Tuesday 24 April 2018

Review: The Black and Tans by DM Leeson

Oxford, €36.60

Cromwell apart, no group or individual has been so consistently reviled in modern Irish history and execrated in the folk memory as the Black and Tans. It would be a heroic revisionist indeed who would attempt to change that perception: tantamount to reclassifying Dracula as a blood donor with a rogue gene.

Mr Leeson does not go that far. He does not deny the brutality, the indiscipline, the licentiousness, but he does set out to show that the Black and Tans were not as bad as they were painted, not, it seems the worst of a bad lot -- which still leaves a great deal of room for mayhem and casual murder.

All historical research is revisionist to the extent that new facts appear; new sources become available which force a reassessment of what had been accepted as revealed truth. That said, there is little sign that the scars have healed sufficiently for Irish public opinion to accept even a partial rehabilitation of a demonised (and often demonic) force. People do not like to see their cherished heroes knocked off their pedestals by revision scholars -- even less do they like to see their bogeymen demystified and humanised.

Lesson's main thesis is that the Black and Tans were not devils in uniform, but ordinary men under extraordinary pressure, reacting as ordinary men have done in similar circumstances in other bitter conflicts. It was not defect of character but environment and force of circumstances which caused them to act (or more often to react) as they did.

No doubt it would have been some consolation to the inhabitants of Cork or Balbriggan or a score of other burned-out towns, or the relatives of those who dis- appeared or were murdered, to know that the attackers were the victims of circumstances rather than dedicated killers crazed with drink.

The study goes wider than the Black and Tans to cover the RIC and the Auxiliaries, which is fair enough since the label has become a generic term for the Crown forces at a particularly vicious time in the Anglo-Irish struggle. He goes into some detail to examine the grounds for three widely held views (by Irish historians as well as the general public) that the Black and Tans were "the sweepings of English gaols", or psychopathic ex-soldiers, damaged in the trenches, who needed the adrenaline of aggressive action, and that it was they who had introduced the relatively moderate RIC to a policy of reprisals.

He shows clearly that elements in the RIC, with the condonation of senior officers, were well launched into reprisals before the arrival of the Tans. He refutes the claim that they were either released convicts or mentally damaged ex-soldiers. Most of them were ex-servicemen at a loose end in the post-war unemployment, attracted by the high wages rather than the lure of violence.

The Black and Tans tended to have been in non-commissioned ranks, the Auxiliaries to have been mainly pre-war regulars who had been commissioned on the battlefield, whose excessive brutality and indiscipline he rather airily dismisses as the privilege of rank.

Leeson goes out of his way to emphasise their "ordinariness". He also identifies the extent to which their behaviour was tolerated by poor staff work, defective control, and official and political condonation of reprisals and terror against the "right people" (ie those identified as active republicans or supporters of Sinn Fein).

On the wider issue of why normal men should behave like this, he draws comparisons with the Brazil death squads in more modern times. It would have been interesting to have continued his Irish studies into the North or into the Civil War period, where atrocities to equal the Tans were perpetrated on both sides by what had formerly been brothers in arms.

This is a book for the Tan War anoraks, who will argue over atrocity and counter-atrocity rather than for the general reader. There is a tedious amount of repetition and some poor proof-reading. There is something futile, too, about reconstruction of ambush scenes from paper sources in cool studies decades later to decide what men should have done, or not done in the heat of battle.

It was a terrible war, and terrible things were done, which are regrettable. Maybe the Queen's speech said it all -- we should leave it at that and move on. There is no clamant public demand for the rehabilitation of the Black and Tans, and certainly not at €30 a copy.

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