Books Reviews

Reading The Irish Revolution

Two lengthy but informative articles for you, both from the Dublin Review of Books (or DRB), examining aspects of the Irish Revolution. The first is a review by the historian John Borgonovo:

“I cannot precisely explain what convinced my fellow Americans that a “Black and Tan” is a popular drink in Ireland. The half pint of lager topped by a half pint of Guinness remains a favourite order in American Irish-themed pubs. Recently, the term impressed corporate branders inside Niketown, the Portland (Oregon) headquarters of Nike Shoes. Apparently unaware of its Irish legacy, the manufacturer named its new hipster sneaker “The Black and Tan”, and scheduled a St. Patrick’s Day release. A stream of hostile comment caused Nike to promptly drop the brand and apologise for its “inappropriate and insensitive” phrase. The episode seemed to generate more bemusement than outrage in Ireland, though it was a reminder of the police force’s enduring association with some of the worst outrages of the Irish War of Independence.

For decades, Black and Tans haunted the British House of Commons during debates over Ireland and the suppression of insurgencies around the Empire. These constables were so intrinsically associated with the traumatic events of 1920-1921 that Irish participants commonly called the conflict “The Tan War”. Despite growing scholarship on the Irish Revolution, little attention has been paid to the inner mechanics of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s British reinforcements. David Leeson’s new book, The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, attempts to fill that vacuum. Relying on a masterly engagement with police records, Leeson tells us who the Tans were and why they acted as they did. His study achieves much, though its narrow framework is ultimately limiting.

Leeson makes very good use of RIC personnel records to illuminate the nature of the British recruits to the Irish constabulary. Despite Republican propaganda claims, they were neither the dregs of English prisons nor maladjusted war veterans addicted to mayhem. Few if any had prior criminal records. This finding will not surprise students of the Irish Revolution, though its strong evidential base is most welcome. Leeson’s sample shows that most Tans were young, unemployed, former enlisted men in the wartime military, and products of England’s urban working class. Victims of a spiralling unemployment crisis, they were attracted to Ireland by promises of upward mobility, steady work, good pay, and a comfortable pension. Since little can be determined about the nature of the constables’ prior war service, Leeson sanely suggests historians stop presuming they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The worst actors within the Crown forces seem to have been the Temporary Cadets of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC. Strictly speaking, the “Auxies” were distinct from the Tans. To clarify: Tans served in the ranks of the RIC as Temporary Constables, and were mainly ex-enlisted men from the British military; Auxies served in a special RIC division with the rank of Temporary Cadet, and were ex-military officers. The Auxiliary Division essentially formed a separate force within the RIC, organised into companies and platoons with its own command structure. Members joined an elite counter-insurgency force, and carried the prestige of former officers in the British military. Outfitted like stage villains, with distinctive Glengarry caps, near black uniforms, bandoliers, and hanging six-guns, the Auxies better fit the popular memory of an Irish Freikorps. Heavily armed and well-equipped with motor transport, they were intended to take the fight to the IRA. Unfortunately, they became best-known for spectacular reprisals, including infamous episodes at Croke Park and Cork city. The idea of the force was credited to Winston Churchill, and it can be justly ranked among his blunders, close to the World War One invasion of the Dardenelles and opposition to the World War Two D-Day landings.

Leeson attributes police misbehaviour to members of the Crown forces who served long periods in Ireland. For some of them, frustrations about their Irish experience culminated in violent explosions towards the easiest targets. Others deteriorated under exposure to stressful conditions. Still unexplained, though, are those police (usually Auxiliary Cadets) who descended into lawbreaking and bloodshed almost instantly on their deployment in Ireland. For example, the very first Auxies in Cork city to appear on the public record were two drunken Cadets who staggered through a street market on a Saturday afternoon in early October 1920.3 After they accidently knocked each other over, one pulled his revolver and threatened to fire into pedestrians. A crowd gathered and roared abuse. Guns in hand, the Auxies entered a shop on Patrick Street, shouted, “we came here to shoot”, and barricaded themselves upstairs. A police patrol arrived and coaxed them outside onto the street. However, when they emerged they opened fire on the crowd, wounding two civilians and an RIC constable before being disarmed.

In Cork city also, a new Auxiliary Cadet company, “K”, was formally activated on December 2nd, 1920. Reckless and criminal behaviour was clearly apparent during its first week on duty. In nine days of service, they looted a number of shops, broke into jewellery shops, and probably attempted several payroll robberies. Witnesses testified that on other occasions they held up pedestrians and robbed them. They placed a notice in newspapers threatening to shoot any male seen with his hands in his pockets, and painted “Up England” and “God Save the King” on walls. When a British Labour Party delegation came to inspect the city, they observed boisterous Auxies grab whips from jarvey drivers and use them to hurry passing pedestrians. Carelessly discharging their weapons over and near crowds, in those few days the Auxies killed four civilians and wounded three more.

This all occurred prior to their burning of the city centre on December 11th, an action which resulted in the destruction of fifty-five shops, the damaging of twenty more, the loss of two thousand jobs, and the destruction of the City Hall and city library. Company K was then transferred to Dunmanway. Days after arriving, one company member shot dead an elderly priest and a mentally disabled male. A few weeks later (as previously mentioned), four members attempted to rob a bank. A fifth was charged with shaking down a civilian after he demanded £150 in exchange for not planting incriminating evidence in the victim’s house. This all occurred within the company’s first eight weeks of service.

Many of these actions had a purpose. David Fitzpatrick has recently argued that the reprisals carried out in Ireland often punished an entire civilian population.

Collective punishment was intended to coerce communities into rejecting the IRA. This was not confined to the burning of homes and businesses, or drunken joyrides through districts. Active areas were put under strict curfews to disrupt economic and social activity. Frequently cordons were placed around towns, rail and road access cut, and fairs and markets suspended. Steep fines were imposed on ratepayers, bankrupting local authorities. By 1921, the government could legally destroy homes in an area where citizens failed to warn the Crown forces of pending IRA operations. Essentially the government declared as hostile whole swathes of the population. This pushed the public towards the rebels, and made defeat of the insurgency much more difficult.

…it should be remembered that the Republicans were by far the largest political party in the country, controlling virtually every elected body in southern Ireland. As such, general assaults on them could not enjoy popular legitimacy. Correct targeting of perpetrators also remained a constant problem, even among those police reprisals the constables considered focused. Leeson notes a Cork city case during November 1920 where, “the victims of the extrajudicial killings had been implicated in the shooting of police”. In actuality, police thought they had found people responsible for killing a local constable. Unfortunately, they missed their targets and killed or wounded six civilians uninvolved in the attack, including two teenagers and three First World War veterans.

There is a general consensus among historians that reprisals were often ineffective and ultimately counter-productive. However, considerable debate continues as to the level of government culpability for them. I have suggested elsewhere that reprisals were an active government policy, an opinion Leeson does not share. I would argue there is little indication of state efforts to stop police reprisals or to discipline officers involved. The first controls appeared in 1921, only after waves of international outrage embarrassed the government. Historians cannot explain why prime minister David Lloyd George and other senior officials believed that police were engaged in a covert counter-assassination campaign against Republicans, which they endorsed. The (de facto) head of the RIC, Major-General Hugh Tudor, enjoyed a direct line of communication to Lloyd George, so reprisals could have been suppressed from an executive level.

The Black and Tans does not offer the last word on Irish policing and reprisals during 1920-1921. It has, though, expanded the terms of debate and opened interesting new avenues to scholars. As such, it is an important book that will be required reading for any serious student of the Irish Revolution. While this review has noted a number of shortcomings in Leeson’s work, that should not distract attention from his significant accomplishment.

However, the voices of Black and Tans should not be heard in isolation. Scholars must also listen to assorted witnesses, outside observers, and especially victims of Black and Tan violence. Their perspective is needed if we are ever to fully comprehend the conflict and the perpetrators of its violence.”

Read the full review for Borgonovo’s detailed examination of David Leeson’s new book and his insights into the period.

The second piece is from John M. Regan, a review of the controversial Terror in Ireland 1916-1923, by David Fitzpatrick, a collection of historical essays from different authors. Personally I found some of the studies quite distorted by the obvious pre-set agendas of the writers and Regan has some concerns of his own (at least in one particular case) but in fairness to all I won’t quote selectively from the article but instead leave it to the reader to peruse it and form their own opinion.

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