Book Review: The Black and Tans: A Complete Alphabetical List, Short History and Genealogical Guide

By: Jim Herlihy

Published by: Four Courts Press, Dublin 2021

Reviewed By: Seán William Gannon

Jim Herlihy is hugely respected amongst historians of the RIC. His monumental index, The Royal Irish Constabulary: An Alphabetical List of Officers and Men, 1816-1922 was, prior to the digitization of the RIC General Registers of Service by FindMyPast, an utterly indispensable research tool, and his subsequent biographical and genealogical guides to its officers and men remain very valuable sources for those interested in the force.

This book is a useful reference of recruits to the RIC in 1920-21, but some aspects  such as terming the Black and Tan recruits the ‘RIC Special Reserve’, are seriously problematical.

His latest work, The Black and Tans: A Complete Alphabetical List, Short History and Genealogical Guide focusses on  the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in 1920/21 and is intended to serve as a definitive guide to what Herlihy terms the six ‘police groups’ that constituted the force at that time.

However, certain of his categorizations are seriously problematical (particularly his ‘RIC Special Reserve’, on which more below) and appear deliberately designed to distance the Black and Tans from what he terms ‘the “old” or “regular RIC’.

Six ‘police groups’?

The book, a typically handsome production from Four Courts Press, opens with three short introductory chapters which cover the history of the RIC from its consolidation as the Irish Constabulary in 1836 to its disbandment in 1922, and provide brief overviews of Herlihy’s self-defined ‘police groups’. These are:

  1. the ‘old’/’regular’ RIC, viz. officers and men, overwhelmingly Irish, recruited prior to January 1920, or recruited in Ireland thereafter
  2. the ‘RIC Special Reserve’, comprising 7,684 permanent constables recruited in Britain between January 1920 and July 1921
  3. the 2,189 Temporary Constables, overwhelmingly recruited in Britain between September 1920 and September 1921, and attached to the RIC’s motor division headquartered at the force’s sub-depot in Gormanston, county Meath
  4. the Auxiliary Division of the RIC (ADRIC), a gendarmerie-style counterinsurgency unit comprised of ex-officers separately recruited to the main force on temporary contracts between July 1920 and July 1921
  5. the 1,069-strong Veterans and Drivers Division (VDD), recruited on temporary contracts mainly in Britain between  September 1920 and September 1921 to provide logistical support to the ADRIC
  6. the Defence of Barracks Sergeants, a short-lived body of 49 men recruited to strengthen the security of RIC barracks against IRA attack between May and July 1920, after which they were effectively superseded by, and largely subsumed into, the ADRIC.

Herlihy’s particular focus is the three groups who, he maintains, ‘were collectively known as Black and Tans’ (viz. the ‘RIC Special Reserve’, the Temporary Constables, and the VDD), and his book primarily comprises alphabetical nominal rolls of these men.

Generally-speaking, individual entries in these rolls include full name, force number, year of birth and native country and county/shire, religion, previous occupation and prior military service, and date and place of enlistment in the RIC. The circumstance under which the individual left police service is also listed, ranging from resignation and dismissal to disbandment and death.

Who was a ‘Black and Tan’?

Herlihy seeks to dispel continuing confusion regarding who were and were not Black and Tans. The moniker’s original and strictly accurate application is, of course, clear. A developing manpower crisis fuelled by the burgeoning republican social and military campaign against the RIC during 1919 led to the extension of recruitment to Britain in late December. Small detachments of British-recruited constables began arriving in Ireland from 7 January 1920 and significant deployment commenced in July.

Black and Tans was nickname applied to recruits to the RIC from Britain from early 1920, due to their initial mixture of police and military uniform.

As stocks of the standard RIC uniform (rifle-green tunic and trousers, black greatcoat and belt) quickly became insufficient to the numbers now enlisting, newly-recruited constables had to be clad out in various combinations of army khaki and RIC-issue kit. On 25 March 1920, the Limerick Echo noted this ‘strange attire’ which resembled ‘something one would associate with the Scarteen Hunt of Pallasgreen’, known locally as the ‘Black and Tans’ because of the coat pattern of its Kerry beagles.

The moniker’s application to newly-recruited RIC constables was popularized by the comedian, Mike Nono, who used it in performances at Limerick’s Theatre Royal and it was soon so generally applied across Ireland that, in late August, the RIC’s new in-house propaganda freesheet, the Weekly Summary, proudly took ownership of the name: ‘They did not wait for the usual uniform/They came at once/They were badly wanted and the RIC welcomes [the Black and Tans]’. So commonplace did the moniker become that its usage persisted even after the RIC uniform shortage was resolved in winter 1920, when newly recruited RIC constables were again issued full standard RIC green.

According to Herlihy, just three of the six ‘police groups’ he describes may correctly be described as Black and Tans. The first, and most significant, is his ‘RIC Special Reserve’, a term the provenance of which is unclear and which this reviewer has never encountered in a primary source. The men it comprises – the 7,684 permanent constables recruited on British soil between January 1920 and July 1921 – were certainly Black and Tans. But they were not, as Herlihy implies, a ‘special’ formation.

The British recruits into the RIC, were not a ‘special’ formation,  nor were they a ‘reserve’ force, but, except for vehicle drivers, permanent recruits into the police force.

As the Irish chief secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood explained to the House of Commons in February 1921, ‘the so-called Black and Tans are not a separate force, but are recruits to the permanent, [pensionable] establishment of the [RIC]’. Nor were these 7,684 men in any sense, a ‘reserve’. On the contrary, they were distributed amongst RIC stations across Ireland where they were barracked with, and served alongside, the ‘old’ RIC.

The RIC did have a permanent Reserve force; it was established in 1839 and based at its Phoenix Park Depot under the control of the inspector-general, but the ‘Black and Tans’ of 1920-21 were not it.

The other two ‘police groups’ that Herlihy categorizes as Black and Tans are the Temporary Constables attached to the RIC’s motor division, and their Auxiliary Division (ADRIC) equivalent, the Veteran Drivers Division (VDD).

As temporary hires, these latter men were, by Greenwood’s definition, not Black and Tans, and Herlihy’s basis for their designation is contemporary perceptions that they were. Doubtless, the drafts of Temporary Constables sent to work alongside the permanent recruits on the ground were generally indistinguishable from them to Irish eyes; the great majority (83%) were of British birth and they initially wore the hybrid Black and Tan uniform.

Herlihy argues that the Auxiliaries were not Black and Tans as they had a separate organisation from the RIC, but he does consider their drivers, ‘temporary constables’, as ‘Tans’.

In the case of the VDD (which was 79% British-born), this is less clear. This force was initially recruited from amongst the Temporary Constables: 575 of these men transferred to the VDD (men whom Herlihy rather confusingly lists in both his Temporary Constables and VDD nominal rolls, giving an appearance of double counting).

However, the VDD operated alongside the Auxiliaries (ADRIC), a force to which Herlihy expressly denies ‘Black and Tan’ status on the basis that it was separately recruited and barracked to the regular RIC and, while nominally under the control of county inspectors and divisional commissioners, essentially operated autonomously.

But if the Auxiliaries were not Black and Tans, it seems incongruous to categorise their logistical staff as such. Conversely, if the VDD can be termed ‘Black and Tans’, based on contemporary perceptions, then so should the ADRIC.

For by 1921, the term ‘Black and Tans’ was being routinely applied to Auxiliary ‘temporary cadets’ who, while turned out in diverse combinations of police, military, and even civilian attire, were readily distinguished from ‘true’ Black and Tans by their beret-style headdress – ‘tam o’shanters’ and ‘balmorals’. Similarly with the Defence of Barracks Sergeants who Herlihy maintains were perceived as Black and Tans by the populace, albeit ‘incorrectly’.

Distinguishing ‘old’ and ‘new’ RIC

According to Herlihy, his ‘greatest challenge in compiling this book was in trying to identify the distinction between the “old”, or “regular” RIC’ and those he designates Black and Tans. Usually, the term ‘old RIC’ refers to personnel serving in 1920/21 who had enlisted prior to the extension of recruitment to Britain in January 1920, while the term ‘regular RIC’ refers to the permanent, pensionable police force comprising the ‘old RIC’ and the Black and Tans, as distinct from the temporary, quasi-autonomous ADRIC.

But Herlihy conflates the two terms to create a single ‘police group’ comprising all RIC officers and men recruited in Ireland both prior to January 1920 and thereafter.

Herlihy’s analysis excludes any Irish-born constables recruited in 1920 and 21 from the term ‘Black and Tans’, though their training and duties were often identical to their British counterparts.

Consequently, he draws a formal distinction between the 7,684 permanent RIC constables recruited in Britain in 1920/21 and the approximately 1,800 permanent constables concurrently recruited in Ireland, who accounted for almost 20 percent of the overall intake during this time. The latter, he maintains, were not Black and Tans, this despite the fact that they were dispatched to RIC stations alongside their British-recruited counterparts and wore the same hybrid uniform while the shortage endured.

Herlihy’s case for a distinction between British and Irish-recruited permanent constables appears to rest on what he maintains were differences in their recruitment, training, and duties. On recruitment, he has a point, although its ultimate significance is, to this reviewer, not readily discerned.

RIC constables were recruited in Britain on the recommendation of ‘recruitment officers’ at one of 83 centres, most notably Major Cyril Fleming (an RIC county inspector from Fermoy) who oversaw recruitment in London from an office in Great Scotland Yard; those who enlisted in Ireland were generally recruited in the traditional way and on the recommendation of local RIC district inspectors.

In respect of training, Herlihy claims that the Irish-recruited constables received the standard six-month programme provided at the Phoenix Park Depot pre-1920, while their British-recruited colleagues underwent a four-to-six week course, variously in the Phoenix Park, the Curragh and Gormanston.

However, a survey of the RIC General Registers of Service reveals that this was not, by any means, consistently the case. Comparisons between Irish-recruited constables’ dates of enlistment and first postings demonstrate that a plurality of these men received considerably less than six months’ training, ranging from three months to the four-to-six weeks afforded their counterparts recruited in Britain. Some received even less. In January-March 1920, for example, the number of Irish-recruited constables who underwent four-to-six weeks’ training practically equalled that who underwent six months.

This undermines Herlihy’s claim that the constables recruited in Ireland performed different duties to their colleagues recruited in Britain because they received six months’ instruction in police work – the implication being that the former essentially attended to ‘ordinary’ policing, while the untrained Black and Tans dealt only with the ‘political’ side. In any case, routine civil policing was more or less redundant by the early summer of 1920 as the RIC’s besiegement gained pace, and the line between the policing of ‘ordinary’ and ‘political’ crime was frequently blurred.

The forging of a distinction between constables recruited in Britain and in Ireland in 1920/21, together with his postulation of a discrete ‘RIC Special Reserve’, speaks to an apparent underlying agenda, to rehabilitate the Irish RIC personnel.

The patrolling and attendant counterinsurgency duties that comprised the greater part of what active policing occurred during the twelve months prior to the Truce was performed by both British and Irish-recruited constables in tandem, under the supervision of sergeants and head constables of the ‘old’ RIC. In short, counterinsurgency altered the character of the force as a whole in its final two years and problematized the possibility of any straightforward distinction between the duties that its British and Irish constables performed.

Herlihy’s forging of this distinction between constables recruited in Britain and in Ireland in 1920/21, together with his postulation of a discrete ‘RIC Special Reserve’, speaks to an apparent underlying agenda, which is the public rehabilitation of Irish RIC personnel.

For while Britishers were occasionally recruited on Irish soil, and some 8% of the three ‘police groups’ he categorizes as Black and Tans were Irishmen, his division of the War of Independence-era RIC into ‘old’/’regular’ and Black and Tans essentially equates to a division between the force’s Irish and British-born cohorts.

‘Honourable Irish policemen’

For Herlihy, a prominent spokesman for the Historical and Police Reconciliation (HARP) Society, his self-defined ‘old’/’regular’ RIC comprised, in the main, honourable Irish policemen, whose contemporary standing and historical memory were sabotaged by the crimes of the British Black and Tans. As he explained in a recent Irish Times’ article on the book:

I am particularly mindful of all of the atrocities committed collectively by the Black and Tans in 1920 and 1921 without impunity [sic]. It has always been my objective in compiling this new book to search for the truth of what happened in each incident and present the evidence, exclusive of mere argument. It is my hope too that this book will assist researchers as a genealogical research tool in finding the real evidence of culpability. In this regard I have endeavoured to keep my focus on remembering all members of the “old” or “regular” Royal Irish Constabulary killed in the line of duty, to whom the Black and Tans did a great disservice.

This was, of course, not entirely the case; ‘old’ RIC personnel were solely or partly responsible for many of the period’s most infamous reprisals and crimes, such as the rioting in Tuam and Galway in July and September 1920 respectively, and the Sack of Balbriggan. They simply cannot, in terms of revolutionary activities and experience, be separated out from the post-1920 recruits to the force.

That said, the activities of the Black and Tans (and, indeed, the Auxiliaries) greatly contributed to the RIC’s century-long defeat in what Elizabeth Malcolm terms ‘the political and propaganda wars’ over the way in which the violence of the War of Independence is ‘remembered, interpreted and commemorated and, ultimately, justified’, most recently exemplified in the heated controversy over the proposal state commemoration of the RIC last year – a commemoration which, given the preceding it perhaps should be said, this reviewer, in principle, supported.

This book comes out in the wake of the 2020 proposed state commemoration of the RIC which, this reviewer, in principle, supported.

As this controversy highlighted a poor grasp of RIC history on both sides of the debate, especially on social media, this book is, in the final analysis, a valuable addition to the published research.

It will become a standard reference work for those working on the force, its painstakingly-compiled nominal rolls providing a welcome ease of access to biographical information on those listed which will greatly facilitate prosopographical analysis. Moreover, it provides over 40 very useful sub-lists and statistical tables abstracted, in the main, from these three rolls, including alphabetical listings of the Irish-born in each ‘police group’.

The book will also serve as a standard genealogical source for anyone researching individual RIC members, not least on account of a fourth introductory chapter on ‘tracing RIC ancestors’ which provides a concise and extremely valuable guide to surviving RIC personnel records.

With this book, notwithstanding its problems, Herlihy’s status as the person who has done more than anyone to facilitate research into the RIC is secured.

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