Recruitment begins for the Black and Tans (Irish: Dúchrónaigh), Britain’s unofficial auxiliary army, on January 2, 1920. They are constables recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) as reinforcements during the Irish War of Independence. Recruitment begins in Great Britain and about 10,000 men enlist during the conflict. The vast majority are unemployed former British soldiers 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.
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. The Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) is founded to reinforce the RIC in Northern Ireland.
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 die in the conflict and more than 600 are wounded. Some sources state that 525 police, including 152 Black and Tans and 44 Auxiliaries, are killed in the conflict.
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 join 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 wanted for murder commits suicide before the police can arrest him.
Due to the Tans’ behaviour in Ireland, feelings continue to run high regarding their actions. The term can still stir bad reactions because of their remembered brutality. One of the best-known Irish Republican songs is Dominic Behan‘s “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans.” The Irish War of Independence is sometimes referred to as the “Tan War” or “Black-and-Tan War.” This term is preferred by those who fought on the anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War and is still used by Republicans today. The “Cogadh na Saoirse” (“War of Independence”) medal, awarded since 1941 by the Irish government to IRA veterans of the War of Independence, bears a ribbon with two vertical stripes in black and tan.
Some sources say the Black and Tans were officially named the “RIC Special Reserve”, but this is denied by other sources, which say they were not a separate force but “recruits to the regular RIC” and “enlisted as regular constabulary.” Canadian historian D. M. Leeson has not found any historical documents that refer to the Black and Tans as the “Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve.”
(Pictured: A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries outside the London and North Western Hotel in Dublin following an attack by the IRA, April 1921)