Black and Tans

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Black and Tan in Dublin, smoking and carrying a Lewis gun, February 1921

The Black and Tans (Irish: Dúchrónaigh)[1] were constables recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) as reinforcements during the Irish War of Independence.[2] Recruitment began in Great Britain in January 1920 and about 10,000 men enlisted during the conflict. The vast majority were unemployed former British soldiers from Britain who had fought in the First World War. Some sources count a small number of Irishmen as 'Black and Tans'.[3][4][5][6]

The British administration in Ireland promoted the idea of bolstering the RIC with British recruits. They were to help the overstretched RIC maintain control and suppress the Irish Republican Army (IRA), although they were less well trained in ordinary policing. The nickname "Black and Tans" arose from the colours of the improvised uniforms they initially wore, a mixture of dark green RIC (which appeared black) and khaki British Army. They served in all parts of Ireland, but most were sent to southern and western regions where fighting was heaviest. By 1921, Black and Tans made up almost half of the RIC in County Tipperary, for example.

The Black and Tans gained a reputation for brutality and became notorious for reprisal attacks on civilians and civilian property, including extrajudicial killings, arson and looting. Their actions further swayed Irish public opinion against British rule and drew condemnation in Britain.

The Black and Tans were sometimes confused with the Auxiliary Division, a counter-insurgency unit of the RIC, also recruited during the conflict and made up of former British officers.[7] However, sometimes the term "Black and Tans" covers both groups.[3] Another force, the Ulster Special Constabulary, was founded to reinforce the RIC in Northern Ireland.


The nickname "Black and Tans" arose from the improvised uniforms they initially wore. Due to a shortage of RIC uniforms, the new recruits were issued with a mixture of dark RIC tunics and caps, and khaki army trousers. 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 colours of its Kerry Beagles.[8] Ennis comedian Mike Nono elaborated the joke in Limerick's Theatre Royal, and the nickname soon took hold,[8] persisting even after the men received full RIC uniforms.

Some sources say the Black and Tans were officially named the "RIC Special Reserve",[9][10] but this is denied by other sources,[11] which say they were not a separate force but "recruits to the regular RIC"[12] and "enlisted as regular constabulary".[13] Canadian historian D. M. Leeson has not found any historical documents that refer to the Black and Tans as the 'Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve'.[14] He partly blames Wikipedia for promoting this and other misconceptions about the Black and Tans.[15]


The early 20th century in Ireland was dominated by Irish nationalists' pursuit of Home Rule from the United Kingdom. The issue of Home Rule was shelved with the outbreak of World War I, and in 1916 Irish republicans staged the Easter Rising against British rule in an attempt to establish an independent republic. Growing support amongst the Irish populace for the republican Sinn Féin party saw it win a majority of Irish seats in the 1918 general election. On 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin followed through on its manifesto and founded an independent Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann), which then declared an independent Irish Republic.[16] The Dáil called on the public to boycott the RIC, while the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began attacking police barracks and ambushing police patrols. In September 1919 David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, outlawed the Dáil and augmented the British Army presence in Ireland.[17]

After the First World War, there were many unemployed ex-servicemen in Britain. British Unionist leader Walter Long had suggested recruiting these men into the RIC in a May 1919 letter to John French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.[18] The idea was promoted by French as well as by Frederick Shaw, Commander of the British Army in Ireland. The RIC's Inspector General, Joseph Byrne, was against it. He resisted the militarization of the police and believed ex-soldiers could not be controlled by police discipline. In December 1919, Byrne was replaced by his deputy T. J. Smith, an Orangeman. On 27 December, Smith issued an order authorizing recruitment in Britain.[18] The advertisements appeared in major cities calling for men willing to "face a rough and dangerous task". The first British recruits joined the RIC six days later, on 2 January 1920.[18]


About 10,000 were recruited between January 1920 and the end of the conflict.[19][20][6] About 100 were recruited each month from January to June 1920. The recruitment rate rose from July, when the RIC was given a large pay raise.[21] The RIC began losing men at a high rate in the summer of 1920, due to the IRA campaign. On an average week, about 100 men resigned or retired while only 76 recruits enlisted to replace them. More police were needed, but enough replacements could not be found in Ireland; on average, the RIC recruited only seven Irishmen per week.[22] The intake of British recruits steadily rose and then surged from late September, following the widely publicized Sack of Balbriggan.[21]

This sudden influx of men led to a shortage of RIC uniforms, and the new recruits were issued with a mixture of dark RIC tunics and caps, and khaki army trousers. These uniforms differentiated them from both the regular RIC and the British Army, and gave rise to their nickname: "Black and Tans".[8]

The new recruits were trained at Gormanstown Camp near Dublin, most spending two or three weeks there before being sent to RIC barracks around the country. In general, the recruits were poorly trained for police duties and received much less training than the existing Irish RIC constables.[23]

The vast majority of Black and Tans were unemployed First World War veterans in their twenties, most of whom joined for economic reasons.[24] The RIC offered men good wages, a chance for promotion, and the prospect of a pension.[25] According to historian David Leeson, "The typical Black and Tan was in his early twenties and relatively short in stature. He was an unmarried Protestant from London or the Home Counties who had fought in the British Army [...] He was a working-class man with few skills".[26] The popular Irish claim made at the time that most Black and Tans had criminal records and had been recruited straight from British prisons is incorrect, as a criminal record would disqualify one from working as a policeman.[24] While the name 'Black and Tans' generally refers to British RIC recruits, some sources count the small number of Irishmen who joined the RIC during the war as 'Black and Tans'. According to Jim Herlihy, author of The Royal Irish Constabulary – A Short History and Genealogical Guide, 10,936 Black and Tans were recruited, of whom 883 (8%) were born in Ireland.[6] Based on RIC recruitment data stored in the British Public Record Office at Kew, William Lowe estimates that up to 20% of Black and Tans were Irish, with 55% of these giving their religion as Catholic.[5]

The British government also founded a new Auxiliary Division of the RIC, which was also composed mostly of British recruits. While the Black and Tans were recruited into the RIC as regular constables, the Auxiliaries were an offensive "paramilitary force composed of ex British military and naval officers, dressed in distinctive uniforms and organised in military style companies...officially temporary cadets paid and ranked as RIC sergeants".[27] At least some of the crimes attributed to the Black and Tans were actually the work of the Auxiliaries.[28] However, sometimes the term "Black and Tans" covered both groups.[3]

Deployment and conduct[edit]

A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries outside the London and North Western Hotel in Dublin following an attack by the IRA, April 1921

Black and Tans served in all parts of Ireland, but most were sent to southern and western regions where the IRA was most active and fighting was heaviest.[29] By 1921, Black and Tans made up nearly half of all RIC constables in County Tipperary, for example.[29] Few were sent to what became Northern Ireland, however.[29] The authorities there raised their own reserve force, the Ulster Special Constabulary. For the most part, the Black and Tans were "treated as ordinary constables, despite their strange uniforms, and they lived and worked in barracks alongside the Irish police". They spent most of their time manning police posts or on patrol—"walking, cycling, or riding on Crossley Tenders".[30] They also undertook guard, escort and crowd control duties. While some Irish constables got along well with the Black and Tans, "it seems that many Irish police did not like their new British colleagues" and saw them as "rough".[31]

Alexander Will,[32] from Forfar in Scotland, was the first Black and Tan 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 soon gained a reputation for brutality.[33][34] In the summer of 1920, Black and Tans began responding to IRA attacks by carrying out arbitrary reprisals against civilians, especially republicans. This usually involved the burning of homes, businesses, meeting halls and farms. Some buildings were also attacked with gunfire and grenades, and businesses were looted. Reprisals on property "were often accompanied by beatings and killings". Many villages suffered mass reprisals, including the Sack of Balbriggan (20 September), Kilkee (26 September), Trim (27 September), Tubbercurry (30 September) and Granard (31 October).[35][36] Following the Rineen ambush (22 September) in which six RIC men were killed, police burned many houses in the surrounding villages of Milltown Malbay, Lahinch and Ennistymon, and killed five civilians.[37] In early November, Black and Tans "besieged" Tralee in revenge for the IRA abduction and killing of two local RIC men. They closed all the businesses in the town, let no food in for a week and shot dead three local civilians. On 14 November, Black and Tans were suspected of abducting and murdering a Roman Catholic priest, Father Michael Griffin, in Galway. His body was found in a bog in Barna a week later. From October 1920 to July 1921, the Galway region was "remarkable in many ways", most notably the level of police brutality towards suspected IRA members, which was far above the norm in the rest of Ireland.[24] The villages of Clifden and Knockcroghery suffered mass reprisals in March and June 1921.

Members of the British government, the British administration in Ireland, and senior officers in the RIC tacitly supported reprisals as a way of encouraging the police and scaring the population into rejecting the IRA.[38] In December 1920, the government officially approved certain reprisals against property. There were an estimated 150 official reprisals over the next six months.[39] Taken together with an increased emphasis on discipline in the RIC, this helped to curb the atrocities the Black and Tans committed 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.[40]

Many of the activities popularly attributed to the Black and Tans may have been committed by the Auxiliary Division or 'old' RIC constables. For instance, Tomás Mac Curtain, the Mayor of Cork, was killed in his home on the night of 19 March 1920, when few Black and Tans were stationed in the city. The coroner's inquest found that Mac Curtain had been murdered by unknown members of the RIC, and named District Inspector Oswald Swanzy as the responsible officer. The RIC transferred Swanzy from Cork to Lisburn, County Antrim for his own safety, but he was killed by the IRA on 22 August 1920.[41] The Burning of Cork city on 11 December 1920 was carried out by K Company of the Auxiliary Division, in reprisal for an IRA ambush at Dillon's Cross.[42] The shooting dead by Crown forces of 13 civilians at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, in retaliation for the killing of British intelligence officers was carried out by a mixed force of military, Auxiliaries and RIC, though it is not clear who initiated the shooting.[43] In the aftermath, "The army blamed the Auxiliaries and the Auxiliaries blamed the regular police".[44] Most Republicans did not make a distinction, and "Black and Tans" was often used as a catch-all term for all police 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.

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".[40] 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".[45] 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".[46] 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".[47]


More than a third 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. Over 500 members of the RIC died in the conflict and more than 600 were wounded. Some sources have stated that 525 police were killed in the conflict, including 152 Black and Tans and 44 Auxiliaries.[6] This figure of total police killed would also include 72 members of the Ulster Special Constabulary killed between 1920 and 1922 [48] and 12 members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.[49]

Many Black and Tans were left unemployed after the RIC was disbanded and about 3,000 were in need of financial assistance after their employment in Ireland was terminated.[50] About 250 Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, among over 1,300 former RIC personnel, joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Another 700 joined the Palestine Police Force which was led by former British Chief of Police in Ireland, Henry Hugh Tudor. Others were resettled in Canada or elsewhere by the RIC Resettlement branch.[50] 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 (Scott Cullen) wanted for murder committed suicide before the police could arrest him.[51]


Due to the Tans' behaviour in Ireland, feelings continue to run high regarding their actions. The term can still stir bad reactions because of their remembered brutality.[52] One of the best known 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" ("War of Independence") 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.[53][54]

In 2020, a controversy erupted over commemoration of the RIC.[55]


  1. ^ " – Dictionary of Irish Terms – Foclóir Téarmaíochta". Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  2. ^ Improving the law Enforcement-Intelligence Community Relationship Archived 27 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine. National Defense Intelligence College, Washington, D.C. June 2007. p. 120
  3. ^ a b c Robert Gerwarth; John Horne, eds. (2013), War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe After the Great War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 202, The Black and Tans were the ex-servicemen recruited as RIC constables throughout Britain in late 1919 and constituted a force of approximately 9,000 men before the war's end. However, 'Black and Tans' also came to refer to the temporary cadets of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC, a force of some 2,200 ex-officers, formed in July 1920, and in practice virtually independent of military and policy control. Both forces were made up of veterans from all services. ... Both Auxiliaries and Black and Tans had Irish members.
  4. ^ Padraig Og O Ruairc, Blood on the Banner, The Republican Struggle in Clare, pp. 332–333; ISBN 9781856356138
  5. ^ a b Lowe, W.J. (2004). "Who were the Black and Tans?". History Ireland. 12 (3). Retrieved 9 March 2021. 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. [...]Fifty-five per cent of the Irish recruits were Catholic, mostly concentrated among the Black–and-Tans.
  6. ^ a b c d "RIC and DMP policemen to be commemorated for first time by State". Irish Times, 1 January 2020.
  7. ^ O'Connell, T. Interrogation and Treatment of republican suspects by the British Auxiliary Forces, 'Black and Tans', January 1921, Irish Historical Documents since 1800, edited by Alan O'Day. Gill and MacMillan. p. 169.
  8. ^ a b c Spellissy, Séan (1998). The history of Limerick City. Celtic Bookshop. pp. 87–88. ISBN 978-0-9534683-0-0.
  9. ^ "The burning of Cork, December 1920: the fire service response". History Ireland, November/December 2015 issue.
  10. ^ Reynolds, John. Divided loyalties: the Royal Irish Constabulary in county Tipperary, 1919–22. University of Limerick, 2013. p. 83
  11. ^ D. M. Leeson, The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1 (Oxford University Press, 2011) p. 26
  12. ^ Richard Abbot, Police casualties in Ireland 1919–1921 (2019), p. 81
  13. ^ Charles Townshend, The Republic, The Fight for Irish Independence (2013) p. 102
  14. ^ D. M. Leeson, "Phantom Force: The 'Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve,' History Ireland, vol. 30, no. 5 (Sep/Oct 2022):14-15
  15. ^ David Leeson, "Wikipedia, the Black and Tans, and the 'RIC Special Reserve,'" The Irish Story (14 October 2022).
  16. ^ "History, Houses of the Oireachtas". Houses of the Oireachtas. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  17. ^ In Search of Ireland's Heroes Carmel McCaffrey. Ivan R. Dee. p. 231
  18. ^ a b c Leeson, The Black and Tans, p. 24
  19. ^ Coleman, Marie. The Irish Revolution, 1916–1923. Routledge, 2013. p. 70
  20. ^ Walsh, Oonagh. Ireland's Independence: 1880–1923. Routledge, 2003. p. 67
  21. ^ a b Leeson, The Black and Tans, p. 25
  22. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, pp. 22–23
  23. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, pp. 78–79
  24. ^ a b c Augusteijn, Joost Review of The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920–1921 by D. M. Leeson pp. 938–940 from The Journal of Modern History, Volume 85, Issue # 4, December 2013 p. 939.
  25. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, p. 77
  26. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, p. 68
  27. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, p. 30
  28. ^ Spain, Adam (17 September 2011). "Review of 'The Black and Tans' by DM Leeson". Irish Independent. Retrieved 29 November 2015.
  29. ^ a b c Leeson, The Black and Tans, p. 26
  30. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, pp. 26–27
  31. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, pp. 29–30
  32. ^ "RIC Record". Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  33. ^ Don't be too tragic about Ireland – The Guardian, 12 October 1921
  34. ^ Ireland's War of Independence: The chilling story of the Black and Tans – The Independent, 21 April 2006
  35. ^ Leeson, The Black and Tans, pp. 167–176
  36. ^ Guerrilla Warfare in the Irish War of Independence, 1919–1921, pp. 178–181
  37. ^ Padraig Ó Ruairc. Blood on the Banner, The Republican Struggle in Clare. Mercier, 2009, pp. 169–171
  38. ^ Charles Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland 1919-1921: The Development of Political and Military Policies (Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 117-23; Charles Townshend, The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence (Penguin Books, 2013) pp. 159-71; Leeson, The Black and Tans, pp. 215-22. In his diary for 6 June 1920, Lord Riddell noted that the Prime Minister was in favour of summary executions of captured insurgents: 'He said, "When caught flagrante delicto you must shoot the rebels down. That is the only way."' (J. M. McEwen (ed.) The Riddell Diaries 1908-23 (Athlone Press, 1986), p. 314.) In his own diaries, the junior Assistant Under Secretary for Ireland, Mark Sturgis, objected to outbreaks of arson by Crown Forces, but expressed fewer reservations about extrajudicial killings: on 24 August 1920, for example, he wrote that 'We are being urged quietly and persistently that reprisals are the only thing to put down the Gun men and hearten the police and I begin to believe it, but the sort of reprisal that burns half the town of Lisburn because the [RIC District Inspector] was murdered is the wrong sort.' (Michael Hopkinson (ed.) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Diaries of Mark Sturgis (Irish Academic Press, 1999), pp. 27-8.) Major-General Tudor, the Police Adviser to the Irish Executive, was in Galway town on the night of 8-9 September 1920, when the police rioted and took reprisals in retaliation for the killing of a Black and Tan: when Tudor spoke to the Galway police the following day, he did not condemn their actions; soon afterward, he promoted the officer who had led the reprisals, District Inspector Richard Cruise. (D. M. Leeson, 'The Curious Case of Constable Krumm,' Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 36, no. 2, pp. 131-2.)
  39. ^ Coleman, Marie. The Irish Revolution, 1916–1923. Routledge, 2013. pp. 86–87
  40. ^ a b Gibbons, Ivan (14 May 2013). "The British Parliamentary Labour Party and the Government of Ireland Act 1920". Parliamentary History. 32 (3): 506–521. doi:10.1111/1750-0206.12024. ISSN 0264-2824.
  41. ^ Florence O'Donoghue, Tomas MacCurtain (Tralee: The Kerryman, 1958), pp. 175-96; D. M. Leeson, 'British Conspiracy Theories and the Irish War of Independence,' Eire/Ireland 56, nos. 1&2 (Spr/Sum 2021): 186-91.
  42. ^ Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence, (2002), p. 83
  43. ^ Charles Townshend, The Republic, The Fight for Irish Independence (2013), pp. 201–202
  44. ^ Townshend, p. 202
  45. ^ Lord Birkenhead, Halifax (Hamish Hamilton, 1965), p. 122.
  46. ^ Lionel Curtis, The Round Table, Vol. XI, No. 43 (June 1921), p. 505.
  47. ^ Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Abacus, 1998), p. 384.
  48. ^ "Ulster Special Constabulary 1921–1970". National Police Officers Roll of Honour and Remembrance.
  49. ^ Jim Herlihy, The Dublin Metropolitan Police, a Short History and Genealogical Guide, Four Courts Press, 2001 p. 182
  50. ^ a b "The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries – An Overview – The Irish Story".
  51. ^ Bennett, Richard The Black and Tans (London 1959), p. 222
  52. ^ "Nike forced to run like hell away over Black and Tan trainer branding". 15 March 2012. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  53. ^ "Medals of the Irish Defence Forces". 2010. p. 94. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  54. ^ "1919–1921 War of Independence". Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  55. ^ "Boycotts and blame: 'Black and Tans event' descends into farce". independent. Retrieved 19 November 2021.

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