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Many Black and Tans 'were Irish Catholics'

(Valerie Robinson, Irish News)

The notorious Black and Tans are remembered as a lawless force of British mercenaries but a new study has revealed that a sizeable number were Irish-born Catholics. The study by US-based Professor WC Lowe appears in the latest edition of History Ireland and reveals that while 78.6% of the Black and Tans were British close to 19% were born in Ireland.

From 1920 the British government began to augment the number of the declining Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) by recruiting First World War veterans from throughout Britain and Ireland.

The new recruits, numbering almost 14,000, earned their 'Black and Tan' tag because of their uniforms: a shortage of dark police uniforms led to the issuing of military khaki and a mixture of the two was initially used.

Their experience of weapons and tactics gave them a tougher edge than their more traditional RIC colleagues.

The IRA campaign also led to the formation of the Auxiliary Division, former officers who wore distinctive Tam o' Shanter caps and operated in counter-insurgency units independent of other RIC units.

Prof Lowe wrote that "folk memory holds that the British administration was not very concerned about the backgrounds of the Black and Tan recruits, as long as they had military experience".

The force was almost overwhelmingly British. However, a sample study of the personnel register maintained in Dublin Castle revealed some surprising facts.

"An unexpected finding that is at odds with popular memory is that nearly 19% (514) of the sampled recruits were Irish-born. Many Irishmen joined the RIC in a role assumed by folk memory to be the exclusive preserve of British mercenaries," said the historian.

"Eighty two per cent of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries sampled were Protestant, 17.4% were Catholic and there were 10 English Jews.

"The largest proportion of Catholics, not surprisingly, was found among the Irish recruits (59% of the 478 sample). Fifty five% of the Irish recruits were Catholic, mostly concentrated among the Black and Tans," he added.

Members of the Black and Tans as well as the Auxiliaries born in Connacht and Munster were "overwhelmingly" Catholic (both 78%), compared to 60% of Leinster recruits.

However, the Ulster-born Black and Tans were largely Protestant (72%) while the 46 Irish Auxiliaries in the sample included 17 Catholics.

Prof Lowe said the study pointed to unemployment as a major factor in Irishmen's decisions to join the reviled forces, with fewer than 40% having previous military experience, compared to 70% of the English and over 80% of the Scottish recruits.

The Black and Tans earned a questionable reputation, not just among civilians but also members of the existing police force.

Prof Lowe wrote: "Members of the 'old' RIC had very mixed reactions to their presence and violent behaviour that not all officers were able to restrain. Black and Tans were thought of as 'gun happy' and the Auxiliaries' ferocity was reputed to be fuelled by heavy drinking."

The RIC was disbanded after the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty but many of the recruits traced through the sample had already quit the force.

Interestingly, Irish recruits were more likely to have remained (55%), compared to 36% of the English and 39% of the Scottish.

August 28, 2004

• WJ Lowe is Provost and Professor of History at Metropolitan State University, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

This article appeared first in the August 27, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News