Irish war of independence

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It’s March 1920, and in Ireland, the war for independence from Britain has entered its second year. With the police unable to contain the rebellion, Britain turns to veterans of the Great War to restore order. But the so-called Black and Tans would soon find that fighting in Ireland was much different than the trenches of the Western Front.

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Hi, I'm Jesse Alexander and welcome to the Great War. In the spring of 1920, conflict between Ireland and Britain was certainly nothing new. But during the Great War, tensions had risen over the concept of Home Rule for Ireland and culminated in the Easter Uprising of 1916. By 1919, the violence had grown into a low intensity war for Irish independence. So, let’s take a look at the events surrounding the arrival of the Black and Tans in Ireland in March 1920, exactly 100 years ago, up until the summer of that year.


When the Great War began in 1914, the political expression of the desire for Irish independence was the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). The IPP sat in parliament in London and hoped to achieve self-rule through political means. They argued that British government control in Ireland, based at Dublin Castle,  was archaic, non-representative and inefficient. The British administration, they said, was a cumbersome bureaucracy dominated by a Protestant elite, even though most of the population was Catholic. Some English politicians even agreed, like Liberal Party politician John Morely, who described Dublin Castle as:

“The best machine that has ever been invented for governing a country against its will.” (Hopkinson 4)

By 1914, the IPP’s popularity had led to a reduction of centralized British control, culminating in the Third Home Rule Act which promised even more reforms. But even though the outbreak of war had helped the act get passed, because of the war the British government delayed it from coming into force. This meant that Irish republicans who favoured independence feared the because the government supported Protestant Unionists in Ireland who opposed independence. 

To some, the political route to independence favoured by the IPP was not working, and smaller, more radical groups who were willing to take up arms now became more prominent. On Easter 1916, around 1,000 pro-independence members of two radical groups, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, seized key buildings in Dublin and announced a free Irish government. The British sent in the troops, and the uprising was put down at a cost of 485 lives, over half of them civilians.

The Rising’s importance was clear to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, who was very concerned about getting the US to join the war at the time. He made a grim prediction about the impact on the large Irish-American population:

“In six months the war will be lost… the Irish-American vote will go over to the German side. They will break our blockade and force an ignominious peace on us, unless something is done… to satisfy America.” (Hopkinson 4)

Well, the US did eventually join the war on the Allied side, but developments in Ireland continued. In the 1918 general election, a new and more radical party burst onto the scene. Sinn Fein, or We Ourselves, was a small party with links to the Easter Rising and Irish Volunteers. In the 1918 vote, the party won three quarters of Irish seats in the British parliament, and the moderate IPP was crushed. 

But Sinn Fein refused to send its MPs to London. Instead, the party president, Éamon de Valera, announced the creation of an independent Irish parliament, the Dáil. The self-proclaimed Irish state looked to America for help, but when none came it prepared for armed conflict with Britain. Sinn Fein created a headquarters for the Irish Volunteers, now known as the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. In reality though, most IRA groups acted independently, and some even resented interference from Sinn Fein’s quote “Dublin pen-pushers.”


So, in early 1919, tensions in Ireland were running high. Many anticipated the first session of the Irish parliament, but it was a much smaller event that would have a larger impact on events to come.


The Irish parliament sat for the first time January 21st 1919, which was mostly a symbolic session. Many members could not attend, and it had little actual control in Ireland. The parliament did, however, demand the end of British rule:

“We solemnly declare foreign government in Ireland to be an invasion of our national right which we will never tolerate, and we demand the evacuation of our country by the English garrison.” (Hopkinson 208)

Despite the fact that there was now an Irish parliament, the British were still in control, most visibly in the form of the police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, or RIC. To republicans, the RIC was an occupying force, and on the same day as the Dáil met, a small group of IRA men decided to ambush a shipment of explosives being transported by horse cart through the Tipperary countryside.

The IRA men were armed with one lever action Winchester rifle and several revolvers, and lay in wait for hours until the shipment arrived. The ambushers jumped out and demanded the two policemen, who were also Irish, surrender. But the RIC men ducked behind the cart and appeared to prepare their rifles, so the IRA men opened fire and both policemen were killed.

This incident is known as the Soloheadbeg Ambush, and even though it was not officially sanctioned by Sinn Fein, it is often seen as the start of the Irish War of Independence because of its important consequences. But the British government did not want to call it a war, since that might legitimate the Irish state. Instead, the Prime Minister considered the incident as an armed crime, and said that cleaning up the problem would quote

“a policeman’s job supported by the military and not vice versa”. (Lowe 47)


The Soloheadbeg ambush was the first armed violence since the Easter Rising, but similar attacks soon became commonplace. Usually, the police were outnumbered and outgunned – what the British needed were men who knew how to fight, and in 1920, there were plenty of those.


By early 1920, the Royal Irish Constabulary was in crisis. It was a local police force mostly staffed with local Irish Catholics, but since its violent response to the Easter Rising, recruitment had dropped off. And as a civilian police force, it was not equipped or trained for the attacks against it. So with Ireland threatening to become unpoliceable, the RIC turned to Great War veterans for experienced recruits. Officially, they were to be titled the RIC Special Reserve and entered service on March 25th 1920. But the public nicknamed them the Black and Tans, because they often wore parts of khaki army uniforms given the shortage of the traditional green uniforms of the RIC. Sometimes another RIC group, the Auxiliary Division, is also called Black and Tans, but they were a distinct force and will be discussed later.

The Black and Tans soon developed a reputation among many for brutal reprisals and public terror that persists until today.  Some Sinn Fein and IRA members even suggested the Black and Tans were mostly former criminals, claiming the British government offered prisoners pardons in return for service. In 1926, Piaras Béaslaí - an Irish writer and member of the Easter Rising - wrote:

“The Black and Tans were largely drawn from the criminal classes, and authentic cases were discovered where they had been released by the beneficent Government from penal servitude, incurred through revolting crimes, to enable them to bring the lights of English law and order to Ireland. They were, in short, dirty tools for a dirty job.” (Leeson 69)

More recent research has revealed this is unlikely to be the case. Only around 0.6% had criminal records before the war, and a potential recruit needed an army character rating of “good” or better to join. The average Black and Tan was likely English, from London or southern England, from the urban working class, and between 18 and 24 years old. 1 in 5 were Irish – though these were mostly Protestant, as were the English. Only 1 in 5 of the 13,000 Black and Tans were Catholic. About two-thirds of the Special Reserve were former soldiers, mostly infantry, but few came directly from the army. Most had already been demobilized into civilian life, and many joined to escape unemployment for the good pay in the RIC. 

But, although the Black and Tans may not have all been criminals in uniform, there are reasons for the violent reputation they earned. For one thing, the mostly Protestant and English policemen were not likely suited to work with an Irish population that was largely rural and Catholic. Especially without proper training, which they didn’t get. The urgency to fill the ranks meant that police training was sacrificed in favour of military training. Former Special Reservist Douglas Duff wrote that training for infantrymen only lasted three days, and consisted mostly of shooting and grenade practice, with only a single class on policing:

“As far as I remember, the schoolmaster was lecturing on some point of the Game Laws. We solemnly listened for an hour and were then dismissed to our companies as fully trained policemen, ready for duty with the public”. (Leeson 78)

This lack of training, combined with the pressures of counter-insurgency combat, goes some way to explaining their reputation and actions. The Black and Tans, once they had been recruited, were indeed more likely to commit criminal acts than the average soldier, with 18% being punished for disciplinary problems, including bank robbery, and 8% being dismissed – twice the proportion of disciplinary dismissals in the regular army.


So the overmatched police were trying to adapt to the growing insecurity and unpredictability of the situation in Ireland. But for the former soldiers of the RIC Special Reserve, the enemy they were fighting was worlds apart from the Germans they’d faced in the Great War.


When the new Irish government was announced, some Sinn Fein politicians advocated for fighting Britain in a conventional war, as this would help legitimate the Irish cause. This was quickly seen as impractical and in order to have any chance against experienced British troops, the IRA would need to play to its asymmetrical strengths.

But the IRA did not fully abandon standard military organisation. The force was split into different companies, brigades and battalions along British lines, with a company roughly equating to a single village or parish, and a brigade with a county. The exact makeup and numbers of these groups was quite variable. 

Early IRA leaders were often also local notables, such as successful farmers or even accomplished athletes. Generally they were selected not for military skill, but for physical presence and force of personality - which caused some issues early on. John McCoy, a member of the South Armagh IRA battalion, described his first commander:

“Our first captain was selected for his fine physique, football ability and his decency of character. He was a local farmer without the organising ability or the sense of discipline necessary to make a successful officer.” (Hopkinson 15)

School teachers were also commonly involved, to oversee recruitment and political education of the troops. 

In time, the IRA developed what they called ‘flying columns’ - groups of around 25 men who could form up, attack and then disappear at very short notice. These columns became the main means of striking against the police as the war continued.

The IRA were also decentralised in terms of arms and equipment. Many of the early attacks of 1919 and 1920 were mostly concerned with stealing arms and ammunition - which were always in demand. This meant they were often armed with whatever weapons they could find. One South Tipperary IRA company had 15 different types of rifle, and home made bombs and mines were also part of the IRA arsenal.

The individual and irregular nature of IRA companies often caused friction with the central command in Dublin, but it also provided some important benefits. The local character of the companies meant that many Irish began to increasingly support and identify with ‘their boys’. Locals were often related to the fighters, knew each other, or at least socialized in the same pub. Also, the IRA structure provided tactical and organisational flexibility. Writer and former IRA member Florrie O’Donoghue explained:

“The democratic organisation of the Volunteers and the impossibility in the circumstances of any tight control by the headquarters staff permitted and encouraged the development of local initiative on a scale quite abnormal in a regular army.” (Hopkinson 16)


This new type of army also brought a new type of fighting - in which large scale battles were a thing of the past. Instead, as one historian put it, the Irish conflict was a war in which

“the guerillas did most of the fighting, and the police did most of the dying.” (Leeson 130)


The vast majority of combat during the Irish War of Independence were instigated by the IRA, usually against isolated and vulnerable police patrols and barracks. This was the only way the IRA could counter the superior military strength of the RIC. This made for a war that has been described as one of ‘in betweenness’, where frontlines were ambiguous, soldiers and civilians were indistinguishable and war and peace coexisted in an uneasy balance. And for both sides, although combat was small scale and rare, when it did happen it was deadly. (Leeson 96) 

If a firefight lasted for any length of time, it would likely be won by the police, sometimes due to the IRA’s lack of ammunition. The IRA therefore preferred ambushes, surprise attacks on barracks, and only the occasional direct encounter. 

In particular, ambushes on RIC patrols and supply convoys soon became the preferred method of attack for IRA forces. They would usually only involve a handful of men on both sides, but these skirmishes heavily favoured the IRA. They could choose the location, and pick a spot with minimal cover for the police, and prevent speedy reinforcement. They were also able to avoid conflict if a patrol appeared too strong, or fire first if it did not.

Seamus Conway, an IRA fighter, described a typical ambush:

“In a brief space of time two lorries… approached. The mine on being exploded blew the front part off the first lorry, bringing it to a standstill and throwing out the occupants. The second lorry pulled up behind this and concentrated rifle fire was brought to bear on it. Its occupants jumped, and dived for cover, a good many of them knocked out as they did so. Cover at this point was scarce. They got their Lewis gun into operation immediately, but after a few bursts, the gunner was knocked out and the guns did not get into action any more.” (Leeson 138)

RIC and Black and Tan accounts of ambushes are often filled with anecdotes of firing blindly at “spurts of flame” or “flashes”. They could rarely see their attackers, let alone fire back with any real effect.

Although these ambushes were quite small scale, they became enormously influential in both Ireland and Britain, to the extent the timeline of the war is often divided up between notable ambushes. Historian Michael Hopkinson explains:

“In terms of the scale of fighting, [ambushes] appear piffling affairs by comparison with the Somme but they still had enormous consequences for British policy in Ireland. Successful ambushes made a deep impression on the public consciousness and remain the stuff of legend in the Irish countryside; signposts in Cork and Tipperary direct the traveller to ambush sites and not to stately homes.” (Hopkinson 74)

Attacks against fortified RIC barracks, on the other hand, were a much more complex affair. They became more common as the war went on, and regardless of the outcome still served to increase morale and show that the IRA were on the offensive. More often than not, the IRA attackers were repelled, but the occasional victories were strategically significant for the Irish.

Over time, police barracks would be reinforced with barbed wire, high walls, mesh firing ports, periscopes and other defences. But even an unsuccessful IRA attack could force the Black and Tans to abandon a position and fall back to a safer area. Bombs and mines were increasingly used to blow a hole in barracks defences, and the explosion alone often triggered the surrender of the police inside.

Encounter battles were the exception. These involved the police taking the initiative and seeking out IRA cells in the countryside. Usually, if the IRA unit was discovered and unprepared to fight, they tried to flee or surrendered. But finding them unawares in the first place was extremely rare, as the IRA’s flying columns would often only form in anticipation for an attack of theirs. For example, in South Ireland, the RIC’s 6th Division General Staff recorded 177 IRA attacks on police but only 12 attacks by the police against the IRA.


And so, in this in-between irregular warfare, the IRA did not need tactical victories for strategic success, and chose its battles carefully. Every death of an RIC policeman had major implications for the war in general, even if casualties - by most standards - were quite low.


Throughout 1919, only 15 policemen were killed in the fighting, but this drastically increased to 143 in 1920. But even though the overall casualty rate in the RIC was low, for those involved in combat it was extremely high. In cases of IRA attacks, only 34 percent of the police escaped unharmed, 24 percent were killed, and 42 percent wounded. In high profile cases, entire patrols could be virtually wiped out.

In some particularly active areas, like Cork, the ratio of killed to wounded was 1:1, much higher than the Great War ration of 1:4. These numbers can partly be explained by the weapons used, as there was no artillery or gas that tended to wound rather than kill. Instead, the close range use of rifles, pistols, and grenades made combat quick and deadly. A kill ratio like this helps explain the impact the fighting had on the morale and psychology of the police.

This meant that every skirmish in the Irish War of Independence appeared to many to be a  defeat of sorts for the British, even if the IRA were driven off. The IRA’s ability to operate freely showed that the British strategy was failing. And so, faced with increasingly brazen and sophisticated attacks, the police withdrew to more easily defensible urban barracks, virtually handing over Ireland’s vast rural areas to the IRA in the spring of 1920.

To illustrate this to the public, the IRA began a nationwide campaign of arson in summer 1920. By July, they had burned and destroyed over 400 abandoned police barracks and fifty courthouses. This showed the public and politicians in both Britain and Ireland the reality of the situation: in much of Ireland, the police were no longer in control.

The RIC leadership and British administration were frustrated at being on the defensive, and so they once again looked to Great War veterans for a solution. In July, Dublin House gained permission to raise another force - this time of hardened former British Officers. The Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary was designed to be as irregular as the enemy they were to fight, a paramilitary force that could go on the offensive on equal terms. And indeed, their arrival in July 1920 marked an important shift in the frontline of the conflict.


So by the summer of 1920, the British were losing their grip on Ireland. With no means to retaliate militarily, a vengeful police force began to turn to other ways of exercising influence, by reprisals against the civilian population. The IRA could easily disappear, but their families and supporters could not. In summer 1920, it was normal Irish people who became the target of Auxiliary Division and Black and Tan violence as shops were looted, houses shot up, and town centres destroyed. The British hoped that this new type of repression, often state-sanctioned, would stop IRA attacks. But far from reducing the violence in Ireland, it merely added new fuel to a fire that the British could not control, and which only seemed to burn brighter the harder they tried. 


So, now it’s time for our roundup segment, where we take a look at what else is going in March 1920:

  • Let’s start in the former Russian empire, where in the middle of the month, the so-called Pitchfork Uprising in the Soviet republics of Eastern Tatarstan and Western Bashkortostan was crushed by Soviet forces. After peasants refused to hand over food supplies to the Red Army, Bolshevik troops turned their guns onto villagers, killing 3000.
  • Between the 22nd and the 26th, forces of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic massacred the Armenian population of the town of Shusha following a revolt. Estimates of the number of victims vary from as low as 500, to as high as 30,000.
  • On March 27th, the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, which had been an important White and British base, fell to the Red Army.
  • Elsewhere in the world, on March 1st in Hungary, Admiral Miklos Horthy became regent of the Kingdom of Hungary. After initially refusing the appointment, he accepted after his powers were increased.
  • On the 7th, in the wake of the Arab Revolt, Syria declared its independence with Emir Feisal as king.
  • On the 15th, British forces formally occupy the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, though informally they had been doing so since November 1918.

And finally, on the 19th, the US senate rejected the League of Nations covenant for a second time, maintaining its policy of isolationism.

More to stuff read



Bibliography and Source

  • Bowen, Tom, “The Irish Underground and the War of Independence 1919-21” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp. 3-23
  • Hopkinson, Michael, The Irish War of Independence, (Montreal & Kingston : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002)
  • Leeson, David, The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1921, (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • Lowe, W.J., “Who Were the Black-and-Tans”, History Ireland (Autumn 2004) 
  • Townshend, Charles, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923, (London : Penguin Books, 2013)
1920 The Great War

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