Contributed by Donal Fallon
The following article aims to address what I see as a significant misunderstanding, even at the highest level of historical research, about state forces during the years of what is widely labeled the ‘War of Independence’. Auxiliary Cadets of the Royal Irish Constabulary are consistently lumped in with the seperate ‘Black and Tans’ to create the overall historical figure of the ‘Black and Tan’. Many events involving Auxiliaries, in popular Irish history, are associated with ‘The Tans’.
Florence O’ Donoghue, a leading republican involved with the Cork No.1 Brigade of the I.R.A, wrote of the differences between the two forces briefly in his article The Sacking Of Cork. The Royal Irish Constabulary, O’ Donoghue believed, had been strengthened by “..a reinforcement of British jail-birds and down-and-outs who had been hastily recruited into the force in England when candidates had ceased to offer themselves in Ireland. These instruments of despicable policy were the origin of the expression ‘Black and Tan’”.
The Auxiliaries however were an entirely different matter. “About 1,500 strong, they were organised as a separate command and consisted exclusively of ex-officers of the British Army and Navy, most of whom had seen service in the Great War”. In his own eyes, they represented the last efforts of the British state to smash the IRA. Tom Barry agreed with O’ Donoghue, stating in Curious Journey: An Oral Tradition of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution, that “….the general feeling, even here in Ireland at the time, was that the Black and Tans were the worst. I don’t accept that at all”. Like O’ Donoghue, Barry insisted there was a ruthlessness to the Auxiliaries not common with the Black and Tans, stating that “There was no excuse for them. Every damned one of them had to be a commissioned officer and to have served on one or more fronts. They were far worse than the Black and Tans”.
Just what separated the two forces however, is more than what republicans like Barry and O’ Donoghue saw as a difference of character. The two forces were unique in uniform, composition and more besides. Briefly, positions within the Auxiliary Cadets were first advertised on July 10th, 1920. Open only to men who had held a commission in the British armed services, these men carried the rank of ‘temporary cadet’ and were rated for pay and allowances as R.I.C Sergeants. They operated in companies of 100 men and initially wore their old service uniforms with a special glengarry hat with R.I.C insignia. When a new uniform was issued, and a new standard became common, it was the glengarry which remained as their distinctive mark. It was worn by Auxiliaries and Auxiliaries only. (The image shows a group of Auxiliaries. This same photos is often mislabeled as ‘Black and Tans’).
‘Black and Tans’ as they became known, were recruits to the regular Royal Irish Constabulary who initially wore a hybrid of R.I.C Uniform and military formals. Recruited from early 1920 to fill vacancies in the R.I.C and used as replacements and reinforcements for R.I.C garrisons they were not a unique force in themselves. Deficiencies of uniforms were made up by late 1920 and then all RIC, including ‘Black and Tans’, wore standard uniform.
Richard Abbot’s Police Casualties in Ireland 1919-1922 (Mercier Press, 2000) and Jim Herlihy’s The Royal Irish Constabulary (Four Courts Press, 1997 ) are two fantastic works which accurately portray the complexities of the RIC during this period of history.
Auxiliaries continue to be mistagged Black and Tans in our museums and archives. Why this should be so I don’t understand entirely. Perhaps this is partly because the popular conception of the Black and Tans is easier to dismiss as an ‘outside force’. Regardless, for the sake of historical accuracy, it is unfortunate that the two forces are so often mistaken for one another.
Donal Fallon is a student of History at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He writes for the Dublin website, Come Here To Me.