Opinion: the commentary that followed Biden's speech demonstrates the powerful legacy of the Black and Tans and how it can still be mobilised

By Brian Hughes, Mary Immaculate College

One of the most memorable moments of Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland came during a speech in Dundalk when the US president described how his distant cousin, former Irish rugby international Rob Kearney, was part of the team that went to Chicago in 2016 and ‘beat the hell out of the Black and Tans’.

It was immediately obvious that Biden meant the New Zealand national rugby team, All Blacks, but with the baggage attached to the term ‘Black and Tan’, a slip that might otherwise have been quickly forgotten drew significant reaction in the media and online.

Many who heard the speech would have felt they instinctively knew who the Black and Tans were, but where it was felt that audiences might need clarification, the efforts to provide it often fell tellingly short of historical accuracy. In tweets, Reuters described the Black and Tans as ‘a British military unit’ or ‘soldiers’ (though a reference to ‘Dundalk, Northern Ireland’ should have raised alarm).

Elsewhere there was 'an auxiliary military force nicknamed for the colours of their uniforms' (The Guardian), a 'British paramilitary force' (Sky News), or a ‘paramilitary police force sent to counter Irish extremism’ (Daily Mail).

The Black and Tans were, in fact, permanent, full-time recruits to the Royal Irish Constabulary. Following a recruitment campaign in Britain to fill gaps in the strength of the force a year into the Irish War of Independence, the first cohort arrived in January 1920. A larger deployment began in July, which also included some Irish-born men. The shortage of uniforms that prompted the nickname was soon resolved.

A separate Auxiliary Division was nominally linked to the RIC but operated autonomously. CNN were thus closer to the mark in referring to a ‘brutal police force’, though Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were routinely mixed up or conflated both at the time and afterwards (and perhaps again in the descriptions above).

Tánaiste Micheál Martin pictured with US President Joe Biden at The Windsor Pub in Dundalk, Co Louth Photo: PA

The speech also provided opportunities to express or reassert views about Biden himself and his visit. It could be a ‘bit of a gaffe’ (@nowthisnews) or a ‘mistake’ that 'spoiled the delicate balance' of the visit (USA Today). Much of the Irish response took the slip in good humour, providing irresistible opportunities for jokes and memes; the Irish Times' Miriam Lord described it as a ‘delicious gaffe’.

This might be seen to reflect the widely – though not exclusively – positive attitudes towards Biden’s visit south of the border, in-keeping with a popular image of ‘uncle Joe’ and his return home. Political opponents of Biden, meanwhile, pointed to it as an example of incoherence, ‘babbling’, or unsuitability for office.

Read more: Come out ye Black and Tans: who were the Black and Tans?

For some it was evidence of deliberate pro-Republic or anti-British sentiment. A former aide to Margaret Thatcher tweeted it was 'an embarrassment to the United States'. Meanwhile, Baroness Kate Hoey told the Daily Mail it ‘underscores why so many pro-union people feel that he really only understands Irish Republican history’.

Pointing out the historical inaccuracies in all of this might be dismissed as unnecessary pedantry, not least given the role of the wider Crown forces in the Irish War of Independence and an often-well-deserved reputation for brutality. But the commentary that followed Biden's speech once again demonstrates the powerful legacy of the Black and Tans, and the ways in which it can still be mobilised.

Read more: The forgotten men of the War of Independence

It is also evident of the failure of academic research into the history of the RIC to penetrate many of the myths that inevitably followed the introduction of British recruits into the force in 1920.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ