With the open admission that there has always been conflict between Ireland and England, probably since the Dark Ages, it was noted in the 1920s that ‘Irish Troubles’ were multiplying. The British government decided therefore to step up the Royal Irish Constabulary, a police force not known for gentleness in the first place.
The new force was manned to a great extent by British volunteers (the island race has always rather liked the idea of crossing the water and bashing a few Irish heads, but only Oliver Cromwell succeeded to any extent, blackening his name with the Irish for ever. Elizabeth I sent Leicester to put down the Irish chieftans, but he returned defeated. Elizabeth also sent Leicester’s step-son Essex to Ireland; he returned in worse condition, and lost his young head into the bargain).
The English and Irish recruits were chosen for abilities with armaments, fitness and general hardness. The uniform consisted of khaki tunic and trousers in barathea, and caps dyed green so dark that it appeared black. Thus the nickname – ‘Black and Tans’. The name was of course Irish, referring to a certain type of Irish dog: the Irish have never been short of wit; see Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, G.B. Shaw etc.
The Black and Tans were responsible for the mostly brutal suppression of Irish national unrest from March 1920, until the formation of a provisional government for the Irish Free State in January, 1922. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) did not like the English, Scots, Irish traitors, politicians, Anglo-Irish aristocratic landowners and especially the Black and Tans. A great number of attacks were launched by the IRA against ‘the protestant invaders’, and the Black and Tans were provoked into bloody reprisals.
Certainly the most serious of the latter was at Balbriggan near Dublin in September, 1920, where private and public houses and a factory were wrecked, and two Irishmen were killed. In Cork the following year one of the main streets was set on fire, and in the fighting both the County Hall and the Public Library were destroyed.
Public outcry in the Liberal Press, and naturally in the USA, where many citizens are Irish, demanded the disbandment of the Black and Tans, responsible for the mentioned outrages. The Anglo/Irish Truce of 1921 achieved this. It should be noted that many if not all of the English volunteers were survivors of the First War trenches, anxious to have a go at anyone, of any race, perhaps in order to expunge from their minds the horrors of that war.
In David Lean’s underrated film Ryan’s Daughter (1970) the young British officer (intelligently portrayed by American actor Christopher Jones) sent to the Irish fishing village with a few troops – is a ‘Black and Tan’.