The Black and Tans by Richard Bennett

“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.

The Black and Tans is published by Pen and Sword



Filed under Army, Book of the Week, politics, Uncategorized

3 responses to “The Black and Tans by Richard Bennett

  1. Dr Ken Baker

    Thanks for this post. You make some excellent points.
    There is a saying that in Ireland there is no such thing as History, only Current Affairs. It’s all still living memory and surface wound. For example, we live a couple of miles from a village in Co.Roscommon that was -mistakenly-burnt down by the Black and Tans in 1921 as a reprisal for an assasination (that actually originated in another village), and some of the physical marks are still evident. The emotional marks, of course, are even more evident. The hillsides are dotted with statues raised to the brave Irish soldiers who fought against the evil invaders. Have you seen “They set the Flags a’Flyin'”? Thats a more up to date account of the era.

    Plenty of oral history here! Just take an iphone to your local pub!

  2. John Erickson

    There is an American movie, called “The Siege”, which portrays a series of terrorist attacks on New York (the movie was made a year or two before 11-Sep-01). Bruce Willis plays a US Army Colonel, called in to use the Army to find the terrorists. His great quote: “The Army is not a scalpel, it’s a broadsword.” Despite numerous attempts, armies do not make good police, and the experience with the Black and Tans seems yet another example. I highly recommend this film – it is a very good exploration of radicalism on both sides of the terror issue (attacker and victim), as well as showing how fast a seemingly good idea can deteriorate into a nightmare worse than the original terror being fought against.

  3. x

    “A Testimony to Courage” a history of the UDR is my favourite book from the Pen & Sword on the Troubles.

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