Another Look at the Black and Tans: Daniel Masterson on Northern Ireland
Ms. Hart is an award-winning journalist who has covered international affairs and historical topics in her writing.
In June 2010 the British government revealed its long-awaited judgment in the emotionally charged case of “Bloody Sunday,” also known as the “Bogside Massacre.” Nearly forty years earlier, on January 30, 1972, in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland, thirteen protesters, many of them teenagers, were shot dead by British paratroopers during a civil rights demonstration held by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to protest discriminatory practices against Catholics, as well as internment without trial of suspected IRA members. Another thirteen Derry protesters were wounded; a fourteenth protester died later of gunshot wounds. In the British inquiry that followed, soldiers and officers from “Para 1” were absolved of guilt. But sixteen years later, in 1998, under popular pressure, the British government re-opened its inquiry. Another twelve years later, following the longest and most expensive inquiry in British history, with 5,000 pages of testimony to back its findings, the Saville Commission announced that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable.”
Professor Daniel Masterson teaches history at the United States Naval Academy, specializing in modern Irish history and politics. He is currently at work on a book to be called The Black and Tans and Irish Memory, a history of the role of the British anti-insurgency auxiliary military corps in the Irish War of Independence in 1920-1921.
Priscilla Hart: You have just returned from a research trip to Belfast and Dublin. How did you become interested in Irish history?
Daniel Masterson: My mother and father were born in County Westmeath, in the heart of the Republic of Ireland, and later emigrated to the United States. At the time of the Irish Revolution and the Irish Civil War they were teenagers. I was only mildly interested in Irish history as a child. My experience was like that of other children of immigrant parents, but I did occasionally ask about their childhood experiences and the subject of the Black and Tans did come up. My interest in Irish history evolved over time, but I didn’t find that window of opportunity to really look at Ireland until much later. Working on the history of the Black and Tans has brought me back to Ireland in an important way. I am finally taking the time to be more in touch. I did visit Ireland briefly in 1970s on my way to Europe, and visited the family farm in Westmeath. Ireland was still mired in poverty at that time, not as desperately poor as in the early part of the century, but still poor. My family in America had always looked upon the Irish back home as a poverty-bound people, and we sent remittance such as clothes to the relatives in Ireland. My family in Westmeath were dairy farmers.
My father was fiercely anti-British. He thought that the British were intent upon the subjugation of their colonial peoples. But what he really focused on was the British ruling class, not the people of Britain, and he spoke fiercely about “British policy” and the “venal motivations” behind it. He had intelligently framed working-class views.
My mother’s step-brother was heavily involved in the IRA during the Irish Revolution, in the IRA’s “retribution activities”—which you may interpret any way you wish—and the Black and Tans were looking for him. He left after the Revolution for New York City.
It was from my mother that I heard about the Black and Tans. She would tell stories of the Black and Tans breaking into her family’s home, and the shoot-out at her school in the small town of Fore in Westmeath between the IRA and either the British Army or, very likely, the Black and Tans. My father was also involved with the Irish revolution as a teenager. Very likely he ran guns and did other support work.
Hart: What does the story behind the Saville Report reveal about the violent 30-year era of “the Troubles” that began with Northern Irish Catholic demands for civil rights and escalated in 1969 with the armed campaigns of the paramilitary Ulster Defense Force and the IRA? How would you assess “Operation Banner,” the British military peace-keeping mission in Northern Ireland which ran from 1969 to 2007 and which critics dubbed an occupation force?
Masterson: I was in Ireland the day the Saville Report came out. London literally waited for a decade of peace and reconciliation to be underway in Ireland before it saw fit to release the document. That process of peace and reconciliation has really been about healing, if we want to use that word. You can pick apart the way the investigation was done, but it also has had an effect in the British contribution to the healing process, and so it is important for that reason. But the Saville Report really did take too long and reflects British inaction on the matter, especially considering that Tony Blair had already apologized for British policy during the Irish Famine.
The British also chose not to include a broad spectrum of participants in the report. There was no permanent constituency representing those people “on the ground” on Bloody Sunday. If you look at Truth and Reconciliation commissions working in other countries—say in Argentina, Chile, and Peru—these groups take two to three years to produce their findings at most, because beyond that, they lose steam. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are comprehensive in scale and they use thousands of their own citizens. Argentina did its investigation after tens of thousands of Argentines were killed in a premeditated manner by the military junta. Peru did its investigation after the killings by the Sendero Luminoso terrorists and Peruvian military forces. Jurists, human rights organizations, university professors, citizens groups and members of the military were all brought in.
Regarding Bloody Sunday itself, what happened was what happens with every occupying force. The British troops had a sense of fear and loathing about the threat of the “enemy” around them. They called protesting Catholic “Bog Wogs” and developed intense feelings that frequently manifested in violence. This does not justify what they did. The events of Bloody Sunday were in some respects similar to what the Black and Tans did in 1920-1921. The British troops on Bloody Sunday and the auxiliary forces during the Irish Revolution were both basically given free reign to retaliate. In the 1920s the British government called them “official reprisals.”
When I was in London in the early 1970s, I spoke with one British soldier who had served in Northern Ireland. He said, “I remember being told when the British troops were sent that we were ‘only going to be there a short while,’ and I remember thinking, ‘That statement is highly questionable, British troops will be there for a very long time.’” He was completely correct.
There is still an astonishing lack of clarity about Bloody Sunday. Some still say that Martin McGuiness (second-in-command of the IRA) was carrying a machine gun under his raincoat during the march. Was this true? Was this a rumor? Was this disinformation? The British have been very skilled at both their intelligence and disinformation campaigns. Historians will not have access to records for the later Troubles for a long time, if ever.
Hart: What is the likely outcome of prosecution of the British soldiers and officers?
Masterson: Prosecutions will not be imminent. If it has taken this long for the Report to come out, how long will it take for the courts? And who will be prosecuted? Officers? The enlisted men? The policymakers? By the time prosecution starts, how old will the participants in the Bloody Sunday killings be? Many of the soldiers were in their twenties and thirties in 1972, so they could be in their sixties or seventies, if not older, if and when they are charged with anything. How high up could prosecution go with the policy makers? Well, in the case of Argentina, it went as high as the president. Bono and others seem to be more excited about an apology from Prime Minister David Cameron than about prosecution. It seems some are easily satisfied with just an apology. In addition, as far as I know, the language of the Saville Report does not specifically refer to the “illegality” of the actions of the British troops. So the language is important.
You can criticize the process, as I have done, but it will contribute positively to the healing process, and so it is important for that reason. I saw a very positive climate of reconciliation when I was in Belfast in June 2010. It would be instructive for a visitor to spend time in the Linen Hall Library and the Ulster Museum and see their displays on “Troubles.” These displays are instructive and completely impartial.
Hart: Are the Troubles really over? With the signing of the 1998 power-sharing “Good Friday Agreement” between Northern Irish Catholic Nationalists, Protestant Unionists, the Republic of Ireland and British government, the peace process envisioned by Ulster Unionist David Trimble and Catholic moderate John Hume got underway, and has since been vaunted as a model for reconciliation efforts in other countries. The chief stakes were that the IRA agree to disarm and pursue Irish reunification only if a Northern Irish majority approved it, that paramilitary organizations decommission, and that the British government end “direct rule” from London after thirty years and recognize Sinn Fein (IRA’s political branch) as a legitimate party. The predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary police force (RUC) founded in 1922 was also to be reformed and reorganized. For their efforts, Trimble and Hume received the Nobel Peace Prize. Why do riots and bombing continue?
Masterson: The divisions in Northern Ireland do not just reflect religious conflicts, the Catholic-Protestant divide. They also reflect different ways of life and economic fears. As much as Catholics have chafed at discrimination directed towards them, the Protestants fear for their own future in a united Ireland. Catholics experienced a kind of apartheid under the Penal Laws (imposed by Protestant monarchs from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries). While this would not happen to Protestants today, they fear being in the position of a minority.
There are still a lot of tensions. After I left, disturbances broke out in reaction to the Orange Day Parade in Belfast, the annual marches held in honor of William of Orange (the Protestant king who defeated the Irish-French forces supporting English Catholic king James II in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne). The Orange Day parade has been held for generations in Belfast with legal sanctions. The Orange Order has not been benign. The Orange Day Parade runs through Catholic areas of the city and according to my source, a former member of the Unionist Ulster Defense Force, some marchers and hostile bystanders played the well-developed sport of “recreational rioting.”
But the young people of Northern Ireland are not concerned with unification. They are much more involved in living their own lives. Focusing on the past conflicts seems counterproductive. They have heard these arguments all their lives and they want to move on. It’s as if they are saying, “I don’t want to go back to the deep prejudices of the past.” And unlike previous generations they are leading reasonably prosperous lives. With the Republic of Ireland’s recent economic difficulties, their concern about their futures has heightened.
Today there are only fringe elements of the IRA—and among them one group calling itself the “Real IRA.” This group shot a policeman a year ago and set off a bomb in Belfast this summer. The power-sharing that has been going on since Good Friday is a miracle in itself. Northern Ireland’s peace process has provided a model for reconciliation efforts in other countries. The coalition is working for now. It is a miracle because of the remarkable concessions on the part of both sides. One side essentially gave up the idea of the reunification of the south.
We have Martin McGuinness, now deputy First Minister, who—to put it mildly—had an active IRA past. And Gerry Adams, head of the Sinn Fein party, is now treated like a statesman and is traveling quite widely talking about a “federated solution” for Ireland.
Hart: How will the religious makeup of Northern Ireland—once calculated at 33% Catholic and 67% Protestant—and its socio-economic divisions, affect its future?
Masterson: The demographics are changing. Before in Northern Ireland there was a two-third Catholic and one-third Protestant split. Now what we’re seeing emerge is a 55% Protestant and 45% Catholic split and many are anticipating a Catholic majority within a few decades. The cities are now primarily Catholic. This demographic change would mean that the Protestants of Northern Ireland would be in the minority. Could the tables be turned on the Protestant minority, as they were on the Catholic minority? Unlikely. Could this mean that the Northern Irish Catholics would vote for reunification? Probably not. When you consider the implications of reunification, they are not good. The Celtic Tiger is dead. The boom itself was sustained on false assumptions about banking, foreign investment, and housing. Ireland is currently an economic crisis and economic prospects are not as attractive as they were before.
Protestants do worry, though, what will happen to them in a Catholic Northern Ireland. Alexis de Toqueville spoke of tyranny of the majority: if you are a minority without a clear and authoritative voice, even being in a democracy does not help you too much. Gerry Adams is speaking of a future federated parliamentary system. This makes sense. He says that without a federated system in Northern Ireland, without safeguards for a Protestant minority, no long-term solution will be possible. The goal is a functioning Northern Ireland that can economically relate to the Republic of Ireland within the framework of the European Union.
Hart: Modern “nationalism” itself has been a conflict over “Home Rule,” implying degrees of autonomy within a larger British framework—either the British Empire or later a British Commonwealth of Nations—or complete political independence of Britain, called “republicanism.” When the War of Independence ended in 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty allowed twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two states to have self-governing dominion status within the British Empire while six contiguous northern counties opted to stay apart from the new Irish Free State, thus splitting the Irish into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty forces and triggering the Irish Civil War. The anti-Treaty forces lost. How did these unresolved nationalist visions shape the future?
Masterson: Churchill, among others, did not want it to appear that Ireland had carried out a successful break from the British Crown. He looked at what was happening all over the Empire—in India, in Egypt, and elsewhere and saw the birth of an Irish Republic on Britain’s back door as completely unacceptable. It would be a precedent the Britain must not allow for its possible consequences in the rest of the Empire. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was extremely controversial, considered a sell-out by some Irish leaders, an incomplete part of the process by others. Eamon de Valera walked out of the Dail, the Irish parliament. Others like Ernie O’Malley and Cathal Brugha, who had fought British troops and the brutal Black and Tans, could not stomach making deals with the British elite. But Irish revolutionary commander Michael Collins accepted the Treaty as a transitory process, as a step by which the complete independence of Ireland could be achieved. After the Civil War, the Anglo-Irish treaty created a “dominion state” in southern Ireland with general autonomy. But there would be no autonomy with regard to naval rights in Irish ports (which kept British ships), taxes for the paying of British debt, and the oath of allegiance to the British king. The oath of allegiance to the British king rankled the Irish to no end. De Valera, who despite backing the losing side in the civil war became the prime minister, then directed the creation of a Catholic farming nation that remained deeply poor and conservative until the 1990s. In 1949 Ireland became the Republic of Ireland, no longer obliged to give naval rights or allegiance to the British monarch. Northern Ireland remained frightened of the prospect of being unified with the “poor south,” and had a different vision with ties to a large industrial nation. “Why would we want to be associated with the south?” they asked. “It offers us little.”
Hart: Has IRA militancy been a formidable symbol for other insurgent nationalist groups around the world? Journalist Mary-Kate Cary of U.S. News reported that, “As we drove past the graveyard where the Bloody Sunday victims lie buried, I was disturbed to see more than one Palestinian flag flying in the Catholic neighborhoods.”
Masterson: Yes, IRA militancy has been influential in revolutionary movements around the world. In the 1920s and beyond it was for the Bengalis fighting British rule in India. It is extremely influential today with a range of political movements. Military analysts are studying this very closely.
Hart: What new perspective do you hope to offer in your book about the Blacks and Tans? Robert Kee writes both critically and sympathetically about the force, examining both its abuses and reprisal system and its response to Sinn Fein’s killing campaign. The Irish who experienced Black and Tans atrocities called the force “the sweepings of England’s gaols [jails],” implying that they were recruits not up to the task of appropriate military discipline. Kee states that they were in fact “demobilized World War I veterans” who “went on a rampage” when confronted with the perceived and actual menace of the Irish Republican Army. Are both descriptions correct?
Masterson: I am doing extensive interviews in Ireland, England and the United States with people who participated in the Revolution to see how they perceive the Black and Tans. I am also using the National Archives in Dublin, and they are very useful. When the British left Ireland, they took British government records kept in Dublin Castle with them. As a result of this loss, the Irish have attempted to reconstruct the events of the Irish Revolution by collecting the testimony of 1,300 participants in the war, many of them local leaders. These were kept in the Bureau of Irish History and transcribed in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In 2004 they were released. They are only now beginning to be reviewed by scholars. It is a job waiting to be done.
One of my living sources is Risteard Mulcahy, the son of the IRA’s chief of staff during the Revolution, who is a doctor in his eighties now living in Dublin. Last summer, we spoke about the tragedies of the 1916 uprising against British rule and the Black and Tans, and as Mulcahy put it, “The 1916 Uprising made Home Rule impossible, and the Black and Tans made the Civil War inevitable.” What he meant was that the Easter Uprising so energized the Irish population that it was very difficult to accept home rule.
But the Uprising was doomed from the beginning. Its static nature was tactically unwise. Quite a few civilians were killed in the process. When the IRA leaders surrendered, they were identified by the Dublin metropolitan police and spies. They were summarily tried and put to death.Had the rebels not been executed, the outcry would have been greatly diminished.
This was in 1916, during the First World War, and Irishmen had enlisted to fight for Britain. The people in Dublin were angry at the IRA for its activities, and they thought the IRA was stabbing them in the back by undermining the war effort and putting Irish soldiers in a bad way. But because the Irish viewed the executions as going too far, they became sympathetic to the Republican cause.
The IRA fighters who were not executed were jailed in Ireland and Wales. These prisons then became schools for revolutionary planning. When general amnesty came at the end of World War I, these former POWS were released—and ready to rumble. They had rethought military strategy, and the nature of warfare changed before their very eyes. In this way they rethought and reshaped the nature of the rebellion. They considered how Cromwell had obliterated the Irish with artillery bombardment. They considered how Britain in 1798 again slaughtered the United Irishmen who fought in traditional military formation. So the IRA replaced the old ways with urban and rural guerilla warfare during the Revolution.
The classic manual on the new warfare was Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom, published in 1924. Breen was an IRA commander who worked with Michael Collins. When Breen’s book came out Indian revolutionaries in Bengal got hold of it and said, “Yes! This is what we are looking for!” Breen was the poster boy for radical Irish republicanism. Breen advocated shooting British officers at any sign of resistance. He was a tough, tough, mean-spirited guy. He was a man of strong convictions and when he was elected to the Irish Parliament he carried a revolver under his suitcase.
The witness statements I am working with in Dublin Castle include those of the Irish police officers who served as spies for IRA commander Michael Collins. There are also the records for the auxiliary force and the Black and Tans. My aim is to get the personal points-of-view of the participants. For decades the Black and Tans have been the faceless bogeymen of Ireland. As far away as British-ruled India, the name of the Black and Tans was invoked with dread. Black and Tan volunteers were recruited in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Churchill supported the idea to bring them in and later suggested the use of former officers from World War I to serve in mobile auxiliary units. These forces were technically members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
But the Black and Tans were not doing police duty. The auxiliaries were an elite force of ex-officers. They were brought in to augment the police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary.
I am looking at their backgrounds, where they grew up, and their military service. Ninety percent of the Black and Tans were veterans. It was part of IRA propaganda to say that they came out of British jails and were low-level criminals. The term that is often used is “the sweepings of the English jails.” These were war veterans, but they were literally footloose, and were still looking for the adrenaline rush of war. As veterans of World War I, they had to live with the experiences of that war and all of its horrors. Some, possibly many, were alcoholics—the consumption of alcohol by the Black and Tans and auxiliaries was enormous, both on and off duty. Now, as auxiliary forces in Ireland, they were confronting a kind of irregular warfare. So we must consider several things.
First, how could they have come from the war completely intact? Second, how did their disdain for the Irish inform their actions in Ireland? We must remember that at least 25 percent of the Black and Tans were Irish, but most seem to have come from Ulster’s Protestant districts. Third, to what extent did they perceive themselves as continually under attack? The experience of British soldiers in Northern Ireland in the 1970s replicated this. Fourth, where were these officers’ loyalties? Some of them no doubt had strained relations with the British government after fighting in the war. This lead to the indiscipline that characterized their actions in Ireland. Fifth, there was the usual bonding of soldiers under fire. The policy was that if one soldier was shot, the reprisal would be immediate and brutal. That meant burning a house, rousting suspects, shooting without trial. Under General Tudor, the auxiliaries were called “Tudor’s Toughs.”
Reprisals were common in nineteenth century warfare. When Union forces were confronted by Confederate snipers during the American Civil War, for example, they burned a village down. In Ireland, these reprisals were generically called “outrages”—both sides used the term. When the IRA used IEDs—improvised explosive devices—they were able to disable British armored cars and then killed or wounded the occupants. Flash forward to Iraq and Afghanistan. Ireland in the period of 1921-1923 holds many lessons for contemporary military conflict.
But very different men made up the Black and Tans. Wesley Craven, for example, who was shot in an IRA ambush, represented the very best of this group. During the war he served in the Royal Navy, which was unusual for the auxiliaries since most came from the army. As a commander in the North Sea Craven helped rescue of hundreds of American sailors from drowning. This fine officer survived all the dangers of war and then dies in an ambush on a lonely road in County Louth.
The war hero Craven is at one extreme. Vernon Hart at the other. Hart farmed in New Zealand and Australia and then enlisted in the British Army. Hart served in several major engagements and survived. In Ireland he was caught in an IRA ambush in County Cork in which a close friend was critically wounded. Hart stayed with his friend, who was in great pain, until he died a few days later. Drinking heavily, Hart, while on patrol, dismounted from his troop carrier and shot a twenty-one-year-old retarded man and a Catholic priest with no provocation. One British official upon being notified of these murders lamented, “He has done more to damage our cause than anything else.”
Like Hart almost all the Black and Tans drank heavily, and drank on duty. It should be noted that this was also common among Hitler’s mobile killing squads of German police in Poland and Russia during World War II. Was Hart the typical Black and Tan in Ireland or was Craven? Obviously the answer lies somewhere between. But it will be clearly helpful to pull away the shroud of myth for a clearer look at these heretofore faceless bogeymen of Ireland.
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MICHAEL JOSEPH BROWNE - 4/10/2011
I always understood that the British opened the prisons and put the men in uniforms. That was where the Black and Tans came from. Now I am supposed to believe that they were demobilized troops from the WWI. I suppose if it is in print then I must believe it. Hmmmmmmmmm!
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