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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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The Black and Tans Hear audio clips Audio Clips
Image of British Auxiliaries outside Dublin's Mansion House

British Auxiliaries guarding the Mansion House, Dublin 1921 ©

In 1920, the British government attempted to solve the Irish question by passing legislation partitioning Ireland and granting it limited self-government. It believed – wrongly - that this would satisfy the majority of Irish nationalists. Meanwhile, it had responded to the Irish Republican Army’s developing physical force campaign with repression. Westminster underestimated how difficult it would be to defeat the volunteers; it regarded their actions as terrorism, not war, and so relied mainly on the police force to restore order. It considered that to deploy troops in peacetime would arouse criticism in Britain. Gradually the level of its coercion in Ireland increased. Overall, this policy was self-defeating. It proved unable to suppress the IRA, yet alienated Irish opinion whilst the British public came to regard it as excessive and unacceptable.

From the outset, the IRA campaign was mainly directed against the Royal Irish Constabulary – by June 1920, 55 policemen had been killed, 16 barracks destroyed and hundreds abandoned. As a result its conviction rates, recruitment levels and morale, all fell sharply. In response, the British government initiated changes (autumn 1919), which in effect transformed the force into an auxiliary army, by equipping it with motor vehicles, rockets, bombs and shotguns. By January 1920, Westminster felt compelled to take more drastic action. It launched a recruitment drive in England to attract ex-soldiers to join a new force, soon nicknamed the ‘Black and Tans’ owing to the distinctive uniforms its members were initially issued with. It eventually numbered about 10,000 and quickly acquired an unenviable reputation for ill-discipline. Owing to the urgent need for men, selection procedures had been increasingly relaxed. Some of those who enlisted had been brutalised by war: almost all were ignorant of Ireland and ill-trained. Moreover, they were attached to scattered RICA barracks, mainly in the south west, under no effective control from police or army officers.

As the IRA campaign intensified, the government responded in July 1920 by establishing a second force, the Auxiliaries. They were better-paid and recruited from demobilised army officers. Eventually 1,900 men were enlisted and these were divided into 15 heavily armed and mobile companies, and deployed in the ten Irish counties where the IRA was most active. But, like the Black and Tans, its members were also ill-trained for guerrilla warfare, and knew little of Ireland. Though under nominal RICA control, they generally operated independently and they also established a reputation for drunkenness and brutality. Meanwhile, during 1920, troop numbers in Ireland were steadily increased and their powers extended. In August, they were empowered to intern citizens without trial and court-martial those suspected of political offences.

Despite these reinforcements, police frustration and the strain resulting from the persistence and virulence of the IRA campaign, led to them conducting ‘unofficial reprisals’. These ranged from assaults on IRA suspects and supporters, occasionally causing death, to the sacking of towns, such as Limerick and Balbriggan. They were condoned by police officers and ignored by the government as they helped sustain the force’s fragile morale, and facilitated the gathering of intelligence. The price however was the alienation of public opinion, both in Ireland and in Britain.

Image of a family mounted on a horse-drawn cart

A family leaving their Balbriggan home with their possessions after it was razed by the Black and Tans, September 1920 ©

The worst reprisals occurred during the crescendo of terror and counter-terror in October 1920. On 21st November, ‘Bloody Sunday’, IRA agents gunned down 19 suspected Army intelligence officers in Dublin. Later that day, Auxiliaries who were despatched to a football match at Croke Park to search for wanted men, fired indiscriminately into the crowd, causing 12 deaths and wounding 65. On 9th December, two lorries transporting Auxiliaries were ambushed by an IRA ‘flying column’ in County Cork, killing all but one of the occupants. Two days later their Auxiliary colleagues, along with Black and Tans, entered Cork and sacked and burnt part of the city centre. Reluctantly, the British government was thus compelled to declare martial law over much of south-west Ireland. Later it sanctioned ‘official reprisals’; if an IRA ‘outrage’ occurred, troops were given authority to blow up the property of those suspected of involvement.

By mid-1921 the British government had become more amenable to a political settlement with the IRA. In two and a half years over 1,300 people had died in the conflict (550 of them troops and police), yet military victory still seemed a remote and uncertain prospect. The British public would not accept the further repressive measures thought necessary to achieve it, was increasingly critical of those already taken and desired peace – though not at any price.

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Image of Professor Keith Jeffery Keith Jeffery, Professor of Modern History, University of Ulster at Jordanstown
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Image of Dr. Peter Hart Dr. Peter Hart, Chair in Irish Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
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Image of Dr. Eamon Phoenix Dr. Eamon Phoenix, Political Historian, Stranmillis University College, Belfast
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Image of Dr. Brian Barton Dr. Brian Barton, Historian, Open University
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