Following the Easter Rising in Dublin, in 1916, when nationalists occupied the main post office building in protest against British rule of Ireland, the Sinn Fein home rule party won a series of election victories. Unionists in Ulster obtained a concession from British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, that Ulster's six north-eastern counties would remain apart from any home rule settlement. In 1919, the Irish Volunteers, now known as the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, began the 'War of Independence', and Sinn Fein proclaimed an independent Ireland.
In return, the British advertised for men willing to 'face a rough and dangerous task', helping to boost the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary in policing the increasingly hostile Irish population. 'The Black and Tans' became the nickname given to this special auxiliary force used to fight the Sinn Feiners; the name, which was also a reference to a well-known pack of hounds in Limerick, acknowledged their uniforms of khaki with black hats and belts. They were RIC reservists, recruited in England, mainly from ex-servicemen. There were about 8000 of them.
The government also raised another unit, the Auxiliary Division of the Constabulary, known as the 'Auxiliaries'. The Auxiliaries were a smaller group, dressing in normal uniforms. They were responsible for much of the terror that was unleashed by the two units. The Black and Tans acted with the Auxiliaries in the government's attempts to break the IRA.
The first recruits arrived in Ireland on 25 March, 1920, after three months of training. They were paid ten shillings a day - enough to motivate unemployed war veterans. The lack of RIC uniforms led to the khaki and black uniforms. Since they were not trained in policing duties, their main role was to strengthen the military might of police posts, which lead to the Republicans viewing them as an army of occupation.
On the first 'Bloody Sunday' in November, 1920 (during which the IRA killed 14 British undercover officers), the Black and Tans surrounded a football match in Dublin. Shooting broke out and 12 people were killed. A retaliatory ambush in Kilmichael, West Cork, led to the deaths of 18 Auxiliaries, some killed after surrendering. The Auxiliaries took revenge by burning the centre of Cork, also allegedly preventing firemen from stopping the spread of the fires. The Tans also set fire to creameries around the country, thus further punishing the civilian population for the actions of the IRA.
The evidence suggests that the Black and Tans had adopted a shoot-to-kill policy, and their tactics have been described as 'state-supported terrorism'. There is no doubt as to the ferocity of the fighting and atrocities on either side, and feelings continue to run high regarding their actions. The actions of the Tans were ruthless, and only succeeded in increasing the level of anti-British animosity in Southern Ireland, while crucially also alienating public opinion in Britain. The public outcry in Britain was a major factor in the British government entering treaty negotiations.
In 1920, the Government of Ireland Act established the idea of two parliaments in Dublin and Belfast, subordinate to the London parliament. The signing of the treaty between Ireland and London ended the reign of the Tans, and in 1921 the newly-elected parliaments sat for the first time. The Dublin parliament was dominated by Sinn Fein, and the Belfast parliament of Northern Ireland was opened by George V. An uneasy truce between the two sides came into effect, though the troubles of Ireland were far from over.
- A (Very) Brief History of Ireland
- Northern Ireland - The Search for Peace (BBC)
- A brief history of Northern Ireland 1919 - 1999
- From RIC to RUC (Police Service of Northern Ireland)
- Irish History Goes to Highest Bidder
- Key Dates in Irish History - 1600 to the Present
- Edge of the Union: The Irish and Ulster Questions Since 1886
Related BBC Link
Find out more about the rise of Sinn Fein and the partition of Ireland.