U.S. President Donald Trump caused an uproar earlier this summer by sending federal agents, indistinguishable from soldiers, to Portland, Oregon, and Seattle to quell Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. State and local officials said the unrequested agents acted like “outside agitators” with tactics that included grabbing protesters from the streets and forcing them into unmarked vans. The images flashed instantly around the world on social media.
“Many of those federal agents aren’t easily recognizable as law enforcement officials, nor do they act like them,” The New York Times editorialized.1 “Even the military is concerned about the public confusion sown into society when heavily armed federal agents dress like soldiers. All the more reason that the federal agents on the streets of American cities be required to wear uniforms that clearly identify themselves and their civilian agency.”
A century ago, the irregular uniforms and heavy-handed tactics of hastily-trained Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) recruits caused in uproar in revolutionary Ireland. Though press coverage wasn’t nearly as fast as today, the “Black and Tans” soon became notorious.
The nickname is attributed to Christopher O’Sullivan, a reporter for the Limerick Echo, who encountered an early group of the recruits at a local train station. In a March 25, 1920, story, he applied the nickname of a local hunt club’s pack of foxhounds to describe their mismatched dark green and khaki uniforms.
The Limerick Echo is not included in the Irish Newspaper Archive of nearly 90 titles. The earliest use of the name that I found in the database (besides adverts for shoes and other leather goods) was a July 1, 1920, story in the Freeman’s Journal. It mentioned the train boarding of “armed soldiers and khaki policemen now-known in the country as ‘Black and Tans.’”2
Within two months, however, the name was in wide circulation. It became notorious after the Sept. 21, 1920, sack of Balbriggan, when Black and Tans rampaged in revenge for the Irish Republican Army murder of RIC officers (and brothers) Peter and William Burke. A week later, the Belfast Newsletter published a statement from the Irish Office in London responding to press inquiries about the “exact relationship” between the Black and Tans and the RIC. It said:
The Black and Tans, so-called because of their hybrid uniform of dark green and khaki, were recruited solely on account of the shortage of men in Ireland. They are, it is stated, genuine recruits to the Royal Irish Constabulary, and it is due only to the lack of Royal Irish Constabulary uniforms that they appear in their present dress. The suggestion that these men are in any way connected with the military was denied at the Irish Office yesterday. The auxiliary division of the Royal Irish Constabulary, also named Black and Tans on account of their uniforms, were recruited for the purpose of instructing the existing men of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the defense of their barracks.3
The term Black and Tans began to appear in U.S. newspaper reporting of Ireland by mid-August 1920. The source appears to be an Associated Press story datelined from Dublin, July 30: “The recruits from across the Channel and soldiers specially detached for police duty are nicknamed ‘Black and Tans.’”4
As in Ireland, press use of the name became frequent after Balbriggan. The New York Times, no supporter of Irish independence, editorialized:
Violence, arson, murder by Sinn Feiners have of late been not repressed, but provoked and imitated by a series of reprisals. To private tumultuary lawlessness a sort of official tumultuary lawlessness has responded. The police have been driven into a natural but none the less unpardonable frenzy. Apparently some English recruits and demobilized army officers, hastily and unnecessarily impressed of enlisted for purposes of defense, have had a hand in the series of ‘Black and Tan’ raids. Private war prevails.5
Earlier this year the Irish government planned to recognize the RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), most of whom were Irish-born men who carried out their duties with honor at a troublesome time, as part of the country’s “Decade of Centenaries.” The event was cancelled, however, after days of protest that it would honor the still-notorious Black and Tans.
- “Federal Agents Don’t Need Army Fatigues”, The New York Times, July 31, 2020.
- ”Meaning Of The Military Move” Freeman’s Journal, July 1, 1920.
- ”Statement By The Irish Office” Belfast Newsletter, Sept. 28, 1920.
- “Constabulary Of Ireland Is Losing Many”, New Castle (Pennsylvania) Herald, Aug. 14, 1920, and other papers in the following weeks.
- “Anarchy In Ireland”, The New York Times, Sept. 30, 1920.