The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Having seen Ken Loach’s excellent The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the Palme d’Or winner at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, a few days ago, I have been wondering ever since whether or not the Black and Tans’ action in Ireland could have possibly have been as brutal as Loach and his screen writer Paul Laverty would have us believe.

Of course, having grown up in Ireland, I was encouraged to believe that  the Black and Tans, or Tans as they were sometimes called, were probably the most brutal force ever to set foot in Ireland since the Cromwellian campaign of the mid 17th century.

To confirm that what I’d always believed was true, I’ve just dipped, as I always do when I need examine something like this, into A Dictionary of Irish History Since 1800 (Gill and Macmllian) to see what my friend Jim Doherty, one of its editors, had to say on the subject:

Black and Tans During the War of Independence, the Royal Irish constabulary became a particular target of the Irish Republican Army and recruitment into the regular police force suffered. The government recruited a new force in England from among the demobilised which was intended to supplement the RIC. The body was placed under the new Commander in Chief of the forces in Ireland General Sir Neville Macready. There was a shortage of RIC uniforms for the new force and accordingly they were issues with khaki trousers (military) and dark green tunics (police). The combination reminded people of Munster of the famous County Limerick hunt, the Scarteen Black and Tans. The Black and Tans were located principally in trouble spots of Clare, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Kilkenny, Limerick, Mayo, Meath and Tipperary. The notoriety which they have earned stemmed from the ferocity of their reprisals to IRA successes. Some of the incidents with which they were associated included the burnings of Buff, Co. Limerick; Killmallock, Co Limerick; Balbriggan, Co. Dublin; Cork City; Milltown Malbay, Co. Clare; Lahinch Co. Clare; Ennistymon, Co, Clare; Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo; Midleton, Co Cork and Trim, Co Meath. They were also responsible for the murders of Tomas MacCurtain, George Clancy and Michael O’Callaghan, and the killings in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday 21 November 1920.

Considering that they were only in Ireland from 1920 to 1922, they appear, from Jim’s account, to have done some considerable damage. I’ve also discovered, from checking up on another reference, that here is no reason to believe that this was a force out of control. This is the advice given by the force’s Munster divisional commander:

“If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter.Let them die there – the more the merrier. Should the order (“Hands Up”) not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.” 

(Lt. Col. Gerald Smyth, June 1920)

So there is no reason to think that Loach or Laverty are exaggerating all that much when they portray them as a ferocious bunch of thugs bent on making the rebellious Irish pay the highest prices possible for their attacks on the Crown forces.  


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