Ireland's War of Independence: The chilling story of the Black and Tans

Ben & Jerry's decision to give their latest flavour of ice-cream the same name as Churchill's notorious army has provoked howls of protest. David McKittrick describes the force's reign of terror against Irish nationalists

To practically the whole world it may seem like a harmless, cheerfully cutesie name for a new American ice-cream flavour, just adopted by the popular manufacturer Ben & Jerry's.

But some Irish-Americans have given the "Black and Tan" flavour a reception that is cold to the point of frigidity, complaining of its associations with one of the most notorious forces ever seen in Ireland.

The Vermont-based company, unaware of origins of the name, based the new flavour on a drink that uses stout. The ice-cream launched in the US this month but it is now debatable whether Ireland will get a taste.

It is difficult to know whether the arrival of Black and Tan flavour ice-cream could cause controversy and outcry in Ireland, but it would certainly generate a great deal of conversation and debate.

Although the Black and Tans force was deployed for only a couple of years, from 1920 to 1922, nationalist Ireland still associates it with murder, brutality, massacre and indiscipline in the years leading to southern Ireland's independence.

In this instance, its reputation is not based on any republican propaganda and exaggeration, since there is no dispute that "the Tans" killed and destroyed on a large scale. Nor did they make any secret of their ferocious reprisals. When a Tan was killed in Cork, they burnt down more than 300 buildings in the city centre and afterwards proudly pinned pieces of burnt cork to their caps.

A British Labour Party commission reported that it felt feelings of shame at witnessing the "insolent swagger" of the Tans, whom they described as "rough, brutal, abusive and distinctly the worse for liquor".

Another observer reported: "They had neither religion nor morals, they used foul language, they had the old soldier's talent for dodging and scrounging, called the Irish 'natives', associated with low company, stole from each other, sneered at the customs of the country and drank to excess."

The Catholic cardinal of the day called them "a horde of savages, some of them simply brigands, burglars and thieves". Similar denunciations came from within the armed forces, their commander, General Frank Crozier resigned in 1921 because they had been "used to murder, rob, loot, and burn up the innocent because they could not catch the few guilty on the run".

None of this, clearly, conveys anything of the light-hearted images of fun and enjoyment which ice-cream manufacturers would wish to convey to their customers.

The Black and Tans were created after the First World War by Winston Churchill and other ministers who were faced with a increasing tide of violence from the IRA, which had launched a campaign to drive Britain out of Ireland.

This is known as the War of Independence, though republicans took to calling it the "Tan War". With the IRA inflicting heavy casualties on the Royal Irish Constabulary, killing more than 50 of its officers, London created new forces to cope with republican insurrection. They were part of a hurriedly constructed counter-insurgency apparatus which included the existing police force, the regular army, secret service detachments and two completely new forces, the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans.

In the years that followed, all these groups were deployed against republican rebels, but the particularly violent behaviour of the Tans, together with their striking nickname, has meant that the blame for most of the misbehaviour has stuck to them.

The nickname arose entirely accidentally, and is usually traced back to a well-known pack of Limerick foxhounds which had that title. As members of the new force poured into Ireland there were not enough uniforms to go round, so they were originally dressed in a motley mixture of army khaki and police tunics.

Irish women, it is said, jeered at them as Black and Tans. Their irregular ensembles served to emphasise that, although they were technically part of the Irish police, they disregarded all normal policing procedures, and committed almost casual murders. Most of them were Great War veterans who answered an advertising campaign in Britain for men willing to face "a rough and dangerous task". With unemployment high, there were many ready to join for pay of 10 shillings a day plus board and lodging. Pay for a British Army private soldier was little more than a shilling a day.

The recruits, many hardened by trench warfare, were given only a few months' training before being despatched to Ireland, supposedly to act as policemen but in fact to provide military steel. In Ireland, they faced a very different type of war. The IRA waged guerrilla warfare, with hit-and-run tactics, attacks on isolated police barracks and deadly ambushes in territory which was unfamiliar to the Tans. All the security forces found this an extremely frustrating type of conflict but the Tans in particular quickly abandoned the normal rules and conduct of war.

They were in any case explicitly instructed to step outside the law, one police divisional commander instructing his men in a speech: "If a police barracks is burnt then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there; the more the merrier."

He instructed them to shout "Hands up" at civilians, and to shoot anyone who did not immediately obey. He added: "Innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man."

The old-style policemen did not care for the Tans, one saying years later: "The Black and Tans were all English and Scotch people; very rough, effing and blinding and boozing and all." A British Army officer complained to a general: "We are importing crowds of undisciplined men who are just terrorising the country."

Not all of the almost 10,000 Tans scattered around Ireland were guilty of atrocities; some were actually liked. But many felt free, as individuals or as units, to go far beyond the substantial degree of licence they had been officially granted.

Tans were reportedly among those who took part in "Bloody Sunday", an incident which followed the assassinations of a large number of suspected members of the British secret service in Dublin. Hours after these killings, security forces opened fire at a Gaelic football match in the city, causing 12 deaths and wounding scores.

In other cases, homes and businesses, particularly creameries, were burnt by the Tans. In the town of Balbriggan near Dublin, the IRA killing of a police officer led to severe reprisals: two republican suspects were shot dead, and 19 houses and various buildings were torched.

There were hundreds of reports of misbehaviour on a smaller scale. The late Lord Longford wrote of Tans torturing captured republicans, "cutting out the tongue of one, the nose of another, the heart of another and battering in the skull of a fourth".

The government at first turned a blind eye to such incidents. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson described a conversation with Churchill: "I warned him again that those Black and Tans who are committing very indiscriminate reprisals will play the devil in Ireland, but he won't listen or agree."

The security forces, the Field Marshal said, "marked down certain Sinn Feiners as in their opinion actual murderers or instigators and then coolly went and shot them without question or trial. Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me".

Pressure on the government to end the activities mounted steadily, the Archbishop of Canterbury warning Lloyd George: "You do not cast out Beelzebub by Beelzebub."

Churchill's wife Clementine joined in the chorus of protest, asking him to end the reprisals and adding: "It always makes me unhappy and disappointed when I see you inclined to take for granted the rough, iron-fisted 'Hunnish' way will prevail."

Later, Churchill openly acknowledged the excesses of the Black and Tans, admitting in the House of Commons: "It was quite impossible to prevent the police and military making reprisals on their own account."

Ministers pondered on whether they should officially endorse reprisals, and persisted in believing that the oppressive tactics of the Tans and other forces were on the point of delivering victory. Lloyd George famously boasted that he "had murder by the throat".

But on top of everything, the harsh methods of the Tans did not even work, and certainly did not defeat the IRA.

Professor Roy Foster wrote of the Tans: "They behaved more like independent mercenaries; their brutal regime followed the IRA's policy of killing policemen, and was taken by many to vindicate it."

The historian, Peter Hart, agreed. "It was astoundingly counter-productive. The militarised police formed their own death squads and regularly engaged in reprisals against civilians. IRA violence only increased."

Despite the battering which all this inflicted on the image of Britain at home and abroad, the continuing IRA campaign eventually led Lloyd George to seek talks with the republicans, which led to British withdrawal.

In a little-known historical footnote, some of the Black and Tans were transferred to Palestine where, under much stricter discipline, their performance was judged a success.

But in Ireland older folk still relate with a shiver what the Tans did in their little village or town, the name and reputation of the force continuing to resound throughout history.

The name of the Black and Tans thus lives on to the present day, and can still be heard from the lips of republican orators driving home their ancient messages of British iniquity and Irish victimhood.

The phrase can in other words still generate much heat, so much heat, perhaps, that an ice-cream company may think twice about associating its cool product with a topic that can still raise the temperature in Ireland.

Come Out Ye Black and Tans

I was born on a Dublin street where the Royal drums do beat

And the loving English feet they tramped all over us,

And each and every night when me father'd come home tight

He'd invite the neighbors outside with this chorus:

Chorus:

Oh, come out you Black and Tans,

Come out and fight me like a man

Show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders

Tell them how the IRA

Made you run like hell away,

From the green and lovely lanes in Killashandra.

Come let me hear you tell

How you slammed the great Pernell,

When you fought them well and truly persecuted,

Where are the smears and jeers

That you bravely let us hear

When our heroes of '16 were executed.

Come tell us how you slew

Those brave Arabs two by two

Like the Zulus, they had spears and bows and arrows,

How you bravely slew each one

With your 16-pounder gun

And you frightened them poor natives to their marrow.

The day is coming fast

And the time is here at last,

When each yeoman will be cast aside before us,

And if there be a need

Sure my kids will sing, "Godspeed!"

With a verse or two of Steven Beehan's chorus.

Come Out Ye Black and Tans. By Dominic Behan (1929-89)

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