the self-discipline that would have been found in the Western Front. Many Black and Tan units all but terrorised local communities. Community policing was the preserve of the RIC. For the Black and Tans, their primary task was to make Ireland “hell for the rebels to live in”. Over 8000 Black and Tans went to Ireland and while they found it difficult to cope with men who used classic guerrilla tactics against them, those who lived in areas where the Black and Tans were based, paid the price.
The attitude of the Black and Tans is best summed up by one of their divisional commanders:
The most infamous attack on the public came in November 1920. Many people had packed into Croke Park, Dublin, to watch a football match. In retaliation for the murder of fourteen undercover detectives by the IRA, the Black and Tans opened fire on the crowd, killing twelve people. In retaliation for this attack, eighteen members of the ‘Auxies’ (a separate part of the Black and Tans) were killed in Kilmichael, County Cork. The ‘Auxies’ took their revenge for this by burning down the centre of Cork and parading around after this event with burnt cork in their caps. Violence, it appeared, only led to even more violence on both sides.
The Black and Tans were not regular troops. There were many examples of them shooting indiscriminately at civilians as opposed to republican guerrillas. Creameries were also destroyed by the Black and Tans – almost as a way of economically punishing those who may have been helping the IRA. Those experienced in trench warfare fighting a seen enemy, were of little use in Ireland. The Black and Tans were so poorly disciplined and trained for Ireland that their casualty rate was far higher than could have been imagined when the government first advertised for them. The government in Westminster quickly realised that they were a liability as even public opinion in mainland Britain was appalled by a lot of what they did.
What did the Black and Tans achieve? They served no purpose for the British government as they simply failed to stop what the IRA was doing. However, they did succeed in getting the republican cause a great deal of civilian support simply because of their acts – people may not have joined the IRA, but they were supporters of it and gave what financial help they could to the movement. The Black and Tans were pulled out of Ireland in ignominy.