Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Black and Tans in black and white

By D. M. Leeson


In September 2010, when my book was just about to enter production, my editor asked me if I had any ideas about an image for the cover.

My first thought was to recommend some pictures I had found in the Public Record Office. In December 1920, four Black and Tans were arrested for bank robbery. To my surprise, the case file included mug shots of all four men, dressed in Royal Irish Constabulary tunics and caps. But I finally decided against this. The late Peter Hart’s book The I.R.A. and Its Enemies, also published by Oxford University Press, had featured mug shots of IRA prisoners on its cover. The results would have been too similar.

My second thought was to recommend the picture that is now on the cover. This was a dramatic image, in which Temporary Cadets of the Auxiliary Division frisk a prisoner at gunpoint. It was a period photograph, which had appeared in the British illustrated press in November 1920. It even had the right vertical composition for a good book cover.

There was just one problem: the police in the picture were posing for the camera. According to this photograph’s original caption, it shows the aftermath of an ambush in County Kerry. But its authenticity was questioned soon after it was published. The Labour Party, for example, had sent a Commission to Ireland. Its commissioners investigated the ambush and could find ‘no such scene in the vicinity.’ In addition, the Commission’s Report includes a photograph of Vico Road in Dalkey, County Dublin, which certainly looks like the road in the photograph. When a question was raised about this picture in the House of Commons, the Attorney-General’s reply was lame. ‘I know nothing about the circumstances in which the picture was taken,’ he said.

As a result, I took two months to get back to my editor, while I dithered over my decision. On the one hand, I thought: so what if the picture was posed? Another book from OUP, Fergus Campbell’s Land and Revolution: Nationalist Politics in the West of Ireland, has a drawing of an ambush on its cover from an illustrated newspaper: the Ballyturin ambush near Gort, County Galway on 15 May 1921. I discuss this incident in my own book, and I know from my own research that this picture only loosely resembles what actually happened.

Nobody would think of criticizing Fergus Campbell for putting a “fake” drawing on his book cover. But I felt sure that some people would criticize me for putting a “fake” photograph on the cover of my book. Photographs are privileged over drawings and paintings, just as history is privileged over historical novels or movies. A drawing or painting may take dramatic license, the way novels or films do. A photograph is expected to tell the truth.

But in the end, I decided that this photograph was truthful, in its way, even if its caption lied. The negative, if it still exists, is an authentic historical artifact. The picture, and the story surrounding it, was a good illustration of the propaganda war between the British government and its critics during the Irish War of Independence.

In addition – the longer I looked at this picture, the more interesting it became. The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, for example, received very little police training. This lack of training is reflected in the sloppy frisk procedure being followed by the Temporary Cadets in the picture. The prisoner has not been restrained, or even made to lean over against the wall in the background. The Temporary Cadet on the left is holding out his cocked revolver, within snatching distance, while the officer on the right sticks his hand into the prisoner’s pockets, instead of patting down his clothing.

At the same time, this picture illustrates the fact that these men were not trained in any kind of “use of force of continuum.” Prisoners who resisted, or who tried to escape, were simply shot. And in my book, I discuss the shooting of prisoners at length.

Finally, in November 2010, I wrote back to my editor and suggested this picture. ‘The one problem with this image,’ I said, ‘is that it was almost certainly staged for the camera. I would want to make sure that any caption reflects this fact.’ My editor liked the photograph, which made quite a good cover, just as I expected. And in the end, I was able to re-write the caption. My one regret is that I did not include a discussion of this picture’s origins in the front matter. Hopefully, this blog post will help make up for this omission.

D. M. Leeson is Assistant Professor of History at Laurentian University, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxilaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1921.

View more about this book on the

Recent Comments

  1. E. Beirne

    Also, the subjects of the photo look a little too relaxed, don’t they? Clearly a staged effort – and I can confirm the location as Vico Road, Dalkey, just a mile from where I grew up.
    Just bought and am reading your book. Excellent. So good to read factual information instead of inflamatory rhetoric.

  2. D M Leeson

    Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the book. If you want to know more about this photograph, people have been discussing it at the Royal Irish Constabulary Forums (www.irishconstabulary.com)

    It turns out I made a mistake here: this is not the photograph that appeared in the illustrated press. Rather, it was another, similar photograph from the same series. If you look at the published photo, the “dead body” is the same, but the Temporary Cadets and their “prisoners” are in the background. Yet another photograph from the same series has been posted at the website given above.

    Knowing what I know now, I would strike the words “almost certainly” from the caption. This photo was staged. I still think, however, that it’s interesting and suitable for the book’s cover, for the reasons I gave in my post.

    Historical photographs and their captions can be extremely tricky to handle. Years ago, I studied Alan Clark’s book The Donkeys, in which the author discusses a “haunting” photograph of a first-aid station, taken during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.

    But as soon as I saw this photo, I knew that Clark had mis-identified it. The soldiers in the photo were all wearing steel helmets, which were not issued in large numbers to British troops until early the next year. I later found the original published photo, in an another illustrated newspaper published in 1916. I don’t know how Clark got the idea that it had been taken at 2nd Ypres.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *