Why would anyone commemorate the Black and Tans?

The Irish government’s ill-fated plans to commemorate the RIC are part of a broader war on history.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan

Topics Politics UK World

‘Come out Ye Black and Tans’, the rebel song by the Irish band the Wolfe Tones, hit the top of the British and Irish iTunes charts last week. Renewed interest in the Tones followed the Irish government’s announcement of (since-cancelled) plans to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) with a state ceremony. A hundred years ago, in January 1920, the infamous ‘Black and Tan’ uniformed English soldiers were recruited into the RIC’s ranks as reinforcements during the Irish War of Independence. The Black and Tans were later joined by other English ‘Auxiliaries’ to strengthen the violent campaign against Irish independence fighters.

The Irish government has been rightly lambasted for its attempt to commemorate the RIC. The RIC, protecting British imperialism in Ireland, was on the wrong side of the war. And Black and Tans, in particular, are still widely despised in Ireland for murdering, raping and terrorising Irish civilians and for hunting down Irish rebels.

The Black and Tans made up only part of the RIC contingent, and some members of the RIC may have had little to do with the British state’s campaign against Irish freedom fighters. But the planned celebration of the RIC and the DMP seems to have made no such caveats.

Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said he was ‘disappointed’ that there had been planned boycotts of the event. He compared it to the commemoration of soldiers who died in the First World War. It would only be ‘right and proper’ to do the same for ‘police officers who were killed’, he said.

This is not the first time the question of commemorations has descended into farce in Ireland. The planned RIC party was part of the government’s ‘Decade of Centenaries’, which aims to ‘ensure that this complex period in our history, including the struggle for independence, the Civil War, the foundation of the state and Partition, is remembered appropriately, proportionately, respectfully and with sensitivity’.

Plans for the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising were widely mocked. They included a video, sanctioned by the Irish government, that was part tourist board, part Riverdance. It also featured footage of the Queen of England, Ian Paisley and David Cameron, and made no mention of the actual events of the Easter Rising, which led to Ireland’s independence. After much outcry, a second video was produced – this time with added pictures of the Irish Proclamation of Independence, but nothing of the actual participants in the Rising, people like Padraig Pearse or James Connolly. Professor of Irish history Diarmaid Ferriter aptly described it as ‘embarrassing unhistorical shit’.

Fine Gael’s culture minister Josepha Madigan announced plans for the commemorations of 1920 two weeks ago in Cork, the city burned and pillaged by the Auxiliaries in December 1920. She told RTÉ: ‘We’re remembering all of this with the legitimacy of all traditions and we have to value mutual respect and historical authenticity… There are different narratives, different memories and different sides.’

The government’s Decade of Centenaries programme also promises to lump sanitised commemorations of Ireland’s fight for independence with the Gallipoli landings, the Somme and the battles for workers’ rights. This desire to commemorate everything equally has made the act of commemoration totally meaningless.

In fact, the row over who and what to commemorate in Irish history tells us far more about Ireland’s current political elite than it does about the past. The prospect of celebrating the anniversary of 1916 and championing the Fenian rebels mortified the Irish elite, who are keen to move away from what they view as the ‘petty nationalism’ of the past.

The unwillingness properly to celebrate national independence – and instead declaring both sides to have equal value – is what led to the ill-fated attempt to commemorate Irish coppers. Even if you ignore the Black and Tans, the RIC does not have a happy history. It was initially set up in the early 1800s. RIC men were used as muscle during the Tithe War of the 1830s, protecting English landowners during the famine. They were rewarded by Queen Victoria for quelling the 1867 Fenian Rising. And that’s all before their bloody role in defending British interests in the struggles of the early 20th century.

The DMP was no better – their ‘G-men’ (detective division) spied for the British crown in Dublin Castle. In the famous Dublin Lockout of 1913, when Jim Larkin sought to unionise workers, the DMP backed the bosses and battered the workers – killing two people. As historian Donal Fallon points out on his podcast, Three Castles Burning, it was ‘their job to infiltrate radical nationalist organisations… When the Easter Rising collapsed, it was the G-men who were crucially important in identifying their leaders for execution.’

Putting on a state-sanctioned celebration of the armed wing of British imperialism in Ireland is not celebrating ‘the legitimacy of all traditions’ – it is pretending history didn’t happen. In our grievance-obsessed culture, in which we are never done hearing about past wrongs and the need for reparations, it is curious that the bloody and unresolved history of British rule in Ireland is often wilfully ignored.

The Wolfe Tones have vowed to sing ‘loud and proud’ outside the commemoration, should Fine Gael be stupid enough to reschedule the event. The iTunes charts aren’t exactly a scientific means of judging political sentiment, but anyone arguing that support for Irish independence is merely an expression of a petty nationalism of the past would be wise to think again.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Brett Keane

15th February 2020 at 10:57 pm

My research points to Eire being in a process of becoming Independent as a Commonweath Member then, with a set Date for it. About 1923 IIRC.
This was being derailed by Sinn Fein murders and Criminal Thuggery.
Returned Soldiers were hired to help the Constabulary. After ten months of being murdered and/or hurt, some of them really got stuck in including acts of extra-legality/illegallity. It was the British Public who called a halt after a few months when Newspapers made this public.
Usually, it is not a good idea to use hard-bitten and well-trained and experienced soldiers as Police. Who are really Peace Officers.
But, it is worth noting that the Pretend-Patriots never wanted Peace, and have continually proven this since. Extortion and criminality were their main game, cloaked with Green. But Powell kept his word, when arms were surrendered, to everyone’s surprise. Brett Keane

Willie Penwright

20th January 2020 at 10:50 am

To measure the demand for Irish independence by the yardstick of support of the Republican Army alone might give a false picture of the overwhelming demand of the Irish to run their own country. From the beginning of the 20th century, the aspiration for independence spread throughout the consciousness of the people, as can be seen by the mushrooming of organisations promoting the Irish language (Conradh na Gaeilge), hurling and Gaelic footaball (GAA), Irish dancing and singing with feisheanna ceoil (music festivals and competitions) and the independent demand of the new labour movement. The uprising was not an isolated incident carried out by poets and dreamers, as it is sometimes portrayed, but by the combined nationalist movement of the Irish Volunteers, merging with labour’s Citizens Army in a heroic, and admittedly futile, attempt to defeat the then supreme British Empire. The admiration for those who made that sacrifice and the outrage that its suppression caused among the people is the spring of the independent Ireland today. Some may wish it wasn’t so but that won’t wash it away.

Jack Enright

18th January 2020 at 1:01 am

The father of a friend of mine served with the British Army in Ireland from 1919 until their independence. My friend told me that his father said that both officers and men in the regular Army in Ireland loathed and despised the Black & Tans just as much as any Irishman did.

Bobby Haggan

17th January 2020 at 4:29 pm

You can argue what ever way you like but the lunatics of both sides would have been happy to turn northern ireland into another Syria as both sides fought for freedom . I totally accept that were times when the army behaved badly but there achiecment in stopping the above far out weighs this for all but an unfortunate few.
One things that we have definitely proved over the last 100years is that the worst fears of both sides were totally justified.
Bobby haggan

Paul MacDonnell

17th January 2020 at 9:24 am

On the question of the mandate for IRA violence here are the respective shares of the popular vote amongst the main Irish parties in the 1918 election:

Sinn Fein won 46.9%
Irish Unionists 25.3%
Irish Parliamentary Party 21.7%

This gave the Unionists + Parliamentary Party 0.1% majority of the popular vote.

Even if you assume that everyone who voted Sinn Fein wanted the country to leave the UK (and remember not everyone who votes for the SNP wants Scotland to leave the UK) this still does not give them a majority.

When it comes to the mandate to launch a guerrilla war it can be safely assumed that most people in Ireland did not want this.

Ergo the IRA never had any electoral mandate to do what they did.

The IRA’s purpose in Irish history is, therefore, to impart a sense of romantic action to believers in an emerging ethno-nationalist project that always found it easier to half close their eyes to the criminal demimonde of murder and imagine, instead, that mythical old-Gaelic fighters had been reborn to fight for Ireland. Its legacy is the retailing of fortune-cookie politically-correct ‘facts’ about Irish ‘freedom fighters’ that people are willing to believe in as a sort of moral homeopathy.

The next time you get someone to write on this subject you should find someone with a better knowledge of Irish history.

Jim Lawrie

17th January 2020 at 11:03 am

The 1971 Scottish Soldier murders are an example of IRA determination to make violence the only option.


17th January 2020 at 1:42 pm


As Alfie Gallagher has put it:

“…general elections in Ireland before 1918 were not real contests. The strong-arm tactics of the Irish Parliamentary Party and their heavies in the Ancient Order of Hibernians made it very difficult for rival nationalist parties to develop. Those who complain about Sinn Féin’s victories in uncontested constituencies in 1918 neglect to mention that there were far more uncontested constituencies in previous general elections. In the 1910 general election for example, 63 of the 101 Irish constituencies were not contested. There were 25 uncontested constituencies in 1918 and most of them were in areas where Sinn Féin was already dominant. Had these constituencies been contested, a clear majority of the electorate in Ireland would almost certainly have voted for the party. Thus, the percentage of votes cast for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election grossly underestimated the party’s real support at that time. Most importantly, roughly 75 percent of Irish adults had the right to vote in 1918, as opposed to 26 percent in the previous general election in 1910. For all its flaws then, the 1918 general election was far more democratic than the preceding ones.”


17th January 2020 at 1:57 pm

Also, it’s the UVF of 1912 who should be blamed for, as Helen Waddell put it in a letter in 1916, bringing the gun back into an Ireland won over to constitutionalism. And what were they arming up against? A devolved Parliament in Dublin which would have been as tied to the U.K. still as the North of Ireland is today and offered no genuine threat to the north. Was it worth destroying the cohesion in Ireland of Catholic and Protestant by turning the north into a sectarian hellhole? And what for, simply to oppose a very mild form of devolution still within the control of Westminster?

Ardy Fardy

18th January 2020 at 10:08 pm

My brother was in the SAS during the early ’60s and several of his mates had died in Ireland. His view was the country was a mess and a civil war, Britain should have withdrawn and sold them arms.
He was disgusted when the SAS killed 3 IRA in Gibraltar? and were charged over it. He thought Britain had already lost and were just hoping for an end to it.
This is just a comment I know almost nothing about the Irish issue apart from the bombing.

John Abioye

20th January 2020 at 4:29 pm

I am not doubting your good faith I don’t believe any British soldiers died in Ireland in the early 60s. I think the troops came in in 1969, I could be wrong.

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