Repeated across the Globe: The ‘Black and Tans’ of Ireland

In 1919, the British government advertises for men who are willing to “face a rough and dangerous task” in Ireland. Many former British army soldiers come back to unemployment. The sole attraction is not political or national pride – it is simply money. The men get paid ten shillings a day. They get three months training before being sent to Ireland. The first unit arrives in Ireland in March 1920.

Once in Ireland it quickly becomes apparent that there are not enough uniforms for all who have joined up. They wear a mixture of uniforms – some military, some Royal Irish Constabulary. This mixture gives them the appearance of being in khaki and dark police uniform. They get the nickname “Black and Tans”.

Over 8000 Black and Tans come to Ireland and while they find it difficult to cope with guerrilla tactics against them, those who live in areas where the Black and Tans are based, pay the price.

Black and Tan units terrorise local communities. – For the Black and Tans, the primary task is to make Ireland “hell for the rebels to live in”. An attitude best summed up by one of their divisional commanders, Lt. Col. Smyth in June 1920:

“If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there – the more the merrier.

Should the order (“Hands Up”) not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.”

The most infamous Black and Tans attack on the public comes in November 1920. People pack the Croke Park, Dublin, to watch a football match. In retaliation for the murder of fourteen undercover detectives by the IRA, the Black and Tans opens 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 – are killed in Kilmichael, County Cork.

The Black and Tans are so poorly disciplined and trained for Ireland that their casualty rate is far higher than could have been imagined when the government first advertised for them. The government in Westminster quickly realises that they are a liability as even public opinion in mainland Britain is appalled by their actions.


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