First deployed in the spring of 1920 the ‘Black and Tans’ and their RIC Auxiliary counterparts quickly earned a reputation for aggression and ruthlessness.
Already hated by the people it was the events of late summer and autumn 1920 that would begin to cement the ‘Tans’ status as arguably the most reviled group in Irish history.
Oliver Cromwell’s murderous forces and the profiteers and soup dealers of the famine are still cursed by many but none are as loathed as the Black and Tans whose name, to this day, can spark bitter anger in the most mild mannered of Irish people.
The ‘Tans’ journey down the path to infamy began in earnest in mid 1920 when they launched a planned ‘scorched earth’ campaign aimed at crippling entire communities.
Throughout 1919 the IRA campaign was mainly centred on capturing weapons and freeing prisoners but by mid 1920 the war was heating up and British forces were coming under increasing pressure.
Ambushes and fatal attacks on the RIC and British forces were becoming more and more commonplace while Republicans had effectively taken control of Ireland’s south and west.
The Crown’s authority was collapsing and in the face of constant IRA raids – many of them as brazen as they were audacious – the British forces decided to act. As they had done in so many other, far flung, parts of the Empire they would put the squeeze on the people in the hope of starving the IRA of support.
Imperial British thinking seemed to be ‘what had worked in India and Africa would work in Ireland too’. It wouldn’t.
The campaign of reprisals had slowly ramped up through 1920 and by that summer police brutality had become the norm with the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries acting as the blunt tool of Imperial oppression.
The arrival of the ‘Tans’ had followed a collapse in the RIC’s ability to effectively control Ireland as officers across the country, afraid or unwilling to fight their own people, quit the force in droves.
Though they were deeply unpopular the RIC was still regarded by many as an Irish police force and the fact that it was predominantly comprised of Irish men had helped maintain the forces reputation even as it enforced British colonial law.
By early 1920 the RIC was in disarray. Around 100 officers a week were quitting and the British were struggling to replace them.
Those that remained in the RIC ranks were often unwilling to carry out British orders -as seen in the Listowel Mutiny of June 1920 – or were providing information and assistance to the IRA.
Many others were falling victim to the IRA with the tally of dead on injured RIC men growing with every passing day.
With chaos growing the British decided to use the jackboot and hundreds of former troops and officers demobilised after World War One were recruited and pressed into service. The officers formed the RIC Auxiliaries while the rank and file soldiers – many suffering from shell shock or with criminal backgrounds formed the core of the Black and Tans.
By summer 1920 Black and Tan reprisal attacks were a common occurrence with homes, farms and businesses set ablaze and people beaten and killed.
As Autumn approached and IRA raids and attacks continued a policy of more targeted reprisals was introduced. If the IRA attacked British forces the Tans would torch a creamery.
From mid 1920 to 1921 a total of 48 creameries – the vast majority of them in Munster – were burned, six of them twice. In Kerry seven creameries were attacked and destroyed.
In a modern context attacking a creamery may seem an unusually move but in 1920 the local creamery and its co-operative was the life blood of its area. Destroying a creamery was a brutal attack on an entire community that would starve its people of food and their income.
As methods of repression go the practice was particularly callous and cruel.
It was also spectacularly misjudged.
By 1920 a population that had initially condemned the rebels of the Rising was by now fervently republican and Sinn Féin and the IRA had widespread support.
A campaign of repression and reprisal attacks – like those on the creameries – served only to drive more men and women into the ranks of the IRA. The campaign of repression – and the creation of the Black and Tans – may have been designed to stamp out resistance but in the end it would only serve to swing the war in Ireland’s favour.
The British atrocities and repression were not going unnoticed around the world either and by summer 1920 there were scores of British and international journalists covering the growing war in Ireland.
Sooner or later the Tan’s creamery burning campaign was bound to be noticed and highlighted by the press.
As it turned out it was Hugh Martin The Daily News’ Special Correspondent in Ireland and a reporter from the Manchester Guardian – now The Guardian – that broke the story.
The reporters detailed attacks on numerous creameries but much of their reportage was focussed on two attacks that occurred in Kerry .
These were the burning of Abbeydorney Cooperative Creamery on October 12 and Lixnaw creamery a month earlier.
By this point stories of British forces’ heavy handed approach in Ireland were nothing new but the revelations about a campaign that seemed to specifically target the people shocked many among the British public.
Such was the outrage that the issue – and specifically the creamery attacks in Kerry – was raised in Parliament and the Chief Secretary for Ireland Sir Hamar Greenwood was quizzed about the attacks.
The MP and former naval officer Joseph Kenworthy raised the events in Abbeydorney where, he told parliament, “three lorry loads of police” in RIC and Black and Tan uniform had raided and robbed the creamery; beaten its manager and burned the building down.
Kenworthy described how, two days after the attack, an RIC Inspector called to the creamery to enquire about the damage.
“The Inspector was accompanied by six constables. The creamery staff positively identified three of the six as having taken part in the original raid. I suppose the District Inspector made local inquiries and asked these police, who were in at the business, to give information. I suppose he then sent a long report to Dublin Castle?” Kenworthy asked.
He added that the shareholders in the creamery would be “jolly lucky if it is not decided to teach them another lesson by burning down more property.”
MP Alfred Waterson provided further details of the Abbeydorney attack and asked Greenwood “what steps are being taken to prevent the servants of the Crown from carrying out attacks on the person?”He also asked if compensation would be paid by the Crown and if a public enquiry would be set up.
Sir Hamar Greenwood – who a few months later would blame the people of Cork for burning down their own city after it was incinerated by the Black and Tans – was having none of it and he did his best to divert responsibility from the paramilitary force that he oversaw.
“No clue can be obtained as to the identity of the persons who committed this destruction,” Greenwood told the parliament.
“The manager of the creamery alleges that he was assaulted, but the police have no information as to this beyond his own statement or as to the alleged removal of quantities of butter and cheese,” he added.
Greenwood’s most ludicrous reply came when he was asked by Irish journalist and MP Joseph Devlin if it was indeed true that investigations into the attacks were being led by the suspects’ own superior officers.
“The superior officers of the men who are charged with reprisals are the officers most interested in the discipline of the respective units,” Greenwood proclaimed.