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A group of Black and Tans in Dublin, April 1921

The Black and Tans (Irish language: Dúchrónaigh )[1] were men from Great Britain who joined the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) as Temporary Constables during the Irish War of Independence.[2] They were the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then British Secretary of State for War.[3] Thousands, many of them British World War I veterans, answered the British Government's call for recruits. Their role was to help the RIC maintain order and fight the Irish Republican Army (IRA); the army of the Irish Republic. The nickname "Black and Tans" arose from the colour of the improvised khaki uniforms they initially wore. The Black and Tans became infamous for their attacks on civilians and civilian property.

The Black and Tans should not be confused with the Auxiliary Division, which was a counter-insurgency unit of the RIC made up of former British officers. However, sometimes the term "Black and Tans" is used to cover both of these groups.


The late 19th and early 20th centuries in Ireland were dominated by Irish nationalists' pursuit of Home Rule (or even independence) from the United Kingdom. Since 1886 there had been three failed attempts to overturn the 1800 Act of Union and bring Home Rule to Ireland. This failure led to a huge degree of scepticism that the constitutional methods were going to be successful.[4] The Legislation introducing Home Rule, i.e. limited self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom, was passed by the British parliament in 1914, but its implementation was immediately postponed because of the outbreak of the First World War. Unionists were resisting its implementation and had armed with the stated intention of breaking the Act. The Larne gun-running was for the purpose of arming Ulster Unionists. Plans were also under way to have the Home Rule Act modified in order to accommodate partition of the country with an exclusion of the Ulster region. In response to the arming of Ulster Unionists the Irish Volunteers were formed. Almost 200,000 men enlisted in support of a Dublin parliament and to defend the establishment of same from any threat from Ulster. British political participation in the Ulster Larne gun-running was seen as a real threat to the implication of Home Rule. The British Army in Ireland refused orders to disarm Ulster.[5]

The First World War confused the issue. Some of the Irish Volunteers went to the front because John Redmond - the Leader of the Home Rule Irish Party at Westminster - told them it was the best way to secure Home Rule. But scepticism about British intentions - and the Ulster resistance to the Home Rule bill - remained in Ireland and for this reason about half of the Irish Volunteers did not join in World War I.[6] Then in Easter 1916 the Irish Republicans, who sought full independence for Ireland rather than just Home Rule, staged the Easter Rising in Dublin against British rule. The Rising initially lacked wide public support within Ireland, and was suppressed by the British military authorities within a week. However, public outrage against large-scale arrests by the British, and the courts martial and executions of the Rising's leaders, helped radicalise mainstream Irish nationalism. At the end of May 1916, after the Rising, Lloyd George attempted to bring about a Home Rule parliament in Dublin and he tried to negotiate with the Unionists about the Ulster question. The sticking point for Redmond and Carson was the 'temporary exclusion' of the Six County region. Lloyd George ultimately failed to bring about any agreement on this issue.[7] With this failure and the British threat to impose conscription in Ireland to aid the war effort, nationalist support rapidly came to be channelled into the revolutionary Sinn Féin political party. Sinn Féin contested the general election in December 1918 with the promise that they would refuse to take their seats at Westminster and secede and form an Irish parliament. Sinn Féin consequently won 73 out of 105 seats in Ireland, and in January 1919 established themselves as the First Dáil, which then declared an independent Irish Republic.[8] They also declared the Irish Republican Army [IRA] the official army of the state. In the same month the Irish Republican Army began the Irish War of Independence. Because they were fighting superior forces with superior arms Michael Collins developed and deployed a campaign of guerrilla warfare against British rule;.[9] This consisted of attacks on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the British Army in Ireland.

In September 1919 Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, outlawed the Dáil and British Army presence in Ireland was augmented.[10] Starting work on its next Home Rule Act.

In January 1920, the British government started advertising in British cities for men willing to "face a rough and dangerous task", helping to boost the ranks of the RIC in policing an increasingly anti-British Ireland. There was no shortage of recruits, many of them unemployed First World War army veterans, and by November 1921 about 9,500 men had joined. This sudden influx of men led to a shortage of RIC uniforms, and the new recruits were issued with khaki army uniforms (usually only trousers) and dark green RIC or blue British police surplus tunics, caps and belts. These uniforms differentiated them from the Army and the Regular RIC, and gave rise to the force's nickname: Christopher O'Sullivan wrote in the Limerick Echo on 25 March 1920 that, meeting a group of recruits on a train at Limerick Junction, the attire of one reminded him of the Scarteen Hunt, whose "Black and Tans" nickname derived from the colouration of its Kerry Beagles.[11] Ennis comedian Mike Nono elaborated the joke in Limerick's Theatre Royal, and the nickname soon took hold,[11] persisting even after the men received full RIC uniforms.

The new recruits received three months' hurried training, and were rapidly posted to RIC barracks, mostly in Dublin, Munster and eastern Connacht. The first men arrived on 25 March 1920. The British government also raised another unit, the Auxiliary Division of the constabulary, known as the Auxiliaries or Auxies. This group was made up of ex-army officers. The Black and Tans acted with the Auxiliaries in the British government's attempts to break both the IRA and the newly elected and established Irish Government, Dáil Eireann.

Conduct in Ireland

The behaviour of the Black and Tans or 'auxies' as they were also synonymously known in Ireland at the time has been recorded in first hand accounts. The quasi-military nature of both placed them both in tandem in the eyes of the civilians and the IRA. A statement by Timothy O'Connell of Dunmanway given at the time describes his arrest and treatment by the 'Tans' or 'Auxies". The Statement is headed: Interrogation and Treatment of republican suspects by the British Auxiliary Forces, 'Black and Tans', January 1921.

I happened to be in bed in a friend’s house when someone downstairs shouted ‘Tans”. I hopped out of bed and had a look through the upstairs windows…I could see two lorries stopped by the road about a hundred yards away...

On Monday morning shortly afterwards, I was called out along with two other prisoners, the Barrett Brothers of Coppeen. Three lorries were lined up, each full of Auxies. We were ordered on board, one of us on each lorry and were told that if one shot was fired at the lorries all three of us would be shot immediately. The first stop was the military barracks at Bandon, which had been attacked the previous night. We were ordered off the lorries and kicked through the gate. Then the Auxies told the military that they had arrested us on the road, and gave it to be understood that we had taken part in the attack on the previous night...We were ordered to strip off our clothes and stand under the showers. Then the cold water taps were turned on and the water was almost freezing. We had to stand under the jets of cold water until we were almost lifeless, and the military didn’t pull any punches during the proceedings so that we emerged from the showers with more black eyes.''[12]

Temporary Constables were paid the relatively good wage of 10 shillings (½ a pound) a day plus full board and lodging. With minimal police training, their main role was to increase the strength of police posts, where they functioned as sentries, guards, escorts for government agents, reinforcement to the regular police, and crowd control, and mounted a determined counter-insurgency campaign. They and the Auxies became known as Tudor's Toughs after the police commander, Major-General Sir Henry Hugh Tudor. They were viewed by Republicans as an army of occupation because of these duties. They soon gained a reputation for brutality,[13] as the RIC campaign against the IRA and Sinn Féin members was stepped up and police reprisals for IRA attacks were condoned by the government.[14]

Alexander Will,[15] from Forfar in Scotland, was the first Temporary Constable to die in the conflict. He was killed during an IRA attack on the RIC barracks in Rathmore, County Kerry, on 11 July 1920.

The Black and Tans were not subject to strict discipline in their early months in Ireland and as a result, their deaths at the hands of the IRA in 1920 were often repaid with arbitrary reprisals against the civilian population. In the summer of 1920, the Black and Tans burned and sacked many small towns and villages in Ireland, beginning with Tuam in County Galway in July 1920 and also including Trim, Balbriggan, Knockcroghery, Thurles and Templemore amongst many others. In November 1920, the Tans "besieged" Tralee in revenge for the IRA abduction and killing of two local RIC men. They closed all the businesses in the town and let no food in for a week. In addition they shot dead three local people. On 14 November, the Tans abducted and murdered a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Griffin, in Galway. His body was found in a bog in Barna a week later. Finally, the Black and Tans sacked Cork city, on the night of 11 December 1920, destroying a large portion of the city centre.

In January 1921, the British Labour Commission produced a report on the situation in Ireland which was highly critical of the government's security policy. It said the government, in forming the Black and Tans, had "liberated forces which it is not at present able to dominate". However, since 29 December 1920, the British government had sanctioned "official reprisals" in Ireland — usually meaning burning property of IRA men and their suspected sympathisers. Taken together with an increased emphasis on discipline in the RIC, this helped to curb the random atrocities the Black and Tans committed since March 1920 for the remainder of the war, if only because reprisals were now directed from above rather than being the result of a spontaneous desire for revenge.

However, many of the atrocities popularly attributed to the Black and Tans may have been committed by the Auxiliary Division; and some were committed by Irish RIC men. For instance, Tomás Mac Curtain, the Mayor of Cork, was assassinated in March 1920 by local RIC men and the massacre of 13 civilians at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday was also carried out by the RIC although a small detachment of Auxiliaries were also present. However, most Republicans did not make a distinction, and "Black and Tans" was often used as a catch-all term for all police and army groups.

The actions of the Black and Tans alienated public opinion in both Ireland and Great Britain. Their violent tactics encouraged the Irish public to increase their covert support of the IRA, while the British public pressed for a move towards a peaceful resolution. Edward Wood MP, better known as the future Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, rejected force and urged the British government to make an offer to the Irish "conceived on the most generous lines".[16] Sir John Simon MP, another future Foreign Secretary, was also horrified at the tactics being used. Lionel Curtis, writing in the imperialist journal The Round Table, wrote: "If the British Commonwealth can only be preserved by such means, it would become a negation of the principle for which it has stood".[17] The King, senior Anglican bishops, MPs from the Liberal and Labour parties, Oswald Mosley, Jan Smuts, the Trades Union Congress and parts of the press were increasingly critical of the actions of the Black and Tans. Mahatma Gandhi said of the British peace offer: "It is not fear of losing more lives that has compelled a reluctant offer from England but it is the shame of any further imposition of agony upon a people that loves liberty above everything else".[18]

About 7,000 Black and Tans served in Ireland in 1920–22. More than one-third of them died or left the service before they were disbanded along with the rest of the RIC in 1922, an extremely high wastage rate, and well over half received government pensions. A total of 404 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary died in the conflict and more than 600 were wounded but it is not clear how many of these were pre-war RIC men and how many were Black and Tans or Auxiliaries.

Those who returned to civilian life sometimes had problems re-integrating. At least two former Black and Tans were hanged for murder in Britain and another wanted for murder committed suicide before the police could arrest him.[19]


Due to the ferocity of the Tans' behaviour in Ireland and the atrocities committed, feelings continue to run high regarding their actions. "Black and Tan" or "Tan" remains a pejorative term for the British in Ireland, and they are still despised by many in Ireland. The term can still stir bad reactions because of their remembered brutality.[20] One of the most famous Irish Republican songs is Dominic Behan's "Come out Ye Black and Tans". The Irish War of Independence is sometimes referred to as the "Tan War" or "Black-and-Tan War." This term was preferred by those who fought on the anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War and is still used by Republicans today. The "Cogadh na Saoirse" medal, awarded since 1941 by the Irish government to IRA veterans of the War of Independence, bears a ribbon with two vertical stripes in black and tan.[21]


  1. - Dictionary of Irish Terms
  2. Improving the law Enforcement-Intelligence Community Relationship. National Defense Intelligence College, Washington, DC. June 2007. p.120
  3. McCaffrey, Carmel. In Search of Ireland's Heroes. 2006.p 233
  4. Home Rule by Alvin Jackson. Orion Books. 2003. p 114
  5. A Short History of the Irish Volunteers, Bulmer Hobson The Candle Press, Dublin 1918
  6. A Short History of the Irish Volunteers, Bulmer Hobson. The Candle Press. Dublin 1918
  7. >Home Rule by Alvin Jackson. Orion Books. 2003. p 183
  9. Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland by Tim Pat Coogan. Palgrave Macmillan. 2002. p 206]
  10. In Search of Ireland's Heroes Carmel McCaffrey. Ivan R. Dee. p 231
  11. 11.0 11.1 Spellissy, Séan (1998-12). The history of Limerick City. Celtic Bookshop. pp. 87–88. ISBN 978-0-9534683-0-0. 
  12. Irish Historical Documents since 1800, edited by Alan O'Day. Gill and MacMillan. p.169
  13. Don't be too tragic about Ireland - The Guardian, October 12, 1921
  14. Ireland's War of Independence: The chilling story of the Black and Tans - The Independent, 21 April 2006
  15. RIC Record
  16. Lord Birkenhead, Halifax (Hamish Hamilton, 1965), p. 122.
  17. Lionel Curtis, The Round Table, Vol. XI, No. 43 (June 1921), p. 505.
  18. Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Abacus, 1998), p. 384.
  19. The Black and Tans - Bennet, Richard - 1959, Page 222
  21. 1919 - 1921 War of Independence

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