The old RIC may not have been trusted by many communities, but many of its members saw themselves as guardians of law and order in Ireland. However, the escalating IRA campaign in 1919 and 1920 - and the arrival of the notorious Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries - changed all that.

By January 1920, the old order of the Royal Irish Constabulary was beginning to crumble. The force that policed Ireland since 1836 - historically deeply resented but largely unopposed by much of the population - was a primary focus of a new, intensive, effective and extremely violent campaign by the IRA.

The RIC at that time numbered around 10,000 and there were over 1,300 RIC barracks across the country.

Many were isolated. A newly energised and determined IRA saw these barracks - housing "the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle" - as legitimate and, as importantly, accessible targets.

RIC men were vulnerable, subject to ostracism (as their families were too), attacks and assassinations. Such was the intensity of the campaign against them that many began to leave the force.

Charles Townshend, author of The Republic - The Fight for Irish Independence, records the comments of one RIC District Inspector in the summer of 1920: "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."

One example of how the force reached breaking point during the largely successful IRA campaign is noted by David M. Leeson in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution.

He writes that after the shooting of Constable Luke Finnegan in Thurles on 20 January 1920, "his comrades rioted, firing in the streets and smashing the windows of prominent local republicans".

In March of that year Tomás Mac Curtain, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, was murdered at his home, days after the murder of three RIC officers in the city. Mac Curtain, a subsequent inquest found, had been murdered by the police.

UCD historian Mary Mc Aulliffe points out that RIC men were also involved in reprisals against the IRA and local communities.

"There is no doubt that they participated in atrocities like the burning of Balbriggan, Cork, and Ballylongford, or in raids on isolated farmhouses and communities.

"They were also involved in violence against women; along with the Black and Tans, they beat, attacked and harassed women and committed acts of sexual violence," she wrote in the

Incidentally, she also points out that the IRA also committed such acts of gendered and sexual violence against "their own girls" and women accused of company-keeping with the RIC or Black and Tans, and wives and families of RIC men.

These are just some examples of how the normal rule of law at the time had broken down. It would be broken down irrevocably when the British government decided to send in a force to bolster the weakened RIC - a force that would become known as the Black and Tans.

This development (and the later introduction of the Auxiliary RIC force) would lead to the disintegration of whatever standing the traditional RIC had in many communities.

While the British government refused to accept that what was happening in Ireland was a war, it continued to use the RIC, bolstered and augmented by their new temporary constables and auxiliaries, as its front-line in the response to the IRA campaign.

In Dublin, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, remained a separate force but it too would attract opprobrium for its activities during the 1913 lockout and subsequently.

The RIC had always been a different, indeed a unique police force. It recruited mainly Catholics, many of them the sons of farmers. The height requirement was an imposing 1.7m (5'9").

Most of the recruits (many young Irish men were glad of the pay and security a police job offered), were Roman Catholics. Given their numbers, it’s no surprise that many Irish families today can identify a relative who served in the RIC.

The officer class tended to be Protestants.

Black and Tans raid Thurles
A raid is carried out by the RIC and the Black and Tans in Thurles, Tipperary, 1921

For generations, they enforced a strict legal code but they generally enjoyed a peaceful - if mutually suspicious - enough relationship with the communities they served in.

They had, after all, previously been in attendance at evictions and had helped quell the Fenian uprising of 1867 for which they were given their 'Royal' title.

However, as noted by Dr Kent Fedorwich, who wrote about the problems arising from the eventual disbandment of the RIC: "The R.I.C. played a particularly conspicuous role in the accumulation and synthesis of political intelligence.

"The significance of this service was clearly demonstrated when collated information was used to help suppress Irish agrarian unrest and nationalist agitation throughout the nineteenth century.

"Intelligence-gathering remained one of its most important functions, and, according to one historian, this was one of the main reasons for the Irish Republican Army's ruthless determination in the attacking the R.I.C. between 1919 and 1922."

The RIC did not serve in their home areas, as was the case with An Garda Síochána when it was established.

David Leeson writes that they were given months of training at what is now Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park and were the posted to county forces.

"In addition to carrying out the normal duties of police" (the maintenance of law and order and mundane jobs such as scouring the countryside for poitín makers) "they would serve as the British administrations first defence against rebellion in Ireland.

"Constables were armed with carbines, as well as revolvers and truncheons, and much of their training consisted of military drill. Their uniforms were bottle green, like the soldiers of the British Army’s elite rifle regiments, and they were housed in barracks to keep them separate from the people they policed.

"From their stations they kept watch over the political sympathies and activities of people in their districts, and reported anything suspicious to their superiors."

But by 1919 this highly effective policing organisation was reaching the point where its very existence was being threatened. In an article in History Ireland in 2004, Professor W.J. Lowe wrote of the beginning of the end for the traditional RIC and the beginning of a new phase with the decision to begin recruiting the force that would join the RIC in its battle for survival - the Black and Tans - and, later the Auxiliary Division of the RIC.

Tight security in Dublin
Security tightens in Dublin with the increased activity of the Republican movement

These were moves that would militarise the Irish police force, lead to extra-judicial killings (including those of children), the terrorisation of communities and many innocent people and ill-disciplined actions by often-drunken and out of control elements in these new additions to the traditional RIC.

Professor Roy Foster has written of a "new level" being plumbed in Gort, Co Galway, "when two local boys with no IRA connections were murdered by the Black and Tans for 'impudence'. Their bodies were thrown into a ditch after being dragged behind one of the dreaded lorries until they were unrecognisably mangled".

W.J. Lowe writes: "When the republican campaign against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and others thought sympathetic to Dublin Castle became more violent and successful in late 1919, the police abandoned hundreds of rural facilities to consolidate shrinking ranks in fewer, fortified stations. The pressure exerted directly on RIC men, their families, friends and those who did business with them resulted in unfilled vacancies from casualties, large-scale resignations and retirements.

Then British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s government could not recognise the IRA or Dáil Éireann as belligerents and insisted that counter-insurgency was "a policeman’s job supported by the military and not vice versa", which placed responsibility squarely on the RIC. 

The role of the RIC as a largely domestic police force with strong community ties had been steadily compromised since 1916 by more aggressive tactics against nationalists and heavier reliance on the military.

Faced with the need for more, better-prepared men wearing police uniforms, the government augmented RIC numbers and capabilities by recruiting demobilised First World War veterans from throughout the UK.

From early 1920 through to the truce in July 1921, 13,732 new police recruits were added to the nearly 10,000 members of the 'old' RIC to maintain a constabulary strength that, at the end, reached about 14,500.

The new recruits stood out in RIC ranks anyway, but an initial shortage of complete bottle-green constabulary uniforms resulted in the temporary issue of military khaki and the name that stuck: the 'Black and Tans'. The Black and Tans were sworn in as constables to reinforce county stations and their experience with weapons and tactics gave the RIC a tougher edge.

The IRA campaign led to another recruitment initiative in July 1920, the Auxiliary Division (ADRIC) or 'Auxies', former military officers who wore distinctive Tam O'Shanter caps and operated in counter-insurgency units independent of other RIC formations.

Even though the Auxiliaries were a separate category of police, they were often combined under the shorthand of 'Black and Tans'. 

They were never regarded as ordinary Irish constables, by the communities in which they served or by other policemen, and are popularly remembered for brutality and the militarisation of the police.

There is substance to the popular characterisation. The Black and Tans, and the Auxiliaries especially, were part of the escalation of violence in Ireland in 1920–1, and they are inseparable from reprisals against civilians. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the RIC executing a systematic reprisal policy without them. The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries helped to destroy residual community support for the RIC".

Hamer Greenwood inspecting troops
Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, inspecting the new pattern RIC guns in 1920

This increased militarisation of the RIC continued and so too did the heightened violence. 

David Leeson writes that the average auxiliary soldier was an experienced soldier in the British army; he had enlisted in 1914/1915, had served initially as an enlisted man, then as a non-commissioned officer and, later as an officer. 

Many of them had been "decorated for bravery, but some of them had also been debilitated by wounds and illness, and most of them had been out of the service for at least a year before they joined the Auxiliary Division".

He points out that their training was limited and, in most cases, that limited training and experience did not prepare them for counter-insurgency warfare, at which the IRA had become more and more accomplished. The ambush in 1920 at Kilmichael by Tom Barry’s Flying Column in which seventeen "Auxies" were killed being one example.

"Like the rest of the RIC, the Auxiliary Division soon blackened its name by taking reprisals in response to rebel attacks, assassinating known and suspected revolutionaries and burning the homes and shops of their supporters.

"In its attempts to stamp out the ‘murder gang’ in Ireland, the British government had created uniformed gangs of its own, who fought what was, in effect, a political gang war with the IRA, until the truce of July, 1921," writes Leeson.

Writing in last weekend’s Irish Times, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter of UCD, said many in the RIC strongly resented "the coming of the Black and Tans, whom they regarded as morally and professionally reprehensible - 'they’d have shot their mother', according to one witness - and reactions to them can be traced through the Bureau of Military History statements taken in the 1940s and 1950s".

He quotes Jeremiah Mee, of the RIC in Listowel, who mutinied against the taking over of the barracks by the British military: "When we joined the police force, we joined with characters second to none and we refused to co-operate or work in any capacity with the British military, men of low moral character who frequented bad houses, kept the company of prostitutes and generally were unsuitable and undesirable characters," said Mee.

Ferriter also points out that John Flannery, one of the participants in the Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India in 1920, insisted that the mutineers’ action was prompted by the treatment of their mothers and sisters by the Black and Tans.

The mutineers’ spokesman "put it to the general if it was a fitting reward for the sacrifices that thousands of Irishmen had made on many fronts throughout the Great War and to these men on parade who came through this great ordeal, to return home and learn that our own fellow countrymen and women were being shot down by the orders of the British government".

But, Ferriter adds, regular RIC members also became capable of brutality and reprisals, as did the IRA.

Such was the nature of the war, he concludes.

Donal Byrne covers the events relating to the Decade of Centenaries for RTÉ News and Nationwide. With thanks to Dr Conor Mulvagh, School of History, UCD.