“I’ve lived through the IRA, the Black and Tanks and the B Specials but yous Paras are worse than the lot!”
I can’t recall for the life of me the book that this quote came from, but these words spoken by a Catholic man in Northern Ireland in the Troubles during the 1970’s shows just how deep memories run in Ireland, and the lasting scar that history can cast.
The Black and Tans were mainland British men recruited to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary at a point when Ireland was degenerating into Civil War, immediately after the Easter Rising in 1916, their name came from the motley collection of uniforms that they were given. The Black and Tans have gone down in history with a fearsome reputation, with Republicans viewing them as nothing better than state backed terrorists.
What manner of men joined the Black and Tans? They seem to have been, almost overwhelmingly, former soldiers who had served during the Great War but were struggling to find employment in the post-war period. But as former soldiers they were hardly suited to policing and keeping the peace. For the most part they had been brutalised by their experiences on the Western Front, and had been imbued with an offensive spirit that did not always lead to good peacekeeping – this is a quandry that the British Army would revisit from 1969 onwards, particularly after Bloody Sunday.
The title of this book is slightly misleading, as it is in truth a potted history of everything from the Easter Rising to Irish Independence. Indeed, there is far more description of Michael Collins and Lloyd George than there is of any Black and Tan. In fact, I struggled to find one instance of a Black and Tan actually being named. This was first published in 1956, and it shows.
So what would I look for in a history of the Black and Tans? Firstly, a study of the conditions in Ireland that led to their formation. Secondly, a good look at what exactly so many young former soldiers who had served on the Western Front were drawn to join the Royal Irish Constabulary and fight in Ireland. I would look for a good description of how the Black and Tans were organised and led, and if possible some oral history accounts from either people who were there or Black and Tans themselves.
But most importantly of all, I would look to try and either prove or disprove the perceived wisdom that the Black and Tans were utterly ruthless and as bad as the IRA themselves. It’s something that has held throughout history but hasn’t really, to my knowledge, been look at in much depth. Assumptions are there to be challenged, after all.