On This Day – Drivetime, RTE Radio 1 – 3 January 2014 – The recruitment of the Black and Tans

ON THIS DAY – 001 – Drivetime, RTE Radio 1


3 January 1920 – Recruitment begins for the Black and Tans

In January 1920, the British government placed advertisements in British newspapers for men who were willing to “face a rough and dangerous task”. The jobs on offer were as Temporary Constables in the Royal Irish Constabulary, a force by then coming under intense pressure from the IRA.

The target market for the ads was unemployed ex-servicemen, men who knew how to handle weapons and who had survived the horrors of the Great War. Recruits, around seven thousand altogether, were trained for about three months and then sent to Ireland. Such a large influx caught the RIC unawares and a lack of uniforms meant the temporary constables were dressed in khaki trousers and dark police tunics. Their attire reminded a Limerick journalist, Christopher O’Sullivan, of the colouring of the Kerry Beagles that made up the famous Black and Tan hunt on the Limerick/Tipperary border – the name stuck. They were paid ten shillings a day plus board and lodging at a time when the pay for a British Army private was little more than a shilling a day.

Never noted for their military discipline, despite their backgrounds, the RIC Temporary Constabulary took to the unofficial reprisal with gusto. It was Black and Tan units who torched Balbriggan and (with some outside assistance) the centre of Cork, burning more than 300 buildings in the southern capital. In the latter instance those responsible proudly displayed burnt corks in their caps for a time thereafter.

A few myths have grown up about the Tans. For a start they were not all British. At least 10% of the members of the force were Irish-born. Neither were they responsible for the shooting of civilians on Bloody Sunday in Croke Park, that was largely the work of the even more vicious RIC Auxiliary Division, the notorious ‘Auxies’. Neither did Tom Barry ‘lay all the Black and Tans low’ at the Kilmichael ambush in 1920, as the words of the song would have it. The 17 security force fatalities on that day were also Auxiliaries.

But during the War of Independence, better known at the time as ‘the Tan war’, no one really made too many distinctions between the various forces who terrorized the towns and villages of the country. Their philosophy, insofar as they can be described as philosophers, was encapsulated in the address of an RIC Commander to Listowel policemen in June 1920. He insisted that suspicious looking persons should be shot on sight. ‘You may make mistakes occasionally’ he continued, ‘and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time.’

In a gesture of sweet irony the  “Cogadh na Saoirse” medal, awarded since 1941 by the Irish government to IRA veterans of the War of Independence, includes a ribbon with two vertical bands, the stripes are in black and tan.

The name itself is still to be found in use in various forms in the USA. In 2006 Ben and Jerry’s got themselves in hot water when they created a new ice cream called Black and Tan. It doesn’t appear to have caught on. Two years ago Nike thought better of referring to a new brand of trainer as a ‘Black and Tan’ after protests from Irish-American groups.

Recruitment advertisement for the infamous RIC temporary constabulary were up and running in British newspapers 94 years ago, on this day.

Song – Come out ye Black and Tans