The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1921, by David Leeson, Oxford University Press, 320 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0199598991
I cannot precisely explain what convinced my fellow Americans that a “Black and Tan” is a popular drink in Ireland. The half pint of lager topped by a half pint of Guinness remains a favourite order in American Irish-themed pubs. Recently, the term impressed corporate branders inside Niketown, the Portland (Oregon) headquarters of Nike Shoes. Apparently unaware of its Irish legacy, the manufacturer named its new hipster sneaker “The Black and Tan”, and scheduled a St. Patrick’s Day release. A stream of hostile comment caused Nike to promptly drop the brand and apologise for its “inappropriate and insensitive” phrase.1 The episode seemed to generate more bemusement than outrage in Ireland, though it was a reminder of the police force’s enduring association with some of the worst outrages of the Irish War of Independence.
For decades, Black and Tans haunted the British House of Commons during debates over Ireland and the suppression of insurgencies around the Empire. These constables were so intrinsically associated with the traumatic events of 1920-1921 that Irish participants commonly called the conflict “The Tan War”. Despite growing scholarship on the Irish Revolution, little attention has been paid to the inner mechanics of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s British reinforcements. David Leeson’s new book, The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, attempts to fill that vacuum. Relying on a masterly engagement with police records, Leeson tells us who the Tans were and why they acted as they did. His study achieves much, though its narrow framework is ultimately limiting.
From 1919 to mid-1920, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) undertook what Niketown might call a “soft launch” of guerrilla war. Unlike other British police forces, the paramilitary Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was outfitted with rifles and pistols. Relatively unarmed IRA units sought to seize those police weapons through sporadic ambushes and raids. Early attacks yielded unexpected results, as the government abandoned hundreds of small, vulnerable police barracks. Increasingly ostracised by their community and now operating in a lethal environment, a mass of Irish constables resigned from the force in spring and summer of 1920. The British army could not flood Ireland with troops owing to commitments elsewhere (including Iraq and Afghanistan – some things never change). The IRA happily filled the power vacuum.
Facing a security crisis and a manpower shortage, the British Cabinet recruited new constables from the surging population of unemployed war veterans in Britain. Government officials seemed to have viewed this solution, in Niketown parlance, as a “win, win”. British ex-soldiers joined the RIC as temporary constables, with only their accent and poor training differentiating them from Irish colleagues. However, their lack of discipline proved a propaganda boon to Sinn Féin, who used assorted police burnings, assaults, and other unruliness to mobilise public opinion against the government. Initially the temporary constables wore motley mixed uniforms of police bottle green and light military khaki. A wit labelled them “Black and Tans” after Limerick’s famed Scarteen foxhunting dog pack, and the derisory nickname stuck.
Leeson makes very good use of RIC personnel records to illuminate the nature of the British recruits to the Irish constabulary. Despite Republican propaganda claims, they were neither the dregs of English prisons nor maladjusted war veterans addicted to mayhem. Few if any had prior criminal records. This finding will not surprise students of the Irish Revolution, though its strong evidential base is most welcome. Leeson’s sample shows that most Tans were young, unemployed, former enlisted men in the wartime military, and products of England’s urban working class. Victims of a spiralling unemployment crisis, they were attracted to Ireland by promises of upward mobility, steady work, good pay, and a comfortable pension. Since little can be determined about the nature of the constables’ prior war service, Leeson sanely suggests historians stop presuming they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The worst actors within the Crown forces seem to have been the Temporary Cadets of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC. Strictly speaking, the “Auxies” were distinct from the Tans. To clarify: Tans served in the ranks of the RIC as Temporary Constables, and were mainly ex-enlisted men from the British military; Auxies served in a special RIC division with the rank of Temporary Cadet, and were ex-military officers. The Auxiliary Division essentially formed a separate force within the RIC, organised into companies and platoons with its own command structure. Members joined an elite counter-insurgency force, and carried the prestige of former officers in the British military. Outfitted like stage villains, with distinctive Glengarry caps, near black uniforms, bandoliers, and hanging six-guns, the Auxies better fit the popular memory of an Irish Freikorps. Heavily armed and well-equipped with motor transport, they were intended to take the fight to the IRA. Unfortunately, they became best-known for spectacular reprisals, including infamous episodes at Croke Park and Cork city. The idea of the force was credited to Winston Churchill, and it can be justly ranked among his blunders, close to the World War One invasion of the Dardenelles and opposition to the World War Two D-Day landings.
Leeson shows that the Auxies generally did not belong to the British army’s professional officer class, which was educated at Sandhurst, preoccupied with hunting and laden with ostentatious mess bills. Instead they tended to be “temporary gentlemen”, recipients of wartime commissions from the mass citizen armies formed during the First World War. Members of the middle and upper middle classes, they depended on their own means after the war and were attracted by high pay (a pound a day, plus generous expenses) and an RIC officer’s commission. Like the Black and Tans, Auxies displayed no prior propensity for violence, but they better deserved their reputation for drunkenness and disorder. They also apparently attracted more than their fair share of bad apples: Leeson shows that a remarkable twenty-five per cent of Auxiliary units suffered from embezzlement by their staff officers. There also seems to have been a high number of former volunteers from the British intervention in the Russian Civil War, which suggests an adventurer element.
Leeson’s perusal of police personnel records yields additional insights. For example, new British constables were shorter than their Irish counterparts. The RIC lowered its height requirement to accommodate these bantam bobbies. Also noteworthy was the high level of promotions and resignations within the force, which reflected an ad hoc formation. Leeson shows that RIC constables rarely engaged in combat with IRA forces. However, those that did suffered fearfully high casualties. In such encounters, a constable faced a twenty-four per cent chance of being killed, a forty-two per cent chance of being wounded and just a thirty-four per cent chance of escaping unharmed. This reflects the IRA’s determination to engage in operations when it enjoyed the advantages of surprise and superior numbers.
The Black and Tans is well-written and accessible. Leeson skilfully distils complex events into discreet mini-narratives. He also contributes some original constructs to explain police reprisals. His description of police “lynch mobs” is an innovative way to view attacks on Republican suspects, and could generate a comparative study with the United States during the same period. He also offers an intriguing discussion of masculine ideals within the police and their depictions of the IRA as effeminate. Less successful is the term “beast folk” (“part animal and part human”) used to describe Black and Tans, and inspired by HG Wells’s science fiction novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. This is a case where Leeson should have stifled his inner nerd.
Leeson takes great pains to establish “the facts” about individual police reprisals. This can be difficult to accomplish owing to contradictory testimony, spotty details, and propagandised treatments of evidence. Diligently, Leeson frequently points out inconsistencies in these accounts. In practice, lengthy expositions of murky events (many of minor importance) frequently sidetrack his narrative. In addition, he does not quite grasp that determining “what happened” is not always superior to determining “what people thought happened”. As a result, he neglects the impact reprisals made on public opinion in Britain, Europe, and the United States. More seriously, he makes no effort to determine how the Tans influenced the Irish public’s support for the IRA insurgency, though this was key to the war’s outcome.
This kind myopia is a consistent problem with this well-researched book. Though Leeson is excellent at describing events from a policeman’s perspective, he stumbles with the broader picture. He fails to thoroughly explore fundamental questions surrounding the need for the RIC to recruit outside of Ireland. If unemployed British ex-soldiers were eager to join the RIC, why did unemployed Irish ex-soldiers not do likewise? Did the government attempt to recruit Irish ex-soldiers? Did Ulster Unionists join the force? Why did RIC constables resign in such droves? Was it because of a social boycott, or for political reasons? Did strained industrial relations within the RIC play a role, echoing the police strikes in Liverpool and London during 1918-1919? In terms of the boycott driving RIC resignations, my recent research suggests police may not have been as socially ostracised as historians have previously assumed. What was the popular attitude towards the police at this time? Had the RIC lost its legitimacy because of Dublin Castle’s unpopularity? Unfortunately, Leeson does not ask, much less answer, these critical questions. Yet the answers are essential to understanding Irish policing in this period.
Weaknesses in his source material (generally acknowledged by Leeson) deserve comment. First, The Black and Tans uses RIC records to quantify police reprisals, though clearly constables had an incentive to downplay, reduce, or fail to record the crimes they committed. Second, Leeson breaks down reprisal property damage in some detail, but does not measure job losses or the number of households affected. For example, during a discussion on the burnings of five Sligo creameries, the reader does not know how many people relied on those creameries for their livelihoods. Without this data it is difficult to accurately ascertain the event’s impact. Finally, Leeson uses police disciplinary records to measure criminal wrong-doing by individual constables. This method may rely too much on institutional candour. For example, in one case Leeson notes four Auxies found guilty of assaulting two civilians in the Bank of Ireland premises in Dunmanway. The official record apparently does not mention that the Cadets were acquitted of attempting to rob the bank, having claimed (rather dubiously one might think) that their hold-up was a misunderstood prank. A lack of prosecution zeal seems evident in the few cases brought against police, and official reticence needs to be factored into any study using this source material.
The Black and Tans cannot be accused of ignoring police reprisals, as it dissects brutal attacks in exhaustive detail. Essentially, Leeson argues that reprisals sprang from a guerrilla warfare environment that produced stress and outrage among the police. Angry at government “betrayal”, they lashed out at the public. In such a situation, unauthorised murders, assaults, vandalism, and arson were inevitable and even understandable. However, Leeson does not compare the police experience with that of the British army operating in Ireland during the same period. In his recent study A Hard Local War, The British Army and the Guerrilla War in Cork, 1919-1921, William Sheehan argues that the military generally repressed reprisals by its troops.2 Though slightly overstated, Sheehan’s thesis demonstrates army reluctance to condone and conduct reprisals. Institutional objections were practical rather than moral. Senior officers believed the actions demoralised the troops, bred ill-discipline, and exposed officers to criminal prosecution. As a result, soldiers engaging in reprisals often faced military court-martials and officers permitting them were censured. The high command demanded the government provide legal protection, which finally came in the form of Martial Law. It is unclear why the RIC senior leadership did not react in a similar fashion.
Leeson attributes police misbehaviour to members of the Crown forces who served long periods in Ireland. For some of them, frustrations about their Irish experience culminated in violent explosions towards the easiest targets. Others deteriorated under exposure to stressful conditions. Still unexplained, though, are those police (usually Auxiliary Cadets) who descended into lawbreaking and bloodshed almost instantly on their deployment in Ireland. For example, the very first Auxies in Cork city to appear on the public record were two drunken Cadets who staggered through a street market on a Saturday afternoon in early October 1920.3 After they accidently knocked each other over, one pulled his revolver and threatened to fire into pedestrians. A crowd gathered and roared abuse. Guns in hand, the Auxies entered a shop on Patrick Street, shouted, “we came here to shoot”, and barricaded themselves upstairs. A police patrol arrived and coaxed them outside onto the street. However, when they emerged they opened fire on the crowd, wounding two civilians and an RIC constable before being disarmed.
In Cork city also, a new Auxiliary Cadet company, “K”, was formally activated on December 2nd, 1920. Reckless and criminal behaviour was clearly apparent during its first week on duty. In nine days of service, they looted a number of shops, broke into jewellery shops, and probably attempted several payroll robberies. Witnesses testified that on other occasions they held up pedestrians and robbed them. They placed a notice in newspapers threatening to shoot any male seen with his hands in his pockets, and painted “Up England” and “God Save the King” on walls. When a British Labour Party delegation came to inspect the city, they observed boisterous Auxies grab whips from jarvey drivers and use them to hurry passing pedestrians. Carelessly discharging their weapons over and near crowds, in those few days the Auxies killed four civilians and wounded three more.
This all occurred prior to their burning of the city centre on December 11th, an action which resulted in the destruction of fifty-five shops, the damaging of twenty more, the loss of two thousand jobs, and the destruction of the City Hall and city library.4 Company K was then transferred to Dunmanway. Days after arriving, one company member shot dead an elderly priest and a mentally disabled male. A few weeks later (as previously mentioned), four members attempted to rob a bank. A fifth was charged with shaking down a civilian after he demanded £150 in exchange for not planting incriminating evidence in the victim’s house. This all occurred within the company’s first eight weeks of service. Such criminal behaviour was noteworthy but not exceptional in 1920-1921 terms. It cannot be adequately explained by theories of police anger at government betrayal, social isolation or challenges to masculinity. Leeson has shown these men had no prior propensity for crime. The easiest explanation then for their lawlessness is that they were instructed to use any means required to regain control of the situation. Not surprisingly, their behaviour led the Irish public to assume the force included a criminal element.
Many of these actions had a purpose. David Fitzpatrick has recently argued that the reprisals carried out in Ireland often punished an entire civilian population. He wrote:
In some cases indiscriminate, many of the reprisals were calculated to damage the economic life of the town, regardless, so far as is known, of the political affiliations of the victims. Though obnoxious, the selection of shopkeepers and businessmen as primary targets conforms to the economic rationale of reprisals as an instrument for efficiently punishing entire communities.5
Collective punishment was intended to coerce communities into rejecting the IRA. This was not confined to the burning of homes and businesses, or drunken joyrides through districts. Active areas were put under strict curfews to disrupt economic and social activity. Frequently cordons were placed around towns, rail and road access cut, and fairs and markets suspended. Steep fines were imposed on ratepayers, bankrupting local authorities. By 1921, the government could legally destroy homes in an area where citizens failed to warn the Crown forces of pending IRA operations. Essentially the government declared as hostile whole swathes of the population. This pushed the public towards the rebels, and made defeat of the insurgency much more difficult.
Though it was a staple of British counter-insurgency practice in this period, the subject of collective punishment is neglected in The Black and Tans. Using Connacht as a case study, Leeson suggests reprisals were much more discriminate than historians have assumed, emphasising police targeting of Republicans rather than civilian bystanders. Undoubtedly, Black and Tans preferred to take out their frustration on known Republicans rather than what we might call “ordinary decent citizens”. Sinn Féin public officials frequently felt the Black and Tans’ wrath, though they seldom participated in guerrilla hostilities. However, it should be remembered that the Republicans were by far the largest political party in the country, controlling virtually every elected body in southern Ireland. As such, general assaults on them could not enjoy popular legitimacy. Correct targeting of perpetrators also remained a constant problem, even among those police reprisals the constables considered focused. Leeson notes a Cork city case during November 1920 where, “the victims of the extrajudicial killings had been implicated in the shooting of police”. In actuality, police thought they had found people responsible for killing a local constable. Unfortunately, they missed their targets and killed or wounded six civilians uninvolved in the attack, including two teenagers and three First World War veterans.6
There is a general consensus among historians that reprisals were often ineffective and ultimately counter-productive. However, considerable debate continues as to the level of government culpability for them. I have suggested elsewhere that reprisals were an active government policy, an opinion Leeson does not share.7 I would argue there is little indication of state efforts to stop police reprisals or to discipline officers involved. The first controls appeared in 1921, only after waves of international outrage embarrassed the government. Historians cannot explain why prime minister David Lloyd George and other senior officials believed that police were engaged in a covert counter-assassination campaign against Republicans, which they endorsed.8 The (de facto) head of the RIC, Major-General Hugh Tudor, enjoyed a direct line of communication to Lloyd George, so reprisals could have been suppressed from an executive level.
General Tudor is described by Leeson as “notoriously soft on reprisals”, which may be generous. Leeson details a “police riot” in Galway when constables ran amok for a night, killing an IRA volunteer, burning two homes, wrecking a newspaper, and shooting in the streets.9 He makes a substantial find by placing Tudor in Galway during these troubling events, but neglects to track his movements during the riot or to ask whether he attempted to intervene. Tudor’s feelings on the subject can be supposed the next day when he appealed to the same constables, for men “who knew how to shoot to kill”. To me that sounds like a reassurance that police reprisals were supported at the highest level of government. Similar approval can be found in the RIC newspaper, The Weekly Summary, published by Dublin Castle. Headlines like “reprisals the result of police murder”, “the policy of hitting back”, “Sinn Féiners can’t complain”, “reprisals explained”, “Sinn Féiners reap the whirlwind” underline official backing for such actions.
Leeson believes Irish constables wreaked as much havoc as their Black and Tan colleagues. He argues that members of the “old” RIC supported reprisals against known Republicans but did not tolerate attacks on uninvolved civilians. This can be seen in the high number of Black and Tans in 1921 charged with assaults on innocent civilians and their property. The absence of prosecuted Irish constables, Leeson explains, indicates a RIC “code of omerta”, which protected Irish officers but not Black and Tan interlopers. This theory is far too speculative, however. First, Irish constables certainly engaged in some reprisals, though it is impossible to determine the level of their involvement in many notorious episodes during 1920-1921. Second, the nature of reprisals changed after the arrival of the Black and Tans, as whole communities were made to suffer for IRA actions. And third, while numerous Black and Tans were prosecuted for assorted robberies and assaults in 1921, almost none were charged in 1920, despite similar crimes committed in that period. The most logical explanation for the jailing of police wrongdoers in 1921 would be a change in government policy. After months of misconduct causing domestic and international outrage, the government may no longer have considered it politically viable to enable egregious criminality by its representatives.
Leeson argues that Republicans downplayed the participation of Irish constables in reprisals because of an ideological unwillingness to acknowledge that fellow Irishmen were fighting against national independence. He sees this as part of a wider misperception of the War of Independence. For Leeson, the war was not a struggle for liberation against foreign occupation, but rather a civil war between Irishmen of differing political beliefs. This argument would carry more weight had it engaged with the conflict’s intensive propaganda battle, contested by those two competing interpretations. Irish Republicans championed the external “war of national defence” view, while the British government advocated the internal “civil war” thesis. In this context, there were clear propaganda ramifications when the government deployed in Ireland a (mainly) British paramilitary force with a mandate for violence. Republicans very easily used the presence of Black and Tans to validate their claims that the IRA was defending the country from foreign invaders.
Like judo masters using their opponent’s power against them, Sinn Féin’s public relations team successfully exploited recent British propaganda. In the First World War, the British government claimed it was fighting to protect defenceless Belgium from savage German invasion. Irish Republicans consciously co-opted this argument, with Ireland playing the part of weak Belgium while assigning Britain the German role. Whenever they maltreated civilians, the Black and Tans could be cast as rampaging Huns. Owing to Ireland’s press accessibility and Republican efforts to document state violence, Crown force excesses were constantly exposed to media scrutiny. First World War propaganda had emphasised German reprisals taken against Belgian civil society, including the burning of the Liège university library, the execution of municipal officials and the destruction of civilian property. Republicans drew simple but effective comparisons by citing, as in the case of Cork city, the Crown forces’ burning of the city library, assassination of the Lord Mayor, and destruction of the city centre. Republicans also established their own version of First World War Belgian relief organisations, and used them similarly as propaganda platforms. Thus, the “Committee on Relief in Belgium” was mirrored by the “American Committee for Relief in Ireland”, while the “Committee on Alleged German Outrages” was followed by the “American Commission on Conditions in Ireland”. The successful Republican propaganda campaign discouraged the British government from resorting to violent repression to suppress armed resistance, which was often an option in hot spots around the Empire. Domestic and international condemnation of Irish reprisals ultimately created the political conditions for the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in December 1921. The Black and Tans played a crucial role in these developments. As such, they deserve deeper and more far-ranging scrutiny than they receive here.
The Black and Tans does not offer the last word on Irish policing and reprisals during 1920-1921. It has, though, expanded the terms of debate and opened interesting new avenues to scholars. As such, it is an important book that will be required reading for any serious student of the Irish Revolution. While this review has noted a number of shortcomings in Leeson’s work, that should not distract attention from his significant accomplishment. The Black and Tans has introduced a grassroots police perspective to War of Independence discourse that was previously missing. Leeson has given voice to ordinary Black and Tans, who for too long had their worst actions speaking for them. This welcome development can only lead to a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of reprisals during the War of Independence. However, the voices of Black and Tans should not be heard in isolation. Scholars must also listen to assorted witnesses, outside observers, and especially victims of Black and Tan violence. Their perspective is needed if we are ever to fully comprehend the conflict and the perpetrators of its violence.
1 Irish Times, May 16th, 2012
2 William Sheehan, A Hard Local War, The British Army and the Guerrilla War in Cork, 1919-1921 (Dublin: The History Press, 2011), pp 34-47.
3 Cork Examiner, October 4th, 1920
4 For a full list, see Gerry White and Brendan O’Shea, The Burning of Cork, (Cork: Mercier Press, 2006), pp 207-210.
5 David Fitzpatrick, “The Price of Balbriggan”, in David Fitzpatrick (ed), Terror in Ireland, 1916-1923 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2012), p 87.
6 This description of the event differs from earlier versions written by myself and Peter Hart’s, owing to the Bureau of Military History Witness Statement of Leo Buckley (1714), now accessible in the National Archives. In addition, in Spies, Informers, and the Anti-Sinn Féin Society (p 107), I classified victim Eugene O’Connell as an IRA volunteer, though he was not. Hart in The IRA and Its Enemies (pp 14-15) claimed that the IRA killed one of their volunteers, “Din-Din” O’Riordan, as an informer in the episode. In actuality, Denis “Din-Din” Donovan was not an IRA volunteer but a close friend of a group of IRA men who had assassinated a policeman, which initiated the reprisal.
7 For more information, see an exchange of letters between myself and Gabriel Doherty with David Fitzpatrick inHistory Ireland, March-April 2009, Vol 17, no. 2, pp. 36-39; May-June 2009, Vol 17, no. 3, pp 12-13; July-August 2009, Vol 17, no 4, pp 12-13.
8 Michael Hopksinson, The Irish War of Independence, (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 2006), pp 80-83.
9 Leeson, p 45.