War of Independence: The who’s who of policing in Ireland

When the long-established RIC proved not up to the task of crushing the IRA, the British government made the fateful and fatal decision to draft in the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries


One of the unintended consequences of the recent row over the proposed commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) is that many Irish people now know who they were.

The RIC was the main police force in Ireland between 1836 and 1922, except in Dublin, which was mostly covered by the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP).

The Royal Irish Constabulary was one of the first organised police forces in Britain or Ireland following the amalgamation of four provincial forces.

During the Famine, it was involved in evictions but also in administering soup kitchens. It earned the prefix “royal” for putting down the Fenian rebellion in 1867, for which it earned the undying enmity of many nationalists.


Its reputation varied according to the level of unrest in Ireland at the time. During the Land War of 1879-1882, the RIC earned a reputation for brutality. In quieter times, in the first decade of the 20th century for instance, the RIC became a more conventional police force dealing with the normal business of policing. The RIC administered censuses, collected agricultural statistics, enforced fishery laws and weights and measures. For many Irish people, the RIC was the public face of the British state in Ireland.

Uniquely for a police force in the United Kingdom, it was armed, a signal that the British government regarded Ireland as a place apart.

The RIC was not unpopular for the most part. In 1902, Arthur Griffiths’ newspaper the United Irishman described the RIC as “a body of Irishmen recruited from the Irish people; bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. The typical young constabularyman is Irish of the Irish; Catholic, and (as the word goes) Nationalist; the son of decent parents; his father a Home Rule farmer . . . his uncle a patriotic priest; his sweetheart the daughter.”

Many of those who were prominent in the Irish struggle for freedom were the sons of RIC and DMP men. They included the fathers of Proclamation signatory Eamonn Ceannt, Eamonn Duggan, a signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, IRA commander Tom Barry and writer Seán Ó Faoláin, Michael Collins's uncle and the brother of celebrated Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, who was killed during the War of Independence.

Though many RIC men were regarded individually as pillars of the community, there were many advanced nationalists in the years before the first World War who resented their status as the “eyes and ears of the British State in Ireland”.

The Easter Rising changed many things in Ireland, not least attitudes to the police.

The worst fatalities for the police during Easter Week were the eight RIC men killed during the Battle of Ashbourne in Co Meath, the largest engagement outside Dublin during the Rising.

The shooting dead of constables Patrick McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell on January 21st, 1919, is widely considered to be the start of the War of Independence, but it was a shocking event at the time.

The shocking became commonplace during the War of Independence. The British government placed the RIC in the vanguard of resistance to the IRA. David Lloyd-George would not dignify the resistance as a “war”. Combating the IRA was “a policeman’s job supported by the military and not vice versa”. In response to increasingly repressive measures by the British government, the IRA escalated its campaign in 1920 and 1921 against the RIC. Hundreds of barracks were burned, constables were ostracised in their own communities and more than 300 Irish-born RIC men were killed in the war. One district inspector chillingly recalled in 1920 of his colleagues: “They are shunned and boycotted . . . held up and shot at on every opportunity . . . intimidation broods everywhere and the dark hours are dreaded in many places.”

When the force proved to be not up to the task, the British government made the fateful and fatal decision to draft in the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, with well-known consequences.

Many officers quit rather than take up arms against their fellow Irishmen, and in the case of the Listowel mutiny, refused to obey orders to shoot suspected IRA men on sight. Others were happy to do the state's bidding. The RIC was widely blamed for the murder of the lord mayor of Cork Tomas MacCurtain in March 1920 and other atrocities such as the Belfast pogroms between 1920 and 1922.


The Dublin Metropolitan Police was the urban-based counterpart to the rural (31 counties) Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). It was established along with the RIC in 1836. Crucially, it was an unarmed police force on the same lines as the London Metropolitan Police. The initial thinking was that subversion was much more likely to come from the countryside than in Dublin city, where a more conventional policing job was regarded as appropriate. Some 12,500 men served in the DMP from its inception until its disbandment. Its remit was a relatively small geographical area of Dublin between the two canals. The DMP's reputation was sullied by its role on the side of the employers in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, though it was left in an invidious position. Police, both RIC and DMP, regularly clashed with striking workers culminating in the Bloody Sunday riots of August 31st, 1913, in which two protesters were killed.

The first two fatalities of Easter Week 1916 were both DMP men. Constable James O'Brien from Co Clare was shot dead while guarding Dublin Castle; in nearby St Stephen's Green Constable Michael Lahiff was shot dead, initially, it was thought, by Constance Markievicz. During the War of Independence, 10 DMP men were killed, but they were concentrated mostly in G Division, the force's intelligence unit. It was relentlessly targeted by Michael Collins during the War of Independence and seven of its most high-profile officers were killed. G Division also provided the most famous double-agent of the War of Independence in Edward 'Ned' Broy, who gave Collins access to critical intelligence information. Broy went on to become Garda commissioner in the Irish Free State. While the RIC was disbanded in 1922, the DMP remained until 1925 when it was absorbed into An Garda Síochána.


The Black and Tans were only active in Ireland for about 16 months from March 1920 to July 1921, but they left an enduring legacy of terror as evidenced by the recent furore over the RIC/DMP commemoration.

Their relationship with the RIC was problematic. The Black and Tans were initially recruited in England as special constables. "Do you want a job?" asked the advertisement, "You can join the RIC. The finest constabulary force in the world". More than 10,000 men would join what became known as the Black and Tans, named after their half-RIC, half British army uniforms, an apt metaphor for a force which was half in and half out of the RIC. By the end of 1920, they wore exclusively RIC uniforms and were distinguished only by their English accents.

The decision to let loose mostly first World War veterans (90 per cent had served), shocked and traumatised by their experiences, on a hostile civilian population had predictable consequences. They were not, as republican propaganda would later attest, the sweepings of British jails– no one with a criminal record could serve – but they were, according to Michael Collins' biographer Piaras Béaslai, "dirty tools for a dirty job". The historian David Leeson described them as "ordinary men whose violent and even criminal behaviour was a product of circumstances rather than character".

Their reputation for brutality arose mostly out of their willingness to avenge the death of crown forces by taking it out on the civilian population. For instance, after the Rineen ambush in Co Clare in September 1920 in which five RIC constables and a Black and Tan were killed, revenge was taken by both forces, with five locals killed in a spate of reprisals. Balbriggan, Tubbercurry, Ballaghdereen and Tralee were just some of the towns targeted by the Black and Tans during the war. The British government's attempts to explain away or to excuse the behaviour of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries caused major misgivings in Britain and in the international press. Many Black and Tans went on to serve in Palestine. The phrase "Black and Tannery" to describe thuggish behaviour by state forces survived long after the original Black and Tans were disbanded.


The Auxiliaries were known as the Auxies or to call them by their official name, the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC). They were regarded as an elite force separate to the Black and Tans and were only recruited from the officer classes. The original advertisement sought “ex-officers with first-class records” to serve in Ireland at £1 a day, the highest pay in the world for a policeman at that time. They were much less numerous than the Black and Tans, just over 2,000 in total and were distinguished by their distinctive tam-o’-shanter caps. In military terms, they were much more feared than the Black and Tans.

The overwhelming majority of those who were recruited were non-commissioned officers who had worked their way through the British armed forces in the first World War rather than commissioned officers who came from a better educated and more wealthy elite. This suggests that money rather than any patriotic duty was critical to enlistment.

The Auxiliaries included among their ranks three winners of the Victoria Cross in the war, James Leach, James Johnson and George Onions, the latter two quit the force after a short time serving there. The Auxiliaries were involved in the worst reverses of the war for the British when 16 of their number were ambushed and killed at Kilmichael, Co Cork, on November 28th, 1920.

They also had successes in combating the IRA and were much more feared than the Black and Tans. They formed into conventional military-style companies and their mobility meant they could strike where necessary. Though they were initially regarded as an elite force, they did not behave as such and were equally unscrupulous in targeting the civilian population. The burning of Cork in December 1920 and Trim in October 1920 were two of the worst atrocities. The burning of Trim followed the capture of the local RIC barracks. ADRIC commanding officer Francis Percy Crozier dismissed 21 temporary cadets for their actions in Trim.

When they were reinstated by his superior, Lieutenant-General Henry Tudor, Crozier resigned his commission in February 1921. Even he, who had survived the horrors of the first day of the Battle of the Somme while serving with the 36th (Ulster) Division, could not stomach the excesses of the men under his command.