Writing Irish history, for any readership and at any level, presents a challenge of complexity and bias of a very special kind. All historical sources present the difficulties of partiality, limited knowledge, subjective distortion and provenance, but the story of Ireland is notoriously elusive. This slipperiness comes partly from the media and the heritage industry and partly from the lack of a central meta-narrative that contains at least a semblance of consensus on the formative events and their causes. This is especially the case with the historiography of the first 30 years of the 20th century, from the repercussions of the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell to the birth of the Free State.
D.M. Leeson was clearly fully aware of all this when undertaking research on the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries and the Royal Irish Constabulary, primarily in the years 1920-21. Simply uttering the words "Black and Tans" in a conversation with Irish people has always been likely to provoke an extreme reaction. That force has been placed in a mythic territory of the imagination to such an extent that the name suggests a popular narrative of cruelty, ad hoc murder and whimsical lawlessness on a grand scale. Much of the material in oral history supports this opinion of the men who joined up to support the hard-pressed Irish constabulary after the First World War. The Auxiliaries have a similar reputation; these ex-Army cadets in their mobile units and barracks appear to have been completely demonised as nothing more than murder squads.
Leeson sets out to examine the sources more closely and to answer questions about who exactly these men were, why they joined the war and how they behaved. Obstacles in the path to a fuller understanding include the large body of work in memoirs by combatants such as Ernie O'Malley and Tom Barry, but also the images ingrained in collective memory from films, fiction and plays, notably those of Sean O'Casey. This is not to say that these are full of lies and myths: the point is that opinions have been handed down about the men who joined these outfits, and those views tend to offer only partial truths.
The method of the book is therefore to look very closely at the archives; Leeson offers tabular information and draws his conclusions (and sometimes his inspired guesswork) about the recruits, and he uses previous work by A.D. Harvey very fruitfully. This is complemented by dramatic accounts of ambushes, barrack battles, assassinations and reprisals. The result is a fresh, often exciting narrative that convinces the reader that there has indeed been a distortion in the general image of the men in these two forces.
There are other worthwhile approaches in this book, too, notably the close focus on one area: west Galway. Leeson gives a detailed account of the killings and reprisals in that region, covering atrocities on both sides, but what emerges most powerfully from that and from the chapters covering the plight of the Royal Irish Constabulary is just how far all this auxiliary and support activity was from policing itself.
True, the RIC always had to act as a gendarmerie rather than anything close to the Metropolitan Police. In the Land Wars of the 1880s and in other internecine conflicts, they had made many enemies; and confrontations with the general populace through the decades prior to the insurgency of 1920 had made them partly a military force and partly a constabulary covering the land. But they could not cope with the sheer level of militancy and violence they faced in 1920. As Leeson notes, between July 1920 and July 1921, 890 policemen were killed or wounded.
The Black and Tans will repay close reading by anyone interested in those savage years of the Irish War of Independence, when trust was hard to come by and brotherhood a flexible term for many involved in the horrors. Leeson has convincingly questioned a great deal of received opinion, and probed the way it was received in the first place.
The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence
By D. M. Leeson. Oxford University Press 320pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780199598991. Published 26 August 2011