Nine Extraordinary Facts About the Black and Tan War

I was gobsmacked when I was asked to contribute some facts on the Irish War of Independence to the superb website, Military History Now. Here it is again, for those interested in the subject.

The Irish War of Independence ran from January 1919 to July 1921. It was a guerrilla campaign pitching 15,000 members of the IRA against a British constabulary and military might totalling 42,000. Nearly 2,000 people died as a result – 750 of them civilians. It had its origins in the election of December 1918 when the republican party, Sinn Fein, won a landslide victory and then established a breakaway parliament free of British control.

That act spurred the first attack on crown forces on January 21, 1919, which resulted in the deaths of two policemen. Those killings would lead to a spiralling war of attrition pitching the IRA and a supportive citizenry against the might of the British Empire, resulting in a treaty and the formation of the Irish Free State almost two years later. It was a turbulent time, to say the least, and it inspired me to write my novel,Tan. Here are nine things to know about the war…

A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries

A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries

: The notorious Black and Tans (so named for their mismatching uniforms) were a force intended to beef up the resident Royal Irish Constabulary. Recruits were army veterans – some of them psychologically bruised from their time in the trenches during World War One. They soon gained a reputation for brutality and wanton destruction, such as in Balbriggan, where they torched 20 houses, looted pubs, burned down a factory, and beat two men to death. What’s glossed over about the Tans is the fact that almost 20pc of the force were actually Irish or of Irish descent.

2. THE AUXIES: As bad as the Tans were, it was the Auxiliary Division (made up of former army officers) who were the most destructive and lethal in their dealings with the population – arson, robbery and murder  . . . nothing was beneath them.  With their black uniforms, bandoliers and low-slung side-arms, they carried themselves like something out of the Wild West. Set up to take the fight to the IRA, they became infamous for brutal reprisals such as the burning of Cork (when five acres of the city was torched, 300 homes destroyed as well as 40 businesses, leading to the loss of 2,000 jobs).

Thomas D Huckerby3. THE TAN SERIAL KILLER: The Black and Tans’ most notorious member must have been Thomas D Huckerby (19), from Somerset, in England. In a six-month period he was responsible for the murder of five men – all of whom were unarmed and none of which were involved in the IRA. In August, he killed 60 year-old John Hynes at Shanagolden, A month later, at Abbeyfeale, he followed two men – Healy and Hartnett – on their way home from work and shot them dead. In November, a man matching Huckerby’s description was part of a gang which stopped two ex-British soldiers – Michael Blake and James O’Neill – while travelling from Dublin to Limerick. Facing disciplinary charges, Huckerby resigned in December 1920.

4. BLOODY SUNDAY: As vicious as the fighting was, nothing could match Sunday 21 November, 1920, for sheer mayhem. That morning, Michael Collins’s gang of assassins,  The Squad, made a good attempt at wiping out all the top British intelligence agents in Dublin, by killing 14 and wounding a further five. In response, that afternoon the RIC drove onto the pitch at Croke Park and indiscriminately fired into the crowd killing 14 people (including one player) and wounding 65 others. Later that day three republican prisoners, were shot in Dublin Castle “while trying to escape”, a story which was roundly rejected by most people.

5. GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: On November 26, 1920, IRA members Pat and Harry Loughnane were arrested at their family farm by Auxiliary forces. The brothers’ bodies were found burned and mutilated nine days later. They had been tied to the back of a lorry and forced to run behind it until they collapsed and were dragged along the ground. Both of Pat’s wrists, legs and arms were broken. He had a fractured skull and wounds carved into his chest. Harry’s right arm was broken and almost severed from his body, he was also missing two fingers. When he was found all that remained of his face were his chin and lips. Authorities claimed the brothers had escaped from custody and that the Auxies were not involved in their deaths. That same month a priest and a pregnant woman were also killed by British forces.

6. AMBUSHES: A week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, an IRA flying column under Tom Barry ambushed a patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, in Cork, killing 17 of an 18-man patrol. Controversy has surrounded the attack, with suggestions that Barry’s men killed the troops after they had surrendered. That view is countered with testimony that the Auxies actually feigned surrender and then opened fire again, a tactic which resulted in nearly all of them being killed . . . or so the story goes. Conversely, the ambush conducted by IRA commander Sean MacEoin at Clonfin where, during a two-hour firefight his unit killed four Auxiliaries and wounded eight. MacEoin congratulated them on the fight they had put up, prevented his men from assaulting the captives and tended to the wounded.  Mac Eoin’s humane actions delayed the IRA’s getaway and almost led to their capture by 14 lorries of British reinforcements.

Commander_Michael_Collins7. NERVES OF STEEL: Michael Collins was Minister for Finance, Director of Intelligence, Director of Organisation, and Adjutant-General. In short, he was a very busy man. Yet he conducted his business right under the noses of his enemy, using bicycles to travel around the city dressed as a dapper businessman, and always just a whisker from being captured.

On one occasion he was stopped by a military patrol, his socks stuffed with papers with the names of contacts and codes. Collins went straight up to the officer in charge and started to chat with him, and soon had the officer roaring with laughter. He was quickly ushered past the checkpoint.

Tom Barry tells of a time when he, Collins and a few others were stopped by Auxies while driving a car. Collins told everyone to act drunk. According to Barry, Collins ‘put up such a fine act, joking and blasting in turn, that he had the whole search party of terrorists in good-humour’.  British raids came so close that once he had to flee through a skylight while the British searched for him below. On another occasion he actually slipped inside into the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s G Division’s archives in Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street),  where, for several hours and just feet away from the enemy, he perused British intelligence files about himself and his activities.

8. THE PRISON HULK: Prison ships are usually associated with the 19th century . . . rotting hulks to hold men in damp squalor. But one was actually used to hold republican prisoners during the War of Independence. Moored at Belfast Lough, the HMS Argenta, a former cargo ship, housed men who’d been interned without trial. Cages containing up to 50 prisoners at a time were used for the purpose. The conditions were appalling. There were no tables, so men ate off the floor. The toilets flooded frequently, resulting in illness and disease. Some 263 men took part in mass hunger strikes – in one case, 150 men went without food during the winter of 1923 in protest at their treatment.

9. THE MONEY MACHINE: One associates most revolutions with the sound of gunfire and smell of cordite, but the real grease to keep a movement functioning is money. One of the greatest feats of the fledgling Irish parliament – the Dail – and of Michael Collins was the setting up of a National Loan, in which bond certificates would be sold at various prices to fund the freedom movement.  Dail President Eamon De Valera journeyed to America and sold bonds there very successfully (some $5million worth were purchased). In Ireland, Collins took on the role of selling the bonds to the Irish population. Remember, Collins didn’t know from one day to the next where he would sleep, never mind what makeshift office he would work from (in one case he operated out of a room in a sweet shop), yet he managed to sell over £355,000 worth of bonds while avoiding British raids. We could all do with some of his financial magic now.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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30 Responses to Nine Extraordinary Facts About the Black and Tan War

  1. Excellent article. A lot I didn’t know, even after reading your trilogy 😉


  2. Another well written and well researched post, for which many thanks.


  3. P. C. Zick says:

    Still so much to learn about yet another war pitting friends against friends. My first introduction to a thorough study of this era came from your books. This post enriches that knowledge.


  4. navilenn65 says:

    Truth be told there were never 15000 men in the IRA who could be armed properly and fielded.
    More likely closer to 2500. Men in A.S.U.s numbered, on good authority, probably less than 1000. The British knew this and accordingly did not send in more troops, relying upon the
    R.I.C., Tans (some 25% native Irish) and Auxies.
    The struggle for an independent Ireland is nuanced and doesn’t lend itself to a simple matter of Brits vs an irate indigenous population; certainly not Papists vs Prods
    Great blog as always


    • You’re right to say that the war was more nuanced than something a factfile could express. In my own place of work I came across two men whose grandfathers were in the Tans. It’s a fact that is overlooked, somewhat conveniently, by some people. Thanks for stopping by 🙂


  5. navilenn65 says:

    Arguably there are more who trace their antecedents to the RIC than the physical force Volunteers circa 1918. As WATERFORD author Dr. Pat McCarthy noted in a witty aside last summer: “There were more Waterford men firing into the GPO than out”

    We will continue therefore to be somewhat uncomfortable w/ the looming centenaries


  6. I loved the informed comment your posts attract, David. I’m so tired of the provocative posts one sees at, say, Irish Central, where almost daily the lid is lifted on buckets of vitriol by a lot of people who have no understanding of the complexities of Irish history and indeed have never visited the place. Your blog is a comfortable and wise place to visit.


  7. Thanks Denise. .I know the type of comment you mean.This article attracted one of those when it was posted on have been fortunate with the calibre of people who leave comments here – yourself notwithstanding.


  8. navilenn65 says:

    Part of the reluctance re some local centenary commemoratives can be traced to residual animosities -most notably from 1922-1923. “Irish Alzheimers” if you will. The old pub reposte is perhaps relevant: “And where were YOU in 1916”.

    We forget that at the time of the 1914 Volunteer split that it was a tiny minority who opted for the
    “physical force” Irish Volunteers. Later, July 1921 was noteworthy for the infusion of Post Treaty Republicans (“Trucileers”) into the Republican ranks.


    • From the little I know, Collins was mightily browned off with the ‘Trucileers’ and their sudden green tinge.Soem of the atrocities committed during the Civil War were so vile, in a way it’s understandable some people don’t want to face up to those dark, ignoble days


  9. navilenn65 says:

    Not only that but those “Irregulars” who had fled and then came home in the 1930’s were not always treated w/ the respect they deserved while others , in the interim, had burnished their alleged Republican credentials. To wit: 1. an emigre multi millionaire in the States making the (spurious) claim that as a youth he had “dispatched a Tan” . Duly suitably inscribed on an edifice built w/ his dollars, no less. 2. A former Brigade O/C, upon being released after the Civil War, drily noted that the only people who would avail themselves of his services as a plumber were the local Protestants who had no interest, unlike others, in his politics. 3. Those who maintained that they had been in the GPO could have filled O’Connell St from the Liffey to the Rotunda.

    I still hear references to “fecken Blue Shirts” directed at present day Fine Gael adherents.

    Re Collins and alleged Republicans see remarks to a Dungarvan crowd in March of 1922
    Interestingly, he was arguably “kidnapped” for a few moments on that occasion

    As Samuel Johnson noted we are indeed a most fair people who seldom speak well of one
    another : )

    Slan go foil


    • Ivan Lennon’s book Rebel Heart reveals the trauma of life after the dusthas settled – particularly life for those on the ‘wrong’ side. You seem to know an awful lot more about this than I do. The multi-millionaire’s story sounds fascinating (but porbably libelous if published) I am a dabbler in these matters. You, on the otherhand, would appear to be an expert.


  10. jazzfeathers says:

    Really liked this post, so full of info.

    I now get why Michael Collins is a national hero 😉
    He must have been quite a man.


  11. Paul O Brien says:

    Nice piece.
    You might might find my latest work of interest. Deals with the Auxiliary Division of the RIC in Ireland.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Of course, a potential number 10 (if you needed one) might be the fact that only one Tan was executed for murder during the War of Independence. Many Irish people suffered and were killed by the Tans, but it was only when a member of the ruling establishment, an Anglo-Irish magistrate, was murdered by a Tan that the authorities decided to take action against a member of their unruly ‘gendarmerie’. William Mitchell, the Tan they hanged for the murder, was an Irishman. A bad lad he may have been, but Dubliner Mitchell did not actually kill, nor even plan to kill the magistrate. However, the real killer could not be executed, so Mitchel had to hang in order to assuage the universal criticism of the Tans’ brutality. And of course, who would object to them hanging a Irishman?


  13. Mick Early says:

    Wonderful piece, thank you!


  14. Very interesting article, thank you for sharing. I wasn’t aware of some of this information. I will have to do some research for more information on the Black and Tans and the war of Independence.
    Thank you.


  15. Nuala Duignan says:

    My father John O’Dolan was interred on the Prison. ship Argenta


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