OF ALL the atrocities which took place down through the centuries in Ireland, one of the darkest periods in Irish history, probably second only to the civil war, was the arrival of and the actions carried out by the Black and Tans. These can only be described as something that may have fitted into the 15th or 16th centuries. Very few armies could be classified as murderous scum, but this group of British mercenaries fitted the bill.
The Black and Tans were brought together by Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, and were composed of ex-soldiers and officers who had been demobbed from the British Army in an attempt to save money. These men were now selected to travel to Ireland, carrying the title of ‘temporary constables’, as a back-up force to help the RIC in its attempts to counteract the IRA. Although mainly British, many Irishmen chose to join the Tans and would be as guilty as their British counterparts of some of the worst behaviour witnessed in Ireland in modern times
At the outset, I want to state that I do not wish to make this article into a calendar of events; however, to give a realistic view of the period, I would have to include a number of incidents that occurred during this period.
Home rule, or limited self-government for Ireland, was passed in the British House of Commons in 1914 after two centuries of endeavour to achieve it; however, the outbreak of World War 1 caused its postponement. Many believed it would not happen and this was the main reason behind the 1916 Rising. As Britain was so deeply engaged and committed to the ‘Great War’, the Irish volunteers believed it would have less time to deal with an uprising, so this appeared to be a golden opportunity to obtain freedom.
But this was not the case. While at the beginning of the rebellion war-weary Dubliners did not support the Rising actions, as its leaders had hoped, Republican forces still managed to hold at bay the superior power of the British for the best part of a week. And if they did not win civilian support for their actions, they most certainly did when the ordinary citizens of Dublin learned of the sickening treatment meted out to the brave Irishmen who in the end had been forced to surrender.
The show trials and execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising created outrage, and led to increased numbers joining the Republican movement; it also led to a feeling that at this stage what was offered in the Home Rule Bill was not enough. In the 1918 elections to Westminster, Sinn Féin won 73 out of a possible 105 seats, many unopposed, but refused to take their seats in Westminster. Instead, it set up the first Dáil, which in January 1919 declared Ireland an independent republic. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers were rebranded the IRA, which began its campaign known as the War of Independence.
IRA attacks escalated throughout the year, so that in September 1919 Britain outlawed the Dáil. In January 1920, the British government advertised in the press for men willing to face a dangerous task – to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ireland.
These adverts drew a huge response, principally from battled-hardened ex-soldiers from the First World War. Due to a lack of RIC uniforms, these recruits were issued with old army khaki trousers and dark green (RIC) or blue (British police) tunics with belt and cap. This attire soon earned them their nickname, Black and Tans, after a famous pack of foxhounds from Limerick called the Scarteen Black and Tans, whose colours were similar. Their proper title was the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force.
Following three months’ training, these men started arriving in Ireland, the first in March 1920, and were immediately assigned to RIC barracks in Dublin, Connacht and Munster. Their mission to break up the IRA was assisted by another group, this time made up mainly of ex-army officers, called the Auxiliaries.
Let us look at an instruction issued by Listowel divisional commander Lt Colonel Smyth, which went as follows: “If a police barracks is burned, or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants to be thrown into the gutter; the more, the better – let them die there.”
This charming man also decreed: “Should the order ‘hands up’ not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally, and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.”
This type of instruction to a group of men hardened by the horrors of recent war effectively gave the two new forces a free hand in their actions, thus giving rise to them being among the most hated crown forces that ever served in this country. Their brutal tactics earned them the nickname ‘Tudors Toughs’, after their commander Major-General Sir Henry Hugh Tudor.
Acts of reprisal against the IRA and Sinn Féin were fierce; some atrocious crimes were committed by the Tans, yet rather than disciplinary action being taken, these acts were condoned by the British government. To detail all the actions of the War of Independence would be another day’s work. But to briefly give an insight into some of the actions and an idea of how widespread they were, I will give instances, concentrating from the arrival of the Tans. Where I state ‘British forces’, it will normally mean a mixture of British Army, RIC, Tans and Auxiliaries.
On 3-4 April 1920, the IRA burned some 300 abandoned RIC barracks and up to 100 income tax offices.
On 5 April, prisoners in Mountjoy went on hunger strike in support of their campaign for prisoner of war status. Large demonstrations and a general strike were held in support of the prisoners, with all 90 released on 14 April. RIC and the army fired on a crowd in Miltown Malbay who were celebrating the release, killing three and wounding nine.
On 25 April, two RIC men named Finn and McCarthy were killed by the IRA in an ambush at Upton, Co Cork. Two days later, the RIC barracks at Ballylanders, Limerick was captured and destroyed; a significant amount of weapons and ammunition were taken. In reprisal, the Tans ran amok in Limerick city – this would be the pattern of Black and Tan reprisals as towns and villages all over the country would be intimidated and torched.
On 9 May, Frank Aiken led 200 men in an attack on an RIC barracks in Newtownhamilton, Co Armagh, in which a potato sprayer was used to spray petrol on the building before setting it alight; those inside surrendered just as the roof collapsed.
On 28 May, in an attack on the barracks at Kilmallock, Limerick, two RIC men were killed, two were wounded, and ten surrendered. One IRA man: Liam Scully, a native of Glencar, Co Kerry.
The daily actions and killings continued into June. On 15 June, Percival Lee-Wilson, an RIC district inspector, was shot outside his home in Gorey on the orders of Michael Collins. on 13 July, two days after the killing of Alexander Will – the first Tan to die in the conflict – two RIC men died in an ambush near Dingle, Co Kerry.
On 17 July, Lt Colonel Smyth, he of the instruction highlighted earlier in this article, was assassinated at a country club in Cork city, again on Collins’s instruction.
19-20 July saw an IRA ambush near Tuam, Co Galway in which two policemen were killed and two others surrendered and were later released. This would be the catalyst for increased violence over the remainder of the summer. In a reprisal attack, the Black and Tans sacked and burned the town of Tuam. The same fate befell Balbriggan, Trim, Knockcroghery, Thurles and Templemore, where many buildings were burned and innocent people injured.
The next day in Belfast, over 7,000 Catholics and left-wing Protestants were forced from their jobs at Harland and Wolff Shipyards. Sectarian rioting took place in both Belfast (where 22 people died) and Derry (where another 40 perished); many of both religions in both cities were forced from their homes.
Also in July, along with a number of individual deaths there were two successful IRA ambushes. In Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, six British troops lost their lives, while four Black and Tans died in the Glen of Aherlow at the hands of the South Tipperary IRA led by Dinny Lacey.
In August, the IRA swore allegiance to Dáil Éireann rather than to its own executive.
On 22 August, violence broke out again in Belfast; over the next week 33 people would die. IRA man Patrick Gill was shot by the Tans in Drumsa, Co Leitrim on 10 September, while four days later in the same county James Connolly (not the 1916 leader, obviously) would meet the same fate at his own front door in Kinlough.
Following an attack on a lorry-load of soldiers in Church Street, Dublin on 20 September in which three British soldiers were killed, Kevin Barry, then just 18 years’ old, was arrested at the scene; he was tried and convicted before being executed in Mountjoy Prison on 1 November, thus becoming the first Irishman to be executed since the deaths of the leaders of the 1916 rising.
After a head constable was killed in Balbriggan, the town was sacked by the Tans: four pubs and 49 homes were set on fire, and two people were killed.
An ambush in Rineen, Co Clare on 22 September saw five RIC men killed. On the same day, a local magistrate named Lendrum was taken near Doonbeg; he was later found shot dead on a nearby beach. The response of the Tans was to kill six civilians and burn 26 buildings in Miltown Malbay, Ennistymon, and Lahinch.
October saw a serious escalation, with tit for tat killings on a daily basis. The biggest loss of life was on 12 October, when four RIC men died in Ballinderry, Roscommon, while in Saltmills, Co Wexford five IRA men died and nine were injured when explosives detonated prematurely.
There we will leave it for this week: we are approaching Bloody Sunday and will look at that and the events leading up to it in part 2.