Who were the Black-and-tans?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 12

36_small_1246273005When the republican campaign against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and others thought sympathetic to Dublin Castle became more violent and successful in late 1919, the police abandoned hundreds of rural facilities to consolidate shrinking ranks in fewer, fortified stations. The pressure exerted directly on RIC men, their families, friends and those who did business with them resulted in unfilled vacancies from casualties, resignations and retirements.

Lloyd George’s government could not recognise the IRA or Dáil Éireann as belligerents and insisted that counter-insurgency was ‘a policeman’s job supported by the military and not vice versa’, which placed responsibility squarely on the RIC. The role of the RIC as a largely domestic police force with strong community ties had been steadily compromised since 1916 by more aggressive tactics against nationalists and heavier reliance on the military. Faced with the need for more, better-prepared men wearing police uniforms, the government augmented RIC numbers and capabilities by recruiting Great War veterans from throughout the UK. From early 1920 through to the Truce in July 1921, 13,732 new police recruits were added to the nearly 10,000 members of the ‘old’ RIC to maintain a constabulary strength that, at the end, reached about 14,500.

The new recruits stood out in RIC ranks anyway, but an initial shortage of complete bottle-green constabulary uniforms resulted in the temporary issue of military khaki and the name that stuck: the ‘Black-and-Tans’. The Black-and-Tans were sworn as constables to reinforce county stations and their experience with weapons and tactics gave the RIC a tougher edge. The IRA campaign led to another recruitment initiative in July 1920, the Auxiliary Division (ADRIC) or ‘Auxies’, former military officers who wore distinctive Tam o’ Shanter caps and operated in counter-insurgency units independent of other RIC formations.

Even though the Auxiliaries were a separate category of police, they were often combined under the shorthand of ‘Black-and-Tans’. They were never regarded as ordinary Irish constables, by the communities in which they served or by other policemen, and are popularly remembered for brutality and the militarisation of the police. There is substance to the popular characterisation. The Black-and-Tans, and the Auxiliaries especially, were part of the escalation of violence in Ireland in 1920–1, and they are inseparable from reprisals against civilians. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the RIC executing a systematic reprisal policy without them. The Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries helped to destroy residual community support for the RIC. But who were the nearly 14,000 men who joined the RIC ranks as irregulars?

The RIC register   


36_small_1246273057A personnel register was maintained at Headquarters in Dublin Castle. The original manuscript ledgers are preserved in the Public Records Office (PRO), Kew (HO 184), and include all policemen recruited between 1816 and disbandment in 1922, including Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries. RIC record-keeping was meticulous. Complete, consistent information on individual police careers is available at least until 1919.

The records for men recruited to the RIC from early 1920 are not as complete as those kept for the previous century. Enrolments and departures during the Black-and-Tan era occurred at a much higher rate, and other work generated by the War of Independence taxed RIC staff resources. Entries for Black-and-Tan constables are, generally, more complete than those for Auxiliaries. The leanness of information for Auxiliaries suggests that more detailed information was kept elsewhere and/or there was a disinclination to keep accessible records about a counter-terror group. There is one reference to a ‘secret file’. Still, the register contains important information about the men who joined the RIC as both Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries. A twenty per cent sample (every fifth entry) of all those who joined the new RIC beginning in 1920 furnishes a representative population of 2,745 cases—2,302 Black-and-Tans and 443 Auxiliaries.

As the poster shows, a recruitment system was set up throughout the UK. One third (916) of all sampled recruits joined in London. Another 36 per cent (990) were recruited in Liverpool and Glasgow. Nearly fourteen per cent of recruitment transactions occurred in Ireland. Folk memory holds that the British administration was not very concerned about the backgrounds of Black-and-Tan recruits, as long as they had military experience. An RIC constable who staffed the London office recalled that ‘a canard has been put about that we recruited criminals deliberately . . . We had a police report on every candidate and accepted no man whose army character was assessed at less than “good”’. Douglas Duff, a Black-and-Tan who wrote a memoir, recalled that ‘it had not been hard’ to join the RIC and that he was sent to Dublin the same day he was sworn in.

The Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries were overwhelmingly British (78.6 per cent of the sample). Almost two thirds were English, fourteen per cent were Scottish, and fewer than five per cent came from Wales and outside the UK. An unexpected finding that is at odds with popular memory is that nearly nineteen per cent of the sampled recruits (514) were Irish-born, twenty per cent of Black-and-Tans and about ten per cent of Auxiliaries. Extrapolating from the sample, more than 2,300 of all Black-and-Tans and 225 of all Auxiliaries were Irish. Many Irishmen joined the RIC in a role assumed by folk memory to be the exclusive preserve of British mercenaries.
The information in the register cannot tell us why anyone joined the RIC at a time of intensifying violence. Douglas Duff, for example, was a twice-          torpedoed former merchant seaman. Thankful to be alive, he spent a short time in a London monastery. He ‘conceived the idea’ of joining the RIC from newspaper accounts of the Irish conflict. ‘That was on Monday morning—the following Friday, at dawn, I was steaming into Dublin Bay, with a rubber stamp mark on my arm that read “Royal Irish Constabulary”.’

But Sebastian Barry, in his novel The whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, convincingly imagines the difficult adjustments for unemployed veterans of the experience in the trenches. Eneas, from Sligo, is another unemployed merchant navy veteran who joins the RIC.  He ‘knows why there are places in the peelers when there are places nowhere else’, but ‘a fella must work’. As an Irish Black-and-Tan, he experiences ‘the new world of guerilla war and reprisal, for a policeman is a target . . . Every recruited man is suspected by both sides of informing . . .’. Eneas’s decision earns him the lifelong enmity of Sligo republicans and, decades later, he becomes the last RIC casualty. Of the ADRIC Barry observes:

‘Many of the Auxiliaries are decorated boys . . . and saw sights worse than the dreariest nightmares. And they have come back altered forever and in a way more marked by atrocity than honoured by medals. They are half nightmare themselves, in their uniforms patched together from Army and RIC stores.’

The RIC, at least, offered a place for men with such experience, but Eneas was wary of being ‘jostled in the very barracks by these haunted faces’.


Black-and-Tan service records


Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century police records are rich sources of detailed information. The average age of the Black-and-Tans was 26.5 years and Auxiliaries were about three years older (29.4 years). Irish recruits were, on average, nearly a year and a half younger (25.5 years). The ten men who gave their birthplace as the USA were the tallest, at six feet, but the Irishmen maintained the constabulary height tradition at nearly five feet nine and a half inches, eight-tenths of an inch taller than other UK recruits.

Among the 490 Irish-born in the sample, nearly 60 per cent came from the provinces of Leinster (26.8%) and Ulster (31.3%). Munster and Connacht shared 37 per cent almost equally (the county of birth for almost five per cent is not known). Eighty-two per cent of Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries sampled were Protestant, 17.4 per cent were Catholic and there were ten English Jews. The largest proportion of Catholics, not surprisingly, was found among the Irish recruits (59 per cent of the 478 Catholics in the sample).

Fifty-five per cent of the Irish recruits were Catholic, mostly concentrated among the Black–and-Tans. Those born in Connacht and Munster were overwhelmingly Catholic (both 78 per cent) and 60 per cent of the Leinster men were Catholic. Ulster-born Black-and-Tans were overwhelmingly Protestant (72 per cent). The 46 Irish Auxiliaries included seventeen Catholics.

Service as a police mercenary attracted single men. Only 25 per cent of the recruits were married, with the Irish the least likely (12.1%) and Scots most likely (31.8%) to be married. Under the ‘old’ RIC Code, only single men were enrolled among the rank-and-file, who had to wait seven years for permission to marry. It is a measure of the seriousness of the security situation that married men were recruited at all. Besides being younger, Irish Black-and-Tans were probably less likely to be married because of risks to their families.

Two categories of prior occupations were recorded for Black-and-Tans. One hundred and eighty distinct occupations that cover the range of UK industries have been identified in the sample, all but a few of which were held by Black-and-Tans. More than a third of Black-and-Tan occupations can be grouped into several categories, the largest of which are clerks (4.3%), agriculture (6.7%), labourers (14.4%), mechanics (2.6%), and railway employees (4.5%). Only 136 of the Black-and-Tans in the sample were recruited directly from military service.  Second occupations are listed for almost 68 per cent of those in the sample and 1,802 of those men (over 65 per cent of the entire sample) were military veterans. ADRIC men, on the other hand, generally showed only one occupation: ‘former military officer’, which accounted for nearly 95 per cent of the sample.

While 70 per cent of English and over 80 per cent of Scots Black-and-Tans had prior military service, fewer than 40 per cent of Irish recruits were veterans. Irishmen without prior military service continued to join the RIC. Clearly, unemployment forged a previously unseen connection with RIC recruiting traditions among the Irish-born Black-and-Tans. Dublin Castle would have quietly recognised them as the backbone of the future RIC, but publicity would invite IRA intimidation of recruits and their families.

The Black-and-Tans, with their military experience, received cursory training at the depot in the Phoenix Park before being posted to stations throughout Ireland. The register contains information on the postings of only 54 per cent of those in the sample, mostly about Black-and-Tans. But the data appear to reliably represent deployments because their known first postings correspond very closely to the counties in which RIC records (PRO, CO 904/148) show both large numbers of incidents and RIC casualties. Forty-eight per cent of Black-and-Tan reinforcements for whom postings are known went to the six counties where IRA activity against the police was heaviest.

The most dangerous county for the RIC was Cork, where at least 119 policemen were wounded and 90 killed. Cork also received the largest number of Black-and-Tan reinforcements—eleven per cent of the total or (extrapolating from the sample) more than 1,500 police irregulars. Close behind was Tipperary, with less than eleven per cent of Black-and-Tan assignments, or just under 1,500 men. More than 1,000 Black-and-Tans appear to have been sent to Galway. When Limerick, Clare and Kerry are added, these six counties received more than 6,600 of all the Black-and-Tans deployed.

All of the Black-and-Tans were not stationed in the southern and south-western counties at the same time, but they must have been very noticeable additions in small communities, another reason why they were remembered so vividly. Assignments to other counties varied widely and, for example, many fewer Black-and-Tans were needed to supplement the Ulster special constabularies.

The Black-and-Tans had a reputation for violent indiscipline that could be very dangerous to Irish civilians and even other policemen. Members of the ‘old’ RIC had very mixed reactions to their presence and violent behaviour that not all officers were able to restrain. Black-and-Tans were thought of as ‘gun-happy’ and the Auxiliaries’ ferocity was reputed to be fuelled by heavy drinking. Even officers who regarded the Black-and-Tans as effective assets against the IRA acknowledged that the strict disciplinary system in the RIC Code had not anticipated a large number of men who were not trained as policemen.

Attrition and disbandment


The military-trained reinforcements were supposed to enable the RIC to suppress the armed Irish independence movement. But incidents rose steeply and simultaneously with the introduction of the Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries until the Truce. The new recruits showed initial enthusiasm for the work, but the realities of wartime Ireland soon bore in. During the twelve months prior to the Truce, 330 members of the RIC were killed. The register indicates that 147 (45%) of these deaths were among Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries, a large share of the dangerous duty and casualties. Also, life in crowded, isolated stations (including attempts to impose discipline), boredom and community hostility diminished the appeal of good pay.

The RIC was disbanded after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, but only 39 per cent of the sample (perhaps a total of 5,550 men) were still in the force to be mustered out in 1922. Irish recruits, despite the dangers, were much more likely than those from Britain (55 per cent compared to 36 per cent of the English and 39 per cent of the Scots) to be in the RIC at disbandment. The register is incomplete for 35.6 per cent (almost 4,900) of Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries and we do not know how they separated from the RIC. But the information in the sample for those who left but were not disbanded is probably a good indication. Dismissals, rarely with details, accounted for 128 of separations, which suggests termination for almost 650 Black-and-Tan and ADRIC recruits. Sixty-one men are reported in the ambiguous category ‘discharged’. The most common termination of service prior to disbandment was resignation.

The register contains reasons for only sixteen per cent of those who resigned, which is consistent with the promise in the enlistment poster: ‘If you don’t like the job—you can give a month’s notice—and leave’. But there were several themes. Some claimed ill health, while about 120 gave reasons related to personal affairs. Just over 30 English and Scots policemen were dissatisfied with the work, a reason that caused only one Irishman to resign. Nearly 70 English and Scots in the sample left to take a better position, an option available to only ten Irishmen. A reason for resignation cited only by Irishmen is intimidation of family members (ten, or two per cent of the Irish in the sample), which suggests that 100 Irishmen may have resigned to protect loved ones.

It was not coincidental that resignations among the Black-and-Tans increased along with the tedium of life under siege, violence and casualties. Douglas Duff probably summed up the view of the men who resigned and went home pretty well:
‘Remember, we were mercenary soldiers fighting for our pay, not patriots willing and anxious to die for our country . . . Our job was to earn our pay by suppressing armed rebellion, not to die in some foolish . . . “forlorn hope”.’
Even though the dehumanising experience of the First World War was assumed to have hardened Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries, sanctioned reprisals against Irish civilians did not sit well with all of the new recruits. Duff recalled ‘official reprisals’ as ‘horrible and dastardly burning of houses and furniture’ with the ‘due force of the law’.

When the RIC disbanded in 1922, all of those still enrolled, including Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries, were given lifetime annuities (later converted to indexed pensions). The ADRIC entries are almost entirely blank, but the Black-and-Tan entries are much more complete.  Disbandment annuities were based on length of service, with the longest service possible about two years. The annual payment for each man varied between £55 for those who served longest and £47 for the most recent recruits. The average payment for each Black-and-Tan in the sample was £52. Irish Black-and-Tans averaged annuities of £55, higher than the English (£51.3) or Scots (£49.8) because more Irishmen remained in the RIC until the end.

The legacy of the Black-and-Tans


The militarisation of the RIC through the recruitment of veterans ultimately failed. Violence actually increased along with Black-and-Tan deployment, and the heavily reinforced RIC only achieved a stand-off with the IRA. The remaining Black-and-Tan and ADRIC policemen left in 1922 and the ‘old’ RIC went with them. The association of the Black-and-Tans with violence and intimidation against civilians established their reputation. Specific responsibility for reprisals is difficult to attribute, but tradition blames the Black-and-Tans for indiscriminate violence that had not been associated with the ‘old’ RIC. Military experience in the trenches seems to have made them the right men for Lloyd George’s ‘policeman’s job’.

Despite the record and legend of their RIC service, the personal details of Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries emphasise that they were not remarkable among British workingmen and war veterans, except that they were willing to take a chance on dangerous duty in Ireland. But the untold story is the surprising number of young Irishmen who joined the RIC in its final months, despite the dangers for themselves and their families. Most Irish Black-and-Tans had not served in the military but, through it all, were the most likely to be serving at disbandment. Why did Irishmen join the RIC in the Black-and-Tan era and how did they escape notice for 80 years?

Until 1919 the Irish police service was considered decently paid, pensioned employment and an attractive alternative to emigration. But did more than 2,000 Irishmen find employment and emigration prospects so discouraging in 1920–1 that, like Eneas McNulty, even the embattled RIC was attractive? Good wages in a time of high unemployment were an inducement. But, still, it is a testament to the post-war environment that so many risked being on the ‘wrong side’ in the War of Independence.

It is perhaps easier to conjecture about why so many Irish Black-and-Tans went unnoticed. Neither the policemen nor their families would have been eager to call attention to their belated RIC service during or after the War of Independence. RIC men were not posted to their home counties and policemen had little contact with the communities in which they were stationed during 1920–1, so it is possible that the recruits were able to blend in with members of the ‘old’ RIC. Still, that there were so many Irishmen among the Black-and-Tans shows that there is still much to learn about the complexities of the War of Independence.

W.J. Lowe is Provost and Professor of History at Metropolitan State University, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The author wishes to thank Michelle Sheldon, Jerold Davis and Jessica McLaughlin for their assistance.

Further reading:

S. Barry, The whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (London, 1998).

D.V. Duff, Sword for hire: the saga of a modern Free Companion (London, 1936).

W.J. Lowe, ‘The war against the RIC, 1919–21’, Éire-Ireland 37 (Fall/Winter 2002), 3–4.


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