The new Nike Low Black & Tans. They should have used the tagline ‘Wear some history on your feet!’, or ‘Walk in the shoes of a traumatized World War 1 veteran who has been sent to a volatile country to give the guerrillas a taste of their own medicine!’.
This week Nike released two new colours of running shoe in the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day. One is named after Guinness, the other is called the ‘Black and Tan’. There was a huge furore in Ireland over the second colourway; many were offended that the powers-that-be at Nike had not done their historical research, and that they had no idea how offensive a garment that recalled the real Black and Tans would be, to Irish people.
Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in Henry St, Dublin, 1920.
The majority of Black and Tans were British World War 1 veterans who were employed by the British government from 1920-21 as Temporary Constables with the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). They were paramilitaries, which means that they were not considered part of the formal military of Ireland, but rather were a special add-on group, shipped in for a specific purpose. The specific purpose in this case was to target the Irish Republican Army, who were fighting guerilla-style against the British presence in Ireland, in the War of Independence (1919-21). The Black and Tans were brought in as replacements and reinforcements for the regular ranks of the RIC. They became notorious, however, for their violence against ordinary Irish civilians – the atrocities they committed are well documented (hence why any product that seemed to celebrate them would cause offense). They are often confused with (both then and now), but were separate from, the ‘Auxiliaries’ (Auxies), a similar paramilitary RIC group sent from Britain at the same time.
Advertisement for paramilitaries. I especially love the footnote – “REMEMBER – if you don’t like the job, you can give a month’s notice – AND LEAVE”.
The Crown began advertising in British cities for men who were willing to ‘face a rough and dangerous task’. The recent war ensured that there was no shortage of unemployed ex-soldiers who applied. In November 1921, around 9,500 men had joined (the RIC numbered about 10,000 members in Ireland as it was, so this was a doubling of numbers, not including the Auxies). The huge influx meant a massive shortage of RIC uniforms.
Letter detailing what exactly was involved with the regular-issue RIC uniform.
Instead of being issued with the uniform in the above letter, so, they received the following mix of garments. There were some standard regulation RIC pieces available – particularly bottle-green tunics, and black leather belts. From the British police force came some surplus dark-blue jackets, and some more black leather belts. The hats and caps of the Black and Tans were a motley mix of dark-green RIC issue (caps called ‘forage caps’ and Balmoral bonnets appear in the list above, as do helmets), dark-blue British police standard, and even civilian caps that were made of felt. Trousers were drawn from the resources of the British army, and were sand-coloured khaki (from the Persian khâk, meaning dust-coloured, and adopted into English from the British army’s time in India. Khaki as an official colour for the British uniform was, at that stage, just sixty years old). They were surplus standard army issue from the very recent end of the Great War.
Auxies can be seen in the top photo, standing alongside the Black and Tans. We know they were Auxies because of their clothing – they generally only wore dark blue ex-police uniforms, and distinctive Glengarry hats. These Glengarries were either black or khaki, and different regiments were identified by a piece of coloured/patterned fabric behind the RIC badge. Military historians have not been as interested in what clothed the soldiers, in my experience, and have randomly called these hats Balmorals, Glengarries, and Tam-o-shanters in their descriptions. The three are similar in style.
A clip from the editorial titled “Slanguage” from The Irish Times May 31, 1940. Read it, it’s important!
The Scarteen ‘Black and Tans’ (a pack of hunting dogs from Scarteen, Knocklong, Co. Limerick that claimed the ‘Black and Tan’ nickname long before the British soldiers did) that the man compared the new RIC recruits to, are still going strong.
Actual Scarteen foxhounds.
Black and Tans in Dublin, 1920. Possibly the clearest picture of them in mismatched uniform.
And this is a letter (click to make bigger, or use ctrl/cmd+) in reply to that editorial, from the following edition. It’s a famous letter because it contains the apple-woman story quote. I also love how he describes the soldiers’ uniforms as ‘piebald’ – another animalistic comparison! This is what the second-last paragraph says (and what gave the title to this blogpost):
But the apple-woman deserves her place in history. She was the good lady some time later, sitting outside the Gresham, when a lorry load of Auxiliaries drove up to search for the elusive Michael Collins. The few who remained in the lorry (complete with wire netting to guard against bombs) exchanged pleasantries with the old lady. “Gwan,” says she, “The Boers put ye into khaki, the Germans put the tin hat on ye, but faith the Shinners have made canaries of ye!”
Black and Tans in 1920.
By the end of 1920, uniform supply had been re-established, and Black & Tans wore full standard issue, the same as the rest of the RIC. In a textile-history-twist, after the Irish War of Independence was over (and had been lost by the British forces), most Black and Tans ended up in the home of khaki, the Middle East, fighting with other British paramilitary units against Arab and Israeli insurgents. Instead of backing up the RIC, this time they backed up the British Palestinian Police Force.
Yesterday (13 March), Nike apologized.
A spokesman for Nike said: “This month Nike is scheduled to release a version of the Nike SB Dunk Low that has been unofficially named by some using a phrase that can be viewed as inappropriate and insensitive. We apologise. No offence was intended.” Ciaran Staunton, President of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform said: “Is there no one at Nike able to Google Black and Tan?”