Tuesday 23 April 2019

Review: History: The Black and Tans by DM Leeson

Oxford University, £30.00

Those of us of a certain age who had our Irish history beaten into us by the Christian Brothers know all about the Black and Tans. My own teacher, a fiery little man from Kilkenny, used to froth at the mouth and almost burst his collar describing what perfidious albion had got up to during the War of Independence in Ireland.

They scoured the jails of England for thugs and murderers to recruit, he told us. They looked for British ex-army men who had been turned into psychopaths in World War Two and were still thirsty for blood. They kitted them all out in their make-shift black-and-tan uniforms and let them loose on the Irish.

Great stuff it was. We seethed with the injustice that had been perpetrated on us.

Except it now seems that the real story of the Black and Tans was not quite so black and white. This new book by a distinguished Canadian professor of history shows that they may not have been nearly as bad as we were led to believe.

As the IRA campaign became more vicious in 1920-21, thousands of ex-servicemen were brought in to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and were dubbed Black and Tans because their uniforms combined police dark green and military khaki. They were supported by the even more hated Auxiliaries, an ex-officer corps which was motorised and heavily armed.

Soon they were hitting back at the IRA with reprisals that sometimes matched the guerrillas' viciousness, assassinating, burning and terrorising. But were they worse than the IRA?

In his book, subtitled British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence 1920-21, David Leeson gives a very different picture of the so-called murderous militia sent to Ireland to put down the War of Independence.

He does this by extensive archival research, unearthing new evidence which shows a number of awkward facts. For a start, although most of the Black and Tans were ex-army, many were also Irish and very few of them had criminal records. So much for them being the scum of the British penal system.

Leeson also shows that these younger British and Irish ex-servicemen who had seen the horrors of World War One were actually less likely to commit atrocities in Ireland than some of the older recruits.

The difference between the Tans and the Auxiliaries was that the Tans, despite going down in popular history as ruthless killers, were mainly used as back-up to the RIC in a policing role, whereas the Auxiliaries operated more on a search-and-destroy basis to take on the IRA. The atrocities that were committed were more often the work of the Auxiliaries than the Tans. And, as the book shows, the behaviour of some of the IRA units was no better and their victims were usually Irish.

John Spain -- Books Editor

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