Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Men of Shame - Black and Tans

The image to your left depicts a family leaving their home in Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, in September 1920 as a result of the British State force, the Black and Tans, who razed Balbriggan and several other Irish towns.

Over the last few weeks I have covered shameful episodes in Irish history on the part of the British and today I will look at the Black and Tans, one of the most hated groups in Irish history.

The Black and Tans were sent in to counter the threat of the Irish Republican Army whose attacks on the Royal Irish Constabulary led to a loss of morale amongst RIC members as well as many resignations. The Black and Tans were so named due to their uniforms and they were ex-soldiers who had fought in the First World War. They were backed up by a second force, the Auxiliaries, popularly known as 'Auxies', who were demobilised Army Officers. Both the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries knew little about Ireland and were not used to the guerilla war tactics which were used in the War of Independence - this led to reprisals.

These reprisals were tolerated by the British Prime Minister Lloyd George. They included the first Bloody Sunday on the 21st November, 1920, when Auxiliaries who were despatched to a football match at Croke Park to search for wanted men, fired indiscriminately into the crowd, causing 12 deaths and wounding 65. This was in retaliation for the 19 suspected Army intelligence officers in Dublin who had been killed by the IRA earlier that day.

As well as that, two days after a an ambush by an IRA 'Flying Column' in Cork, Auxiliaries and Black and Tans sacked and burnt Cork city centre. Under the British government, if an IRA 'outrage' occurred, troops were given authority to blow up the property of those suspected of involvement.

Some of the policemen of the RIC were opposed to the Black and Tans. Daniel Francis Crowley, who served in the RIC from 1914 to 1920, resigned 'because of the misgovernment of the English in Ireland', and fled the country under Black and Tan threats after his friend Constable Fahey was shot by them.

Another notable incident occured in November 1920, the Tans arrested a Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Griffin, in Galway. His body was found in a bog in Barna.

In January of the same year, the British Labour Commission had produced a report on the situation in Ireland, highly critical of the government's security policy. It stated that, in forming the Black and Tans, the government had "liberated forces which it is not at present able to dominate."

Séamus Breathnach in his book, The Irish Police, outlines the role the British saw for the Black and Tans in Ireland:

"The RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster, Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, called his men to a meeting at the Listowel police barracks and told them that the British Government had instructed him to implement a new policy, which he enthusiastically outlined:

- I am getting 7,000 police from England.
- If a police barracks is burned, the best house in the locality is to be commandeered.
- The police are to lie in ambush and to shoot suspects.
- The more you shoot the better I will like you ... No policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.
- Hunger strikers will be allowed to die in jail - the more the merrier.
- We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Féin."

As with the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, the British handled things incompetently and the role of the Black and Tans only served to alienate Irish public opinion. The British public were also disgusted at the actions of the Black and Tans it must be said. King George V was one of their strongest critics as was British cabinet minister Sir Samuel Hoare.

The Black and Tans were a disgraceful force in Ireland without a doubt. Many Irish people today could still tell you accounts of their brutality. I remember a teacher of mine telling my class about how his family had been on the receiving end of such cruelty. If I recall correctly, he spoke of his grandmother being viciously knocked to the ground by one of them. There is also the legendary account of what happened to the great Irish explorer Tom Crean. Crean of course made up part of the heroic three-man expedition led by Ernest Shackleton which saved the lives of the men of the ship Endurance. Crean had been honoured by the British for his heroism on an earlier expedition, the Terra Nova, when he had walked 18 hours through a blizzard to get help for his friends. Crean had retired to Kerry and one day, the Black and Tans came knocking on his door and had him up against a wall as they ransacked his house. Crean had no idea what would happen to him. The Black and Tans however stumbled across his British medals and knew they weren't dealing with any old Irishman and so they simply walked off leaving Crean standing against the wall.

The Black and Tans brought great shame on the British government and their actions are exactly why British rule could not and cannot be tolerated by Irish people here in Ireland.

Shame on them.


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