Eye Witness Account of the Black and Tans in Ireland

Updated on September 4, 2020
viking305 profile image

L.M.Reid is an Irish writer who has published many history articles online and in magazines.

Balbriggan after the Black and Tans raided it.
Balbriggan after the Black and Tans raided it. | Source

What the Black and Tans Did in Ireland

This is the story of my grandmother who experienced the Black and Tans raids in Dublin when she was 12 years old. She also tells of her grandmother and aunts who were in Balbriggin when the Black and Tans went on a murderous rampage there. They were officially called The Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve, the RIC.

Bridget Maguire was a child in 1921 and living in Kirwan Street, Dublin Ireland. She always recalled those times when speaking of her childhood. She said, ‘When I was very young I remember being happy, we played on the street all day, and we made up our own games.

But by 1921 things were getting very dangerous because it was during the Irish War of Independence. One day, I was twelve years old then, and we were playing in Manor Street as usual. We hadn't noticed the men there, but when the Black and Tans came up Manor Street in the lorry our lads jumped out and attacked them.

My God all the shooting was terrible. They were running and shooting all around us, we ran up the lane to get away from the bullets.'

My Mother Dragged Us Home

You'd think it was us that was after being shot with all the shouting she was doing. Manor Street was dangerous, but we liked playing there, I don't know why. My mother was right though, I don't know how any of us kids didn't get killed.

She’d have murder with us for playing up there, but it was all around us, we were used to it really and we didn't realise the danger.'

Bridget Maguire .was 12 years old in 1921 in Dublin Ireland  and saw The Black and Tans
Bridget Maguire .was 12 years old in 1921 in Dublin Ireland and saw The Black and Tans | Source

No One Was Safe, Not Even Us Children

'The Irish lads were always sitting on the roofs of Kirwan Street waiting for the Tans to come down the road. It’s just like yesterday, I can see them now. You see the Tans were stationed in McKee Barracks so we were thick with them.

There were lots of raids all over the Buildings in Stoneybatter, but our street was done more, I suppose because of all the snipers. The Black and Tans would arrive in those lorries and run into the houses with their guns and wreck the place.

But if that was all they did then you were lucky. They were savage and vicious, they didn't care who they hit around the place, women and children too, no one was safe. I can see them coming up the street even now.'

The Black and Tans in Ireland
The Black and Tans in Ireland | Source

British Soldiers, Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries

"I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man ..."

On June 17, 1920, Lt. Col. Smyth was appointed the new Commander of the RIC for Munster. This is what he told the British Soldiers, Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries in his first speech to them.

"....If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there - the more the merrier.

Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. Lie in ambush and, when civilians are seen approaching, shout "Hands up!" Should the order be not immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect.

Shoot To Kill Policy

If the persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man ..."

Dora Maguire was a young mother in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence in 1920
Dora Maguire was a young mother in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence in 1920 | Source

Arrival of the Black and Tans in Ireland

The Easter Rising in 1916 failed to free Ireland from British rule. But it did re-ignite the people’s desire for an Irish Republic. When the First World War was over Britain held a general election in December 1918.

Sinn Fein put up candidates in the British elections and won 73 seats, a landside victory in Ireland. Rather than becoming British MP’s they gathered at a meeting in Dublin on January 21st 1919 and they set up their own Government known as Dáil Éireann.

And once again an Irish Republic was proclaimed for the people of Ireland. This was the start of the War of Independence. In September 1919 the British Government declared the Dáil illegal.


On 23rd February 1920 the British Government imposed a curfew on the people of Ireland between midnight and five in the morning. The Black and Tans arrived in Ireland on 25th March 1920 because the Royal Irish Constabulary, (Britain’s police force in Ireland,) could not cope with the Irish people. The Black and Tans were officially called the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve.

These men were recruited from all over Britain, most of them were ex soldiers who were unemployed and found it hard to get used to civilian life after the War.


They were given the name of the Black and Tans by the Irish because of the mixture of army and police uniform. A few months later in July over five hundred Auxiliaries arrived in Dublin. These men were all ex officers in the British Army. They were given the rank of sergeants in the RIC.

The Black and Tans in Ireland
The Black and Tans in Ireland | Source

Balbriggan, Co Dublin

In September 1920 the Black and Tans went into the town of Balbriggan where they terrorised the people. They burnt down fifty four houses, a factory and looted four pubs. They also killed two local men.

Bridget’s grandparents aunts and uncles lived in the town of Balbriggan. She recalled, ‘The Tans went crazy down in Balbriggan one night. There was a whole gang of them and they were dangerous drunk. They were looking to kill people and they did.

Uncle Willy brought my Aunt Cissy and my granny up to Dublin to stay with us then. My granny nearly died with the shock of it, she was very old. Loads of people had run out of their houses and gone up the banks in Balbriggan. They hid there and stayed the whole night for their own safety.

But my aunt Tiny she couldn't get out, she lived in the house down the road from my granny and she got caught there when all that was going on. But the Tans never went into her house, she was lucky, a lot of people weren’t. They also burnt a whole street down.'

Seamus Lawless and Sean Gibbons were murdered in Ballbriggin by The Black and Tans
Seamus Lawless and Sean Gibbons were murdered in Ballbriggin by The Black and Tans | Source

Murder of Men in Ballbriggin

'And there were those two young lads that were stabbed to death with the bayonets. It was just outside aunt Tiny's front door. But she said no one could help them. The Black and Tans were standing there laughing and drinking waving their guns around. They stabbed them to death with the knives on the guns.

She said the Tans were rotten drunk and rolling about the place. Aunt Tiny never forgot what those lads went through that night. They were Sean Gibbons; he was a dairyman and lived up the hill, the other lad, he was Seamus Lawless, he owned a shop in the town.

The priest came into her house to stay with aunt Tiny that night and the doctor came too, she had a bad heart and they thought she would die with all the goings on. She lived until she was ninety-six in the end.

There's a plaque on the bridge in Balbriggan to the two men that were killed, but it doesn't give you any idea of what they went through or the rest of the people in Balbriggan that night. The young people, they just couldn't imagine it today.’

The British Public Were Shocked

The British public were shocked at the happenings in Ireland and pressure was put on the Government to end the war. America was also aware what was going on.

The Truce in July 1921

On 6th December 1921 at 2.10 am the Treaty was signed. All British soldiers including the Black and Tans left Ireland. Bridget Maguire and the people of Stoneybatter were relieved. The Irish War of Independence was over.

The Irish people no longer had to fear the sound of the lorries or avoid the bullets of The Black and Tans. The Treaty was brought to the Dáil in January 1922 and then to the people, who passed it. Unfortunately not all agreed and Ireland began a Civil War.This finally ended on 24th May 1923 when a cease fire was called.

British soldiers in Dublin in the 1920's
British soldiers in Dublin in the 1920's | Source
Bridget Maguire in Manor Street Stoneybatter.1993. Age 84.
Bridget Maguire in Manor Street Stoneybatter.1993. Age 84. | Source


  • Mrs Dora Maquire
  • Mrs Bridget Reid
  • Mr Peter Reid
  • The Anglo-Irish War 1916 - 1921 by William H. Kautt
  • The Black and Tans by Richard Bennett
  • The Time of the Tans, an oral History. by Tomas MacConmara
  • The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1921 by D.M.Leeson
  • Countess Markievicz. An Independent Life. Anne Haverty. 1988
  • Ireland Since The Famine. F S L Lyons. 1973
  • The Easter Rising. Nathaniel Harris. 1987
  • The Easter Rising. Dublin, 1916 The Irish Rebel Against British Rule. Neil Grant. 1973
  • 1916 As History. The Myth of the Blood Sacrifice. C. Desmond Greaves. 1991
  • The Irish Republic. Dorothy Macardle. 1968
  • North Dublin Easter 1916. North Inner City Folklore Project. Souvenir 1992.
  • Unmanageable Revolutionaries. Women and Irish Nationalism. Margaret Ward.
  • Guns and Chiffon. Women Revolutionaries and Kilmainham
  • Terrible Beauty. Diana Norman. 1987
  • 1916 Rebellion Handbook. Mourne River Press. 1998
  • The Easter Rebellion. Max Caulfield. 1964
  • Agony at Easter, The 1916 Irish Uprising. Thomas M. Coffey. 1971
  • A Terrible Beauty is Born. Ulick O'Connor. 1975
  • Sixteen Roads To Golgotha. Martin Shannon.
  • The Insurrection in Dublin. James Stephens. 1966

The Black and Tans in Ireland

Questions & Answers

  • What was McKee Barracks?

    During the occupation of Ireland by the British troops it was their army barracks. When Ireland got rid of the British it became a barracks for the Irish troops. It is still used for that purpose today.

  • The unfair suffering of Irish people was horrific at the hands of the Brits, has there been any restitution to the families in any way?

    No, none at all

  • Who are all these men pictured?

    They are serving soldiers of the Black and Tans in Ireland in the 1920s.

  • Did black and tans harass all sections of the population?

    Yes, they enjoyed the bullying, beatings, and murder of all Irish men women and children.


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    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      3 months ago from Ireland

      Hello Patricia, yes it does sound like the Black and Tans. They were known for raiding any of the Irish homes for the slightest reason. They were encouraged by their superiors to terrorise the people and it did not matter to them if it was men,women or children.

    • profile image

      Patricia Joyce 

      4 months ago

      My mother was born in Leitrim in 1904 - she told me how the British came into their home searching for someone/anyone, pulled the blankets off them in bed and terrorized them. Not sure if she told me it was the black and tans but it sounds like them.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      4 months ago from Ireland

      Hello Eugene, thanks for sharing your own family experience of those terrible times.

      Hello Marcy, thanks for your appreciation of the article. Yes the Black and Tans in Ireland are one of the British Governments' dirty secrets from history.

    • Marcy Bialeschki profile image

      Marcy Bialeschki 

      4 months ago from Cerro Gordo, IL

      I have acquired a passion for Irish history. This article was jaw-dropping. Thanks for the gripping information. I never knew anything about the Black and Tans.

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 

      5 months ago from Ireland

      My grandmother and mother were from Balbriggan. I remember my mother telling me how her mother had to move out to the countryside for safety to my great grandmother's house and bring her young son (my uncle) with her.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      6 months ago from Ireland

      Hello Patrick, I was in the Irish school system in the early 70's. We were taught nothing of our Irish history. It was a disgrace. At least with the internet more people have access to our history

    • profile image

      Patrick Connolly. 

      7 months ago

      Great reading , to think the younger generations know little of this part of our history.Thankfully your articles will enlighten many more people to the traumas we endured under British rule

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      7 months ago from Ireland

      Hello MG, Thanks for reading and I am glad you enjoyed the article

    • emge profile image

      MG Singh emge 

      8 months ago from Singapore

      A fascinating article. I was engrossed from word one. I am surprised at the conduct of the English. Maybe it's part of the game for any ruler.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      8 months ago from Ireland

      Hello M Pasqua, it could be the general oppression by the British Government or the Irish War of Independence that she was trying to get away from.

    • profile image

      M Pasqua 

      8 months ago

      1921 was the year my mother, Irish Catholic, left Leitrim. I wonder if the reason was the Black and Tans, or as she said, her father arranging an unwanted marriage

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      8 months ago from Ireland

      Hello Stephen, yes North King Street houses have all been modernised now and it is a nice place to live. The older residents all knew about that street's history though.

    • profile image


      8 months ago

      I lived in no 98 north king street from 1959 to 1961 and then the family moved to 3 st patricks tce around the corner. My mothers best friend lived on the ground floor of 98 and up to about 1970 i would visit and play with her sons in the yard. The house never seemed that bad as it was in good condition as far as i remember and the front door was always kept closed.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      9 months ago from Ireland

      Hello Siobhan, yes the Black and Tans really spread their terror all over Ireland during the irish War of Independence. The British Government has never acknowledged these war crimes.

    • profile image

      Siobhan OBrien 

      10 months ago

      My grandmother experienced the Black and Tans in the village of Greencastle County Tyrone.

      I also would disagree with a previous writer who felt Trump helps the Irish.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      12 months ago from Ireland

      Hello John McGrath. From what you say it sounds like the family was targeted by the Black and Tans because of your mother's brother and his activies in the War of Independence. A lot of Irish families were burnt out of their homes. Fair play to your grandfather for rebuilding the houses.

    • profile image

      Marie Louise Morandi Long Zwicker 

      12 months ago

      My mother used to tell me that when she was a little girl in County Mayo, when she and her brothers were walking down the road, if they heard the sound of the Black and Tans lorries coming down the road at a distance, they would run and hide in a ditch or behind trees as the Black and Tans would shoot to kill anyone or anything they saw...adults, children, animals, dogs, cats, cows.

    • profile image

      John McGrath 

      12 months ago

      My mother's house (east Clare, near Limerick) was burned down three times. I'm not sure if they lived in two houses or three. the main house was oin the road, the other house or two down the lane. There were 20 children, 11 adopted from a murder suicide of my mother's aunt (she was the murdered one) so one house could not fit them all. My grandfather rebuilt the burnt down houses. I believe the family was targeted because my mother's older brother held a prominent position in the East Clare Brigade of the IRA.

    • profile image

      Nigel Campbell 

      13 months ago

      The whole story needs told did the ira not ambush and kill forces at kilbreggan the night before

    • profile image

      Dermot Begley 

      2 years ago

      Bridget M.

      I agree with your writings up to the Trump remark.

      My family was very active in the fight for Irish independance.

      My Grandmother tombstone has been engraved "buried with honor, the old IRA"

      I dont understand how anyone could equate Trump with the history similararities of those time, quite the contrary.

      The previous Pres. and the Clintons would banish and ability to defend freedom by civillian in this country. They abdicate handing over our independance to a one world order.

      Trump supports the freedom for Americans granted to the people by the constitution.

      When ever its put to liberals to substantiate their remarks, they come up short.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      2 years ago from Ireland

      Hello Colin, yes it was a very dark time in our history. My grandmother only lived up the road where they were stationed in Dublin. So it was very hard to get on with a normal life when they were always around,

    • escole61 profile image

      colin powell 

      2 years ago from march

      That was interesting. The Black and Tans are a blight upon us Brits. They left a terrible stigma. When I was a kid going to the eye hospital in London, my mother got talking to a retired policeman. This was 1968. He had been injured during the Blitz of WWII. He had been doing regular check-ups for his eyes. He said his police career begun in Ireland and he was scathing of the Black and Tans. He said they were always drunk and regular policemen had no control over them. He told my Mother that the recruitment drive only selected the thugs for the job. Most were unemployable men from the Great War. They had not done apprenticeships and were too old to start. Many were on the scrapheap where proper skilled employment was concerned. There was a multitude of applicants. But only the thugs were chosen. I'm not sure if the old man, telling us about this, was Irish or English. His accent was well-spoken. I often wondered if he was an ex-Auxillary. They were from more affluent backgrounds. Many were ex-officers as opposed to former NCO army ranks of Black and Tans.

    • profile image

      Bridget Diamond McHugh 

      2 years ago

      Thanks so much for posting this. Reading accounts like this have changed my opinion on gun control for the USA. After reading Tim Pat Coogan's accounts of the B&T's shooting into houses and the children & women running out the back saying,"Have we no guns" I decided maybe total banning of guns is not a good idea. My Mother was 14 at the time of this account and the memories have never left her. In 1984, When Bobby Sands was arrested for being in a car with an inoperable gun in the trunk and sentenced to 20 yrs in the Maze, my Mom was on the phone contacting US govt. officials, newspapers and anyone else she could ask to help. We all marched my Mom,my husband, me, and my children for months in front of the British Embassy to try to get Maggie Thatcher to change her policies. Other people from Ireland in our parish scolded us telling us to take the Boycott British Goods signs off my car. They said ,"you don't want to be mixed up with those people. I laughed and told them ,"We ARE those people" And still those boys kept dying, one by one. The greed never seems to end. At least it's peaceful now and the Irish people are thriving. But the stories and pictures of those times must be kept alive and you are doing a good job helping this. Those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it. This is happening right now in the USA via Mr. Trump. Pray for us will you please? Ask St. Michael to protect us.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      I enjoyed writing this article because it was of my grandmother's memories of a very eventful few years in our country's history.

      Thank you Lee for taking the time to leave a comment

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      5 years ago

      Great hub, very interesting, great pictures, thanks!

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      Good look with the new song Celtic Whispers Jasper Kearns, I hope some one can help you with the search for appropriate photos of the Black and Tans

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I've just Recorded A Ballad Song & Am Looking For Black & Tan Photos & Armoured cars leaving Guinness,s & Dev.if anyone can help,song,CELTIC WHISPER,S

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      My grandmother would never get tired of telling us the stories of her childhood during the Irish War of Independence and the terrible things the Black and Tans did in Dublin and Balbriggan.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment.

    • profile image

      Cormac Leonard 

      8 years ago

      Hello there HB

      I was fascinated by your story about your Deaf great grandfather and the Black and Tans. I would love to get more information if you have it, as I am doing research into the history of Deaf people and I am sure other Deaf Irish men and women would love to hear that story! My email is cormac.leonard@gmail.com.


    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      Thank you Jandee for reading and your comment.

      Hello HB, Thanks for sharing your own family's experience of the Black and Tans. Yes you are correct your grandmother and great Grandfather were very lucky.

      There were a few decent men in the Black and Tans but very few. Most of them would have shot him on sight or at least have beaten him up very badly.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What a great report.

      My own Grandmother in the west would have been a similar age, her mother dead, her father deaf and dumb trying to bring up a family. He couldn't hear the curfew bell, which made his youngest daughter (my grandmother)always with him, very fearful.

      One evening they were stopped by the Tans, the curfew had sounded. It was clearly their lucky day, the senior one, when it was found my Greatgrandfather was deaf and dumb, instructed he be let pass and escorted to the safety of home. He was NEVER troubled again, very lucky I think but perhaps it shows in the worst of people there is always one with a spark of humanity.

    • jandee profile image


      9 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      Hello Viking, What a goose pimpling hub !! Thanks for writing it you brought it all to life. My family are from Ireland way back and I love reading it all,been meaning to read your other things for ages but now I am certainly going to as you have wet my appetite !Bridget and Dora ! what true tales they could tell!!!jandee

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      10 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for reading and your comment. Yes it is very important to keep history alive with the memories of older people. My grandmother died 2 years ago at the age of 98. Her memories were very strong of those terrible times.

      If it wasn't for Michael Collins and men and women like him we would not now be a Free State.

    • profile image

      shilo (Cabra Lad) 

      10 years ago

      Thank you very much for putting this article on the site.

      Very informative my Gran lived in Dominick St and I heard all the stories of those Murderous Tans.

      God Bless Micheal Collins and the Rest of the Boys.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      10 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for reading the article Cat. I Appreciate your comment

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      very interesting, love the photos

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      10 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for your comment Jay.

      Yes I love listening to the older people talking about their experiences. They have so much to say and most people in society treat them like they are invisable

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      That was very interesting. Makes it more real when its a first hand account.


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