When the Black and Tans were first deployed in Ireland in March, 1920 they soon proved themselves to be a pretty brutal bunch. They were liberal with the use of their rifles, were often drunk and even engaged in arson and robbery.
The Tans were ex-servicemen, many of them scarred from their time in the trenches during World War One. In my novels Tan and also The Golden Grave, I write about such veterans and their difficulty in adjusting to post-War life.
From intimidation, to physical assaults to outright murder, they were a law unto themselves who sowed fear amongst the communities they patrolled. My own grandfather, who was involved with the IRA during the War of Independence, felt their wrath when once they used pliers to pull a fingernail from his hand during an interrogation
But there is one Black and Tan who has a special place amongst their ranks. His name is Private William Mitchell and he holds the dubious claim to fame of being the only Tan or British soldier to be hung for crimes committed while in Ireland.
I came across the story of William Mitchell through historian Denise Kelly, who has produced a fascinating book on him, called Running With Crows: The Life And Death of a Black and Tan. Kelly has conducted impressive research to tell Mitchell’s tale, from his upbringing in the notorious Monto area of Dublin, through to his service with the British Army in India, then in World War One and, finally, in Ireland.
Mitchell was one of the 20-odd per cent of Tans who were actually Irishmen. His career in the military was chequered to say the least – imprisoned for insubordination while on the frontline, he served his sentence before being injured during a German attack and was sent home.
Mitchell was a petty criminal who, it would appear, got too ambitious and bit off more than he could chew during a robbery at the house of a local magistrate in Wicklow. The robbery was bungled and the magistrate was shot dead.
Tan outrages in Ireland had up ’til then gone unpunished but such was the furore over their lawlessness that an example was decided to be set in this case. Mitchell denied any involvement but he was charged nonetheless. A rushed trial, with rather dubious evidence, would see to it that he paid the ultimate price.
Denise Kelly’s book paints a detailed picture of Mitchell, from birth to death, and gives fascinating insights into slum life in Dublin and what soldiering was really like in the fading days of the British Raj.
Mitchell, who was hanged in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in 1921, seems to have been cut from the same cloth as many of his fellow Tans. What Kelly has done, though, is to put a face and a real story to one of the most notorious paramilitary groups ever to stain the character of the British military.
William Mitchell’s body remains in the soil of Mountjoy to this day, unclaimed by any relatives. His story is typical in so many ways of his comrades, yet his final penalty means that he will always be the anomaly – the Tan who was executed by his own side. It’s not much as epitaphs go, but it is enough to ensure a peculiar kind of notoriety in a time when the gun and the bullet ruled the day.