Review: The Black and Tans

This review of D.M. Leeson’s fascinating The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, September 2.

 The Black and Tans ‘have gone down in history as the British equivalent of the Turkish bashi-bazouks or the German Freikorps.’ A 10,000-strong police force scrambled from unemployed, working-class ex-servicemen in urban Britain, the Black and the Tans – a sobriquet taken from the force’s motley uniform of army khaki and police tunics – were notorious for their brutality and violence during the Irish War of Independence.

By early 1920, when the first Black and Tans arrived at Gormanstown outside Dublin for the most cursory of training, the nascent republican offensive had already decimated the morale, not to mention the ranks, of a superannuated Royal Irish Constabulary. What followed – a gruesome litany of extrajudicial killings, political assassinations and punishment beatings – marked the period as among the most emotive in Irish history.

The Black and Tans’ murderous indiscipline is often attributed to the young recruits’ experiences in the Great War, putatively exacerbating an innate propensity towards violence. This interpretation, however, betrays what social psychologists would call a ‘fundamental attribution error’: faced with an invisible enemy in civilian garb conducting clandestine, asymmetric warfare against the Crown, and a growing tally of dead and injured colleagues, the alienated, oft-inebriated force replied with ever more brutal reprisals. The Black and Tans’ situation – not their disposition – explains their behaviour. The infamous sack of Balbriggan was typical: on 20 September 1920, Head Constable Peter Burke was shot dead by an IRA flying column in the County Dublin town, within hours a hosiery factory and 54 houses lay in smouldering ruins.

The overwhelming majority of the Black and Tans and their irregular cousins, the Auxiliary Division, showed no tendency towards criminality or wanton violence prior to their Irish deployment. Yet once exposed to insurgent ambushes and nationwide boycotts, many became willing, anonymous participants in atrocities. Unwittingly the ineffective Unionist-led British government created ‘a large-scale version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in Ireland.’

While the Black and Tan served for less than two years, their disastrous deployment has lived long in Irish cultural memory. Through dispassionate research and fastidiously marshalled sources, D.M. Leeson undermines many enduring misapprehensions that still surround this most controversial of police forces.