The Black and Tans (Irish: Dúchrónaigh), special constables recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) as reinforcements during the Irish War of Independence, arrive in Ireland on March 25, 1920. Recruitment begins in Great Britain in January 1920 and about 10,000 men enlist during the conflict. The vast majority are unemployed former British soldiers from Britain who had fought in World War I. Some sources count a small number of Irishmen as Black and Tans.
The British administration in Ireland promotes the idea of bolstering the RIC with British recruits. They are to help the overstretched RIC maintain control and suppress the Irish Republican Army (IRA), although they are less well trained in ordinary policing. The nickname “Black and Tans” arises from the colours of the improvised uniforms they initially wear, a mixture of dark green RIC (which appears black) and khaki British Army. They serve in all parts of Ireland, but most are sent to southern and western regions where fighting is heaviest. By 1921, Black and Tans make up almost half of the RIC in County Tipperary, for example.
Few Black and Tans are sent to what becomes Northern Ireland, however. The authorities there raise their own reserve force, the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). For the most part, the Black and Tans are “treated as ordinary constables, despite their strange uniforms, and they live and work in barracks alongside the Irish police.” They spend most of their time manning police posts or on patrol—”walking, cycling, or riding on Crossley Tenders.” They also undertake guard, escort and crowd control duties. While some Irish constables get along well with the Black and Tans, “it seems that many Irish police did not like their new British colleagues” and se them as “rough.”
Alexander Will, from Forfar in Scotland, is the first Black and Tan to die in the conflict. He is killed during an IRA attack on the RIC barracks in Rathmore, County Kerry, on July 11, 1920.
The Black and Tans gain a reputation for brutality and become notorious for reprisal attacks on civilians and civilian property, including extrajudicial killings, arson and looting. Their actions further sway Irish public opinion against British rule and draw condemnation in Britain.
The Black and Tans are sometimes confused with the Auxiliary Division, a counterinsurgency unit of the RIC, also recruited during the conflict and made up of former British officers. However, sometimes the term “Black and Tans” covers both groups. Some sources say the Black and Tans are officially named the “RIC Special Reserve,” but this is denied by other sources, which say they are not a separate force but “recruits to the regular RIC” and “enlisted as regular constabulary.”
More than a third leave the service before they are disbanded along with the rest of the RIC in 1922, an extremely high wastage rate, and well over half receive government pensions. Over 500 members of the RIC died in the conflict and more than 600 are wounded. Some sources state that 525 police are killed in the conflict, including 152 Black and Tans and 44 Auxiliaries. This figure of total police killed also includes 72 members of the Ulster Special Constabulary killed between 1920 and 1922 and 12 members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
Many Black and Tans are left unemployed after the RIC is disbanded and about 3,000 are in need of financial assistance after their employment in Ireland is terminated. About 250 Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, among over 1,300 former RIC personnel, join the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Another 700 joined the Palestine Police Force which is led by former British Chief of Police in Ireland, Henry Hugh Tudor. Others are resettled in Canada or elsewhere by the RIC Resettlement branch. Those who return to civilian life sometimes have problems re-integrating. At least two former Black and Tans are hanged for murder in Britain and another, Scott Cullen, wanted for murder, commits suicide before the police can arrest him.
(Pictured: Sir Hamar Greenwood inspects a group of Black and Tans in 1921)