The Black and Tans became notorious in Irish history as the brutal instrument of the British in fighting the Irish republican Sinn Fein. This node will look briefly at the formation of the Black and Tans, their actions, and the events during the period.
Following the Easter Rising in Dublin, in 1916, when nationalists occupied the main post office building in protest against British rule of Ireland, the Sinn Fein home rule party won a series of election victories. Unionists in Ulster obtained a concession from British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, that Ulster’s six north-eastern counties would remain apart from any home rule settlement. In 1919, the Irish Volunteers, now known as the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, began the ‘War of Independence’, and Sinn Fein proclaimed an independent Ireland.
The British advertised for men willing to "face a rough and dangerous task", helping to boost the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in policing the increasingly hostile Irish population. Black and Tans was the nickname given to this special force used to fight the Sinn Feiners; the name came from a well-known pack of hounds in Limerick. They wore uniforms of khaki with black hats and belts, and were RIC reservists, recruited in England, mainly from ex-servicemen. There were about 8000 of them.
The government also raised another unit, the Auxiliary Division of the Constabulary, known as the ‘Auxiliaries’. The Auxiliaries were a smaller group, and dressed in normal uniforms. They were responsible for much of the terror that ensued. The Black and Tans acted with the Auxiliaries in the government’s attempts to break the IRA.
The first recruits arrived in Ireland on March 25, 1920, after three months of training. They were paid ten shillings a day - enough to motivate unemployed war veterans, and a lack of RIC uniforms led to the khaki and black uniforms. Since they had no training as policemen, their main role was to strengthen the military might of police posts, and Republicans viewed them as an army of occupation.
On the first Bloody Sunday in November 1920, where the IRA killed 14 British undercover officers, the Black and Tans surrounded a football match in Dublin. Shooting broke out and 12 people were killed. An ambush in Kilmichael led to the deaths of 18 Auxiliaries, some killed after surrendering. The Auxiliaries took revenge by burning the centre of Cork, allegedly preventing firemen from stopping the spread of the fires. The Tans also set fire to creameries around the country, thus further punishing the civilian population for the actions of the IRA.
The evidence also suggests that the Black and Tans had adopted a shoot-to-kill policy, and their tactics have been described as ‘state-supported terrorism’. There is no doubt as to the ferocity of the fighting and atrocities on either side, and feelings continue to run high regarding their actions. The actions of the Tans were ruthless, and only succeeded in increasing the level of anti-British animosity in southern Ireland, while crucially also alienating public opinion in Britain. The public outcry in Britain was a major factor in the British government entering treaty negotiations.
In 1920 the Government of Ireland Act established the idea of two parliaments in Dublin and Belfast, subordinate to the London parliament. The signing of the treaty between Ireland and London ended the reign of the Tans, and in 1921 the newly-elected parliaments sat for the first time. The Dublin parliament was dominated by Sinn Fein, and the Belfast parliament of Northern Ireland was opened by George V. An uneasy truce between the two sides came into effect.