Ireland was in a state of chaos from the Irish war of independence that begun in 1919. IRA attacks against the British authorities, and particularly against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), intensified forcing many policemen to resign through fear of assassination and social ostracism.
Out-lying barracks were abandoned thereby leaving large tracks of the countryside in the control of the IRA and Sinn Féin.
Retaliation from the Royal Irish Constabulary
The beleaguered and now despised RIC retaliated by raiding the homes of Sinn Féin and IRA members and supporters.
On 20th March 1920, the home of Thomas Mac Curtain, the Lord Mayor of Cork, was raided by a gang of men with blackened faces. Mac Curtain, an IRA officer was gunned down in front of his family. The Coroner’s court found the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and particular members of the RIC guilty of wilful murder. District Inspector Oswald Swanzy who had ordered the murder was himself killed in August.
The formation of the Black & Tans
The Lord Lieutenant, Lord French allowed the Royal Irish Constabulary to recruit ex-army personnel in England as part of a new paramilitary force that would support the RIC. This new force was to become known as the Black and Tans as they wore a mixture of Police and Military uniforms.
Many of these recruits had been brutalised in the trenches of WW1 and relished their work in raiding and viciously destroying homes and lives.
Later in the year they were augmented by another force recruited in Britain this time from ex-army officers. They were known as the auxiliaries as they were an official part of the RIC.
Atrocities of the Black & Tans and the Auxiliaries
Together these groups operated throughout most of the country and committed many atrocities. They burned the centre of Cork city and the town of Balbriggan and many small towns and villages across the land and such was their reputation that their very memory fills the Irish people with revulsion to this very day.
Their actions merely increased Irish resolve to obtain independence and this resolve was strengthened when Republican prisoners went on a hunger strike which culminated in the deaths of another Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, Joe Murphy a Cork man born in the USA and fellow Corkman Michael Fitzgerald.
On Sunday 21st November the IRA, led by Michael Collins wiped out the Cairo gang killing fourteen under-cover British agents operating in Dublin. The British retaliated by machine gunning the players and spectators at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park killing fourteen civilians. They also beat three republican prisoners to death in Dublin Castle – these events would become known as Bloody Sunday of 1920.
• A History of Ulster by Jonathan Bardon. The Blackstaff Press. Belfast.2005.
• Modern Ireland 1600-1972 by R. F. Foster. Penguin Books. London. 1989
• The Green Flag. A History of Irish Nationalism by Robert Kee. Penguin Books London 2000 edition.
First published on March 18, 2013 and last modified on November 30, 2015.