The Black and Tans were freedom fighters
The Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve is commonly know by the opprobrious soubriquet the Black and Tans. This title has to mention that nickname since the proper name of this body of men is not widely recognized. RICSR is much maligned. A century of contumely has been poured on this force. There is much disinformation abroad about RICSR. It is high time that the record be set straight.
Some people will be enraged that anyone should ask reasonable questions about accusations levelled at the RICSR. Raising doubts about contentious topics will caused many Irish republicans to throw a temper tantrum. That the RICSR were villains is an article of faith for them. Any rehabilitation of these much-maligned men however nuanced is unacceptable to them. Many people have deeply entrenched prejudices on this issue. They have made an emotional investment in a certain viewpoint. It becomes part of an identity. Casting aspersions on the name of the RICSR somehow demonstrates one’s patriotic credentials. A balanced and objective analysis of history is not what partisan people want to read. Fury is no substitute for logic and a dispassionate examination of the truth.
It was an Irish journalist William Howard Russell who acerbically observed ‘the first casualty of war is truth.’ Spot on! During the Irish Troubles of 1916-21 the republican movement considered besmirching the reputation of the Crown Forces to be a key objective. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had its own propaganda department. It was patently adept in its role. The republican movement denied the many large-scale atrocities committed by the German Army in Belgium. Yet when it came to Ireland’s own police force the IRA was only too eager to demonise it. Assassination of the body was accompanied by assassination of the character.
The Crown Forces were doing what any security force is entirely legally entitled to do: quell a revolt. Ireland was lawfully UK sovereign territory. No sovereign state disputed that. The UK had been recognized as the United Kingdom of Great Britain AND IRELAND by every other sovereign state. Ireland was part of the UK due to the decision of our own Irish Parliament. At every election since 1800 almost every MP elected wanted to stay part of the UK albeit under a Home Rule arrangement in many cases. One election when Sinn Fein did well by huge scale fraud and intimidation did not change that. There was an is no right of secession under the UK constitution. A state has the right to maintain its territorial integrity as international courts have attested on numerous occasions. The IRA was there to oppress people. The Crown Forces were there to guarantee freedom of expression, fair trials, free elections, trade and security of person and property.
In 1919 an irregular conflict was started by the IRA killing two Irish police officers at Soloheadbeg. The ostensible objective of the IRA was to steal some gelignite that the officers were guarding. Dan Breen could not get his story straight. Was it to steal the explosives or to kill the men? If it was the former then this mission was an ignominious failure since the IRA abandoned the stolen gelignite only a mile away. You will not find that part of it mentioned in any republican account of this escapade. The IRA proceeded to tyrannise and terrorise.
The IRA started plundering houses, burning down buildings of all sorts, issuing death threats, meeting out savage beatings, slaughtering civilians and suchlike. The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) did its best to combat the crime wave. The RIC were assassinated in significant numbers. Some of those shot were wounded not killed. The RIC also suffered attrition from people reaching retirement age and men dying through natural causes. By 1920 Ireland was perhaps the most perilous place on earth for a police officer. As you might expect very few men were volunteering for the RIC.
We are often exposed to panegyrics to the IRA. They appear to have been actuated by the worthiest of motives and never mere loot in such flattering accounts.
The IRA had killed so many officers and cowed so many people that the RIC was unable to function as an ordinary police forces in many counties. The RIC’s role became primarily counterinsurgent in about half of Ireland.
IRA violence was not as ubiquitous as you might imagine. Of Ireland’s 32 counties there were a couple of counties in which not a single RIC officer was killed.
Because of the paucity of police officers in Ireland it was needful to make up the shortfall from elsewhere. There were always a few non-Irish officers in the RIC. It was decided to form the RIC Special Reserve. The aim was to make up for the shortage of manpower in the RIC. The government advertised for former soldiers, sailors and airmen to enlist in the RIC. So soon after the end of the First World War Great Britain had a couple of million demobilized servicemen who had not yet found work. Because there was so much joblessness many men applied.
The government was frank with applicants that their task in Ireland was to combat the IRA and that this was hazardous in the extreme. The volunteers were rushed through training. They would not perform many normal police duties such as dealing with cattle rustling or finding lost children. In March 1920 the first RIC Special Reserve officers arrived in Ireland. They had to operate like gendarmerie.
The lie has long been abroad that the RICSR were the dregs of prisons. As policemen they were barred from joining if they had a criminal record. This is a flagrant and provable lie: that the RICSR was full of criminals or indeed had any members at all with a criminal record. The fact that republican propaganda makes so much of propagating this lie casts grave doubt on their veracity on other more tendentious questions.
The IRA were deeply worried about these reinforcements for the RIC. All these RIC Special Reserve men had combat experienced. They might not be as much of a pushover as the regular RIC most of whom had never been in combat until the IRA attacked. The IRA was therefore hellbent on besmirching the reputation of the RIC Special Reserve. The regular RIC was fairly popular until 1916. Thereafter there was some animus towards the RIC from republican minded people. If the RIC Special Reserve was something towards which the man in the street felt indifferent or even sympathetic then the conflict would be more difficult for the IRA.
The IRA did not adore their enemy. That is hardly surprising. They worked hard to destroy their enemy physically and in reputation. That wanted to create a stigma about serving in RICSR.
Within weeks of the RIC Special Reserve arriving in Ireland a Limerick comedian had dubbed them the black and tans after a local pack of hounds. The drollery stuck. These men were clad in a mélange of the bottle green uniforms of the RIC and khaki uniforms left over from the British Army. The RICSR was supposed to plug the gaps in the regular RIC. It did not work very well. The regular RIC officers had served for decades in many cases. They had their way of doing things. They were Irish and knew the locality and in some cases the Irish language. The RICSR were ex-soldiers mostly and few had any policing experience. They were most English, Scots and Welsh and very few spoke Irish. They were overwhelmingly Protestant which caused some animus. They were not au fait with the RIC way of doing things. They were handsomely remunerated which caused resentment among RIC officers who had served their whole careers on lower pay.
Lurid tales were told about savage act supposedly committed by the RICSR. One of these had them capturing several men and cutting off the tongue of one and various body parts of others. This fanciful story was retailed in the British House of Commons. But no corroborative testimony was ever evinced. Where did this happen? When? To whom? The victims would easily be identified if they existed. A lie is half-way around the world before the truth has got its pants on. Once people have a certain notion embedded in their minds it is very difficult to dislodge it. Many have developed a strong and emotive attachment to the idea that the RICSR was fiendish and sadistic. No amount of reason or evidence can disabuse certain persons of this misapprehension.
Tom Barry was the commandant of the West Cork flying column of the IRA. He was a thorn in the flesh of the Crown Forces and outfoxed them frequently. It would be had to find a more prejudiced source. He was briefly chief of staff of the IRA in the late 1930s. Barry wrote in his memoir Guerrilla Days in Ireland that the RICSR used to drive around West Cork and take pot shots at civilians. They tried to scare people but occasionally shot them dead. Barry does not cite a single name, a single date or a single location where this occurred. He lived in Cork his entire life and knew it like the back of his hand. Yet his statement despite lacking any supporting detail is simply accepted as Gospel truth. He also mentioned two incidents in which named men Fr Magner and a young Mr Crowley were killed by the RICSR. These were not random shootings from the back of a lorry. The deaths of two civilians is of course tragic. An RICSR officers was convicted for the murder of the priest. But killing two civilians is not the massive reign of terror by the RICSR that people seem to think pertained in West Cork at the time.
The RIC Special Reserve was not universally loathed as the IRA would have you think. Even among the Catholic majority there were people who were favourably disposed towards the RICSR. Some of these men had Irish girlfriends and indeed wed Irishwomen. Yet we are led to believe that the RICSR was virulently hibernophobic. The celebrated barrister George Carman QC was the progeny of a marriage between and RICSR officer and a Catholic Irishwoman.
The RICSR had to engage in some duties which necessarily caused friction between them and the general public. No one likes being stopped at a roadblock and questioned. No one like having his house searched. People do not like being subject to curfew. But a counterinsurgency necessitates all these methods. It was the IRA who initiated the conflict. None of these disagreeable things would have occurred had the IRA not done so. This unpleasantness was a consequence and not a cause of the conflict. The RICSR did not always carry out these disagreeable duties with tact and courtesy.
In Ireland we enjoyed liberty while the RICSR was there. There were pro-IRA protests and the Crown Forces did not interfere. The IRA were allowed to hold elaborate funerals for their men and these functioned as shows of strength. A remotely oppressive regime would not have stood for this. The GAA was allowed to play its matches despite it being IRA-linked. The GAA was secretly controlled by the Irish Republican Brotherhood as the GAA says on its own website. Many people in the GAA were simply there for sport. However, GAA matches and practices were sometimes used as a cover for IRA meetings. The free press flourished in in 1919-21. There were certain restrictions in that the First World War was not definitely over until the Treaty of Sevres was founded in 1920. The newspapers were not allowed to publish militarily sensitive information even in 1921 since that would assist IRA attacks. The only attacks on the free press were from the IRA. We know about wrongdoing by the Crown Forces only because the newspapers were free to report such matters.
Contrariwise those who spoke up for the Crown faced condign punishment at the hands of the IRA. It was far riskier to be known to be a unionist in IRA dominated areas than to be known to be a republican in areas where the king’s writ still ran.
The Auxiliaries of the RIC came to Ireland in July 1920. These men were also recruited from overseas chiefly Great Britain but also places as far afield as Canada. They were all officers who had received field promotion in the Great War. The Auxiliaries – known as Auxies – operated in large independent units. That is to say they did not try to fit in with the regular RIC which the RIC Special Reserve tried to with mixed results. The Auxies were often confused with the RICSR. The demeaning term ‘black and tan’ was often used inaccurately to include the Auxies. The Auxies carried out two of the appalling actions committed by the Crown Forces in 1920. That is to say shooting dead 14 people at Croke Park Stadium and burning down Patrick Street in my home town, Cork.
The RICSR mostly operated in areas of high IRA activity. In these zones the IRA had considerable support – perhaps majority support – from the populace. Some people were armchair supporters of the IRA. Others were active in giving succour to the IRA. Certain peopled carried the means of life, ammunition and mail for the IRA. In this wise they acted as the commissariat of the IRA. As in a regular conflict a force would attempt to destroy the enemy’s communications and convoys so too an irregular conflict. A few people acted as the intelligence department of the IRA. Giving aid and comfort to the king’s enemies in time of war was high treason and punishable by death. The Special Reserve sometimes found arms or a wanted man secreted in a civilian house. The Special Reserve therefore gave the occupants time to remove their chattels before burning it. By the standards of irregular conflict especially in 1920 this was very mild indeed. In other countries huge numbers of people were killed for far less. You might totally disapprove of upholding the unity of the United Kingdom. But leave aside your political inclination for a minute. If you had commanded a counterinsurgent force under suchlike circumstances would you not have ordered houses to be burnt if they had been used to store weapons on enemies on the run?
1922-23 the Irish Free State fought against the IRA. The Free State employed all the methods that the Crown Forces did and a few more besides. The Free State was much harsher on the IRA. No one doubts that at Oriel House, Dublin in particular the Free State used outright torture on a considerable scale. IRA men were allowed to die on hunger strike. Oddly we do not hear Irish republicans lamenting those hunger strikers. We do not read so many moist tales of the suffering visited upon the IRA by the Irish Government? Why not? Racism. It is sheer. Anglophobia. If an Irishman does it then it is acceptable. If an Englishman does even half that then it is not.
The Crown Forces held over 20 000 IRA prisoners at one stage. In the 1919-21 conflict only 24 of them were executed. This is very, very lenient indeed. 99.99% of IRA men captured by the Crown Forces were not put to death. The IRA’s rate of killing Crown Forces members it captured was far higher.
There are a few stories of members of the RIC Special Reserve mistreating prisoners. It would not be surprising if a few of these are true. Police around the world routinely beat up those suspected of serious crimes in the 1920s. In Ireland this was going on in the Garda Siochana in the 1970s with the heavy gang.
There were occasions when the RICSR shot a man shortly after capture. The IRA remembered this with bitterness and said this man was summarily executed and that that is murder. The RICSR often explained that this man tried to make a run for it or tried to grab a weapon. Republicans often dismiss these claims out of hand. How do we know such accounts to be fallacious? The IRA often escaped. IRA men often published boastful accounts of hair’s breadth escapes. As for grabbing weapons in Ernie O’Malley’s The Singing Flame he suggested doing just that just after capture in 1922.
The RIC were police officers and supposed to uphold the law. They did not always do so. But killing a prisoner without just cause was illegal. It was also stupid. The RIC needed information from a prisoner. Dead men tell no tales. Killing prisoners creates a scandal. It also makes the enemy more likely to fight to the death. Why surrender if you will get a bullet through the brain? If you fight on you have a slim chance of survival. Even if you get killed you have the satisfaction of knowing you will take a few enemy with you.
People who have commented on my articles have often thought it disgraceful that someone with an Irish surname should have the temerity to question republican mythology. I am not simply someone with an Irish surname. I am Irish. It is right that Irish people should scrutinize the nationalist narrative that they have been fed for so long.
It is right to pay tribute to the men of the RICSR. I do homage to their gallantry and skill. They battled against a determined and ruthless enemy. The RICSR demonstrated heroism in more than a few engagements. The IRA found it necessary to calumniate their foe precisely because the RICSR achieved a fair degree of success.
One has to be realistic. The conduct of an armed force in an irregular conflict is not going to be inculpable. The behaviour of the RICSR is not above criticism. The men of this force are often held to an impossibly high standard.
Contrast the conduct of the RICSR with other forces battling insurgencies at around the same time. Leave aside political preference for a moment. In the Russian Civil War armies battled partisans on both sides. The Green Army, the Black Army and all sorts of nationalists fought in various quarters of the former Tsarist Empire. In Morocco the Spaniards and the French fought against the Rifs. In the Ottoman Empire the Arab Revolt and the Armenian Dashnak fought against the Sublime Porte. In China warlords fought the central government. In Mexico the Civil War had raged until 1916. In the Philippines the United States had suppressed a struggle for independence. In Serbia the Austro-Hungarians fought against Serbs fighting a guerrilla campaign. In Finland a civil war was in full swing. The list could go on. If you compare the behaviour of the RICSR with the conduct of counter-insurgent forces in any conflict you care to mention the conduct of the RICSR comes out better. Yes, there were felonies committed by a small number of police officers in Ireland. However, the scale and the severity of the wrongdoing is much less than was the norm. This is not what aboutery. Wrongful actions by police officers are always a serious matter. My point is that in the context of an irregular conflict such things always occur. Relative to the conflict in which the RICSR was engaged its behaviour was on the whole commendable.
Nevertheless, discipline was a serious problem in the RICSR. All of these men were veterans of the First World War. Many of them will have suffered from what we would now recognize as post traumatic stress disorder. Some of them must have suffered tics and flashbacks at a time prior to medical science understanding their condition. Their erratic and sometimes alarming behaviour will in some cases be attributable to this. The senior officers tried to uphold discipline. A few RICSR men were sent to prison for crimes committed in Ireland. Dozens of men were dismissed from the RICSR during its brief existence and hundreds of others suffered lesser penalties such as stoppage of pay. It was very difficult to conduct a trial in Ireland in 1920-21. The IRA was determined to destroy the system of justice. Judges were in danger of being assassinated. Witnesses could not testify against the IRA. Witnesses could easily testify against the Crown Forces because of death threats from the IRA.
The IRA might say it was the United Kingdom’s fault for getting into the First World War in the first instance. This moronic line of unreasoning does not do well for the republican cause. Republicans would have us believe that Ireland was also a belligerent in that war but on the side of the Central Powers. In 1916 the IRA started a conflict in Ireland which had been peaceful for half a century. The IRA started to kill their fellow Irishmen and their fellow Britons: men of the RIC and the British Army. The mythical Irish Republic in 1916 was on the German side. So if it was wrong of the UK to get into that war it was also wrong of the ‘Irish Republic’ to do likewise. If the Irish Republic really was a party to the Great War then we lost because we were pro-German. When the United States entered the war in 1917 then Ireland became neutral according to Sinn Fein. With a typical illogic Sinn Fein asked for a place at Versailles despite also saying that we were a neutral country. As the republican movement is so self-contradictory, so irrational and dishonest it is difficult to credit anything else they say.
Not every allegation levelled at RICSR is bogus. There are numerous allegations of theft. I have read claims of an RICSR pointing a gun at a barman and demanding that the man fill his glass with beer. It cannot be proven whether this occurred or not. Even if it did that was one man among several thousand. Clearly armed robbery is reprehensible particularly from a policeman.
Some said that these men were drunk on duty. Looking 100 years in arrear this claim is unfalsifiable. The RIC often went around in lorries singing raucously. This may have been to keep morale up, to demonstrate their sang-froid or simply for glee. But this may have produced the impression that these men were in a crapulous state. To drink on duty is totally against regulations for a police officer. Quite apart from that being inebriated when on duty in a conflict zone is downright dangerous. These men had to keep their wits about them. They needed to have good hand eye coordination because there could be a firefight any time. Being inebriated was a death sentence.
Not a single allegation of rape was made against the RICSR. Rape is a crime that is invariably committed by young men. The RICSR were all young men and were away from their wives and girlfriends. As the RICSR were several thousand strong you might have expected that at least a handful of them would have committed this most detestable crime. But none did. This therefore suggests that the RICSR was better than most armed forces in a conflict situation.
There was severe wrongdoing committed by the Auxiliaries and occasionally the British Army. A very small number of civilians were killed. Every civilian death is regrettable. Security forces should strive to avoid collateral damage. However, it cannot always be obviated even in a regular conflict. Since the IRA operated out of uniform they put the civilian population at risk. Presumably this was partly so the Crown Forces would accidentally kill civilians and thereby make themselves unpopular. The IRA also operated in densely populated areas where civilians were bound to be slain in the crossfire. It was the IRA that repeatedly and deliberately jeopardized civilians.
The RICSR sometimes shot civilians for failing to halt. Why? They had roadblocks and if someone failed to halt they would assume this person was on the run or about to pull a gun. At night these shootings were more common. The RICSR came under fire almost every day. They were understandably jumpy. They were wont to shoot first and ask questions later. In this conflict whoever opened fire first survived.
There are a number of unproven allegations against the RICSR. They are said to have killed the Lord Mayor of Cork Tomas MacCurtain. There is a considerable possibility that they did. He was a senior officer in the IRA. The IRA had no compunction about killing unarmed people including civilians. The RICSR may have had enough of that and simply decided to kill him. If so then it was wrong to do so and they ought to have arrested him. But the hypothesis that it was them is not as probable as many assume. There had been a heated dispute in the Cork IRA that day. It is possible that he was killed by another faction in the IRA.
It is virtually certain that a small number of civilians were purposively killed by the RICSR. That means deliberately killing these people whilst believing them to pose no threat. That is murder. Only a handful of RICSR officers did this. This is clearly the most serious crime of all. None of these men was ever convicted of these crimes. In an armed conflict on that scale and with a lack of chivalry on the part of the IRA it was inevitable that some RICSR men would see red.
Loyalist terrorists committed many unspeakable crimes. The Ulster Protestant Association (UPA) was the loyalist terrorist gang at the time. The UPA carried out hundreds of sectarian murders. The Crown Forces struggled to contain the UPA as they did the IRA. There were a very few members of the Crown Forces who assisted the UPA in their heinous offences.
The republican movement and nationalism as a whole tends to traduce RICSR. If this force was wicked then the IRA must be good. The RISCR are mischaracterised as brutes and psychopaths. These caricatures are IRA propaganda. The RICSR was tough and doughty. They were fighting a nemesis that did not adhere to the Geneva Convention or the Hague Convention. The IRA did not pretend to be a signatory to either. IRA men almost never wore uniforms. They often did not carry arms openly. They usually lacked a clear chain of command. They commonly killed prisoners. The IRA killed a few hundred civilians. But even if the IRA had abided by all the provisions of the Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention it would have been an illegal insurgent force. Other sovereign states regard such combatants as freebooters.
Republican propagandists have so often likened the RICSR to the SS. This hideously offensive lie is yet another example of Godwin’s law. This comparison is stupid from the IRA’s point of view since the IRA was an enthusiastic Nazi ally. This was not a marriage of convenience but a love match. Dan Breen had a portrait of Hitler in his house well after 1945. The fiercest critic of the RICSR was the founder of the British Union of Fascists. Some members of the RICSR went on to join the international volunteers in Spain to fight against fascism. Some former IRA men led by Eoin O’Duffy joined the other side.
The SS killed hundreds of thousand of civilians. They were killed far from the battlefield in a manner totally unrelated to combat. The difference from this and the RICSR could not greater. It nauseatingly dishonest to compare the two. A few RICSR men also fought for the Allies in the Second World War.
Countless books and films are produced depicting the IRA in a favourable light. It is fashionable in the UK and in the US to do so. Take the Wind that shakes the Barley as a typical valentine to the IRA. Imagine a film which does something to redress the balance and show the RICSR not as angels but as human. Who would make that film? That really would be a courageous film to make. But many find the truth intolerable.
The RICSR is rightly castigated for the misdeeds of some of its men. Republicans have pretended that the worst acts of a few members of the RICSR typify the body as a whole. The republican propaganda machine has been in overdrive for a century smearing this force as a whole. There has been a Chinese whispers effect about this organization. A certain true story is told. It is then retold and retold until the version that is widely believed bears little relations to the truth.
This article is fair-minded and balanced unlike most other articles on this most contentious topic. Unlike republican publicity this article has gone out of its way to cite information likely to redound to the disadvantage of the cause I wish to make. Nor has this article indulged in denialism.