The Time of the Tans.

There has been huge amounts of commentary about the recent ill fated decision to formally commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

It descended very quickly into a massive argument, with the vast majority of the public quickly coming to a consensus that can be summed up as ‘who in the hell in their right minds would even consider commemorating the Black and Tans, and Auxiliaries’.

In the midst all the commentary, some which was insightful and educational, lots of which was drivel and just baseless ranting into the void of the internet, one comment in particular, which I read online and have not found again since in order to directly qoute, so please forgive me for paraphrasing, was along the lines of ‘my grandparents gave me their memory of the Tans’.

This comment caused me to think back to where I first remembered ever hearing about them, and had I first formed my knowledge of the Tans from anothers memories. I’m hazy on little details, however the bones of the story below stuck into my 7 or 8 year old brain and have remained there since.

An elderly Canon used to visit our national school in Crimlin, Co. Mayo, and he would from time to time tell us stories. I can now only recollect two of them, I dont really remembered any others, although I cannot recall any of of them being overly religious. I don’t recall any fire brand indoctrination or the like, I just remember an interesting and genial old man.

One story was on the origin of the saying, ‘soaked to the collar stud’, and I remember be fascinating by the history of removable collars held in place by a brass stud or button. This enabled the collar to be removed and washed, and for a worn collar to be replaced more cheaply than the entire shirt. He also told us about how when he started out as a young priest, that his clerical collar would be similarly fastened. And therefore anyone who had been out walking in heavy rain, might experience the rain soaking its way through the jacket or coat, through the shirt and if one had been caught in a terrible downpour, right through it all to the collar stud.

I really enjoyed the story, the history and the fact that it was being delivered by someone visiting the school, and thus breaking up the day!

His other story which I recall is the one about the Tans. It fascinated me and held my attention because of its history and its danger.

He told us about his school days, and how the open fires in school would have to be lit prior to the school opening in order for the school room to be warm, when the children arrived for their lessons. He told us about how the local families would donate turf to the school, as almost all families in his local village would have worked a small plot of bog, and the turf would be kept outside. A rota would be kept of the children responsible for ensuring the turf bucket (more rarely expensive coal, he said) was kept full throughout the long cold days.

It was a jealously guarded responsibility, a position of great importance, and of course a brilliant opportunity to escape the lessons and the chalk board, when duty called and the two upstanding children dutifully exited the hushed class room, and went out the back of the school to gather the donated turf from its pile outside.

He told us about how one day, when it was their turn on the rota, they where dispatched outside. Having just turned around the gable end of the school, he and his companion heard two lorries approaching. They knew that the lorries could only mean soldiers or RIC, as private transport was a real rarity in his townland in those years.

The two youngsters ran to the ditch that bordered the school at the back, and concealed themselves in the long grass and haphazard bushes. They had abandoned the bucket they had brought out, but he still had hold of the long handled shovel. He raised the shovel to his shoulder, and sighted down the handle, drawing a bead on the approaching truck. The lorries were approaching fast, and very quickly they were passing by. As the rear lorry rattled past their place of concealment, the Tan, positioned at the tailboard, spotted the long straight shape of the shovel handle sticking out of the ditch. He shouldered his rifle, took aim and fired. The lorries rattled on.

He described the ‘crack’ of the round going over his head, and the reverberations of the gunshot, and he had a great storytelling ability which held me spellbound, as he described how he and his companion had been frozen for an instant, and then how his heart was racing as his body switched into flight, running full tilt back to the safety of the school. The tumult that greeted the two boys when they flew back inside the school door, was uproarious.

Their panic and fear, switched to bravado and braggadocio, and after their head master had swiftly admonished them, and after they had been sent to recover the shovel, the long abandoned bucket, and the now badly needed turf, they had regaled their classmates with their tale of derring-do. He enjoyed telling the story to us youngsters, and we enjoyed knowing that this old man had once been young like us.

Of course we asked him about who these Tans were, and why on earth they would shoot at two school boys. I cannot fully recall his answers, but I remember walking home from school that day, fighting a battle against the vicious Tans and despicable Auxies, all away along the ditches, through Jennings tee, and after a fierce struggle near Rapples, I arrived at home fully satisfied I have vanquished the foul foe. I had gained a deep dislike of these imported thugs and bullies, and I, whenever I got the chance, in the months afterwards, would ask my neighbor’s or elderly folks who you would meet on ones traipsing around the grass centred roads of Crimlin, Ross, Conloon, and Tawneyshane, about the Tans.

I vividly remember my own father recounting the story of the burning of his home town of Cork, and he as a scholar and author gave me many details. However I even more vividly recall one elderly neighbour who blessed herself when she mentioned their name. I recall her making the sign of the cross for protection, yet I don’t recall why she in particular felt so strongly on the matter. I do remember that she was not the only older person to do so. It’s odd how a childs curiosity remembers the physical gesture and the tone of the voice which was used when speaking of them, often more than the words used.

I recall another neighbour, who spoke of his parents telling him about them. His tales where of particular interest, as he had…let’s say…a colourful vernacular which was most impressive! His stories were blood, and guts, and bastards. He claimed to have family members who had suffered under the remorseless hand of the Tans, and as he had black and white photos on his wall, yellowed behind the black frames, of the ‘Men of the West’, the flying column of the West Mayo brigade of the IRA, lead by the gallant Major General Michael Kilroy, then I gave great credence to his tales.

I took the stories I gathered from the time of the Tans, and I added then to the stories of the Great famine which I also gathered along the way. An Gorta Mor, had left an indelible impact on the very landscape of my childhood. The hills were full of abandoned homesteads, the long line of failed potato drills marked fields where once thriving communities had lived, the dry stone famine walls stretched pointlessly up along the steep slopes of wild mountains, were the starving poor toiled under back breaking labour in order not to receive charity but paid work. However, since there was no food to buy, and the walls and roads built thus were often of no functional use whatsoever, and as the saying goes ‘you can’t eat money’, these projects, often in the stories I was told, hastened the end of already weakened people.

The pain inflicted stayed with me, or rather my thoughts of the pain inflicted upon the people who had lived though these times stayed with me. It must have been so terrible, that something from so long ago, had still such an impact on the memory of the village, and the land about me.

So the Tans and Auxies ended up embedded into my memory as a blight on Ireland, as near as bad as an Gorta Mor. They were to me more hated than the hated British, and the fact that many were Irish, only caused further embitterment and revulsion. I had learned my history from the memories of the only grandparents I had access too when I was young, my elderly neighbours, who welcomed in wandering children, and answered curiosity with tales of fadó fadó.

Maybe it’s time to blow the dust of some books, and fill out those memories. Because it surely looks like a hundred years hasn’t been long enough for them to fade.

Sin é.

History Ireland has an excellent web page of the Tans here:

Who were the Black-and-tans?

A really informative site on The Auxiliaries Division of RIC by Mr. David Grant can be found here:

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