The Scum of England, or Ordinary Men? A Review of DJ Kelly's 'Running with Crows'

Running with Crows: The Life and Death of a Black and tan

A novel by DJ Kelly

Published by PublishNation (6 Mar 2013)

Available from Amazon.com

Between January 1919, when the old IRA began their campaign against Royal Irish Constabulary officers, and the truce that began on 11 July 1921 to permit both sides to engage in Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, a state of undeclared war existed in Ireland between the Irish Republican Army and the British Crown. This ‘Anglo-Irish war’ was often a subject of conversation during the young years I spent in Mayo in the 1950s and 60s, being referred to as the ‘Black and Tan war’ or the ‘Tan war’. One example I remember in particular was the story of how a man in the village had become demented : he had been dragged by the Tans behind a galloping horse until the pounding of his head against the road put him out of his mind.

At a time when the British army was overstretched after the 1914-1918 war, most notably in occupied Germany, in India, in pacifying and carving up the Middle East to provide consistent supplies of petrol for the Royal Navy, what should have been a trained soldier’s task to fight the old IRA was left by the British Government to the policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were wholly unprepared for such work. Along the lines of the successful ‘Boycott’ campaign that had become a powerful tactic in 1880 during the Land war, the families of RIC officers were ostracized by the local community. The policemen themselves were threatened with violent death. As a result they began to live day and night in their hastily reinforced barracks. Any person in the community who dared to show sympathy for RIC families was also ostracized or intimidated.

From January to December 1919 the old IRA killed 18 RIC men. By June of 1920 another 55 policemen had been killed and 74 wounded.(*) Faced with this rapid escalation of violence, mass resignations from the force and a sudden drop in new recruits, the Inspector-General of the RIC gave authority to advertize for temporary policemen to be hired in Britain, at first for ex-servicemen who had survived the bloodletting of the First World War, and whose thanks for their service was massive unemployment and even starvation. A little later advertisements went out for ex-British Army officers to bring their more sophisticated methods of manhandling to what had formerly been a police force recruited largely from the Irish population.

The ex-servicemen who answered the call, for the princely wage of ten shillings a day (much more than the regular RIC men were paid), became known as the ‘Black and Tans’. The ex-officers were paid twice as much as the ‘Black and Tans’ and were formed into a separate group that became known as the ‘Auxiliaries’. The two new elements of the RIC are still cursed today in many parts of Ireland for the methods they used to terrorize the civilian population, especially, but not exclusively, the Catholic Irish. Sean O’Casey’s memoirs and plays showed that working class Dublin protestants with or without Republican sympathies could also be targets of intimidation for the Black and Tans, who got that name because they wore a mix of army khaki and black (or dark green) police uniforms.

While ostensibly targeting members of the IRA most of the victims of the Black and Tans were ‘innocent’ inasmuch as they were not active IRA members. During the Tan War many of the houses burnt out by the Tans and the Auxiliaries because they housed Catholics belonged, in fact, to Protestant owners. Thus the RIC’s new 1920 recruits began to be cursed not only by both Protestant and Catholic in Ireland but also by their Irish RIC colleagues who, as shown in DJ Kelly’s (**) novel ‘Running with Crows’, quickly decided they wanted nothing to do with them. King George V of England himself said to a woman of his acquaintance in May 1921 after hearing of what was happening in Ireland that he ‘hated the idea of the Black and Tans’.

The great Cork-born writer Sean O’Faolain, who spent six years as a ‘rank-and-filer of the IRA’, both during the ‘Tan’ war and the Irish civil war that followed it, and whose own father had been a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, wrote in his autobiography, ‘Vive Moi’ :

‘...the summer of 1920. We (became) aware... of those new strange-looking units, half soldiers, half policemen, in khaki trousers and black police jackets, but we had as yet no suspicion of the brutalities of which this scum of England’s earth was capable...’

The first Black and Tans arrived in Ireland towards the end of March 1920. According to one Irish voice, quoted in Peter Somerville-Large’s ‘Irish Voices: An Informal History 1916-1966’:

They had neither religion nor morals, they used foul language, they had the old soldier’s talent for dodging and scrounging, they spoke in strange accents, called the Irish “natives”, associated with low company, stole from each other, sneered at the customs of the country, drank to excess and put sugar on their porridge.’

In his poem, nineteen hundred and nineteen, about the war that began in that year, W.B. Yeats, while condemning the violence visited on each other by both sides of the war, wrote of a woman shot from a lorry by the Black and Tans in Galway:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare

Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery

Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,

To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;...’

In ‘Vive Moi’, O’Faolain, also had this to say about how the members of the IRA perceived the methods of the RIC’s new, temporary recruits :

‘I think there was only one thing we really feared in our bones—torture. The Black and Tans in their dark jackets and khaki trousers, and the Auxiliaries, generally a much finer body of men physically, in their Glengarry caps, tight waists, riding breeches and puttees, their guns strapped to their thighs, could be bastards at this. Nobody wanted to contemplate being stripped, having his testicles rhythmically beaten with a swinging revolver butt, bayonets stuck in him, his feet stamped to pulp, his toenails pulled out and more....’

So, who were the men of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries? In her absorbing fact-based, historical novel ‘Running with Crows: Life and Death of a Black and Tan’, DJ Kelly has filled in the sketchy existence of the only Black and Tan to be hanged for a crime committed in Ireland. In doing so she provides excellent characterizations of other temporary policemen with whom Mitchell had joined the RIC. The fact that this man, known during his army career as ‘Mitch’ was a distant relative of hers, that he was almost certainly framed for the crime with which he was charged, that he hadn’t participated in any atrocities himself, and that he was, in fact, an Irishman born in Dublin—at least twenty-five percent of the Black and Tans were Irish--all add piquancy to the novel.

William Mitchell’s father was a British soldier, who had fought honorably in the Boer War. While stationed in Ireland, he married a Dublin protestant girl. He and his wife started their family in one of the more respectable streets of the poor Dublin working class, brothel-packed area known as ‘the Monto’ in which Protestant and Catholic struggled cheek by jowl to make a living.

With his father often away in the army, Mitch was drawn into petty crime. His first acquaintance with ‘the peelers’ made his mother warn him that, ‘Them as runs with the crows will be shot with the crows’. A pattern of innocent people in Mitch’s orbit being made to suffer for his misdemeanors began. The first of them was his good-looking mother, sexually abused in a Dublin police cell when a ‘helpful’ policeman asked her to come in and pick up Mitch.

DJ Kelly’s description of Mitch’s first love, Rose a sixteen-year old prostitute living in one of the Monto brothels, provides a colorful description of the Monto at the beginning of 20th century Dublin and the simple delights poor Dublin couples could offer themselves in their rare hours of leisure. The harrowing way in which Rose met her death, in Westmoreland Hospital, known as ‘The Lock’ sticks in the mind long after the novel is put down. Mitch realized she had probably been ‘euphemized’ by the nursing staff who were in the habit of smothering young women too far gone with venereal disease, after moving them to the end of the ward from which they could be silently evacuated at night without alerting the other diseased ‘brassers’.

After William Mitchell’s father left the British army he decided to move the whole family back to his native Bermondsey in search of better work. In London Mitch began by working alongside his father in a stinking tannery, DJ Kelly’s horrific depiction of which would make Engels jealous of its narrative power in describing the labors of the English working class poor. Mitch could read and write, so he was quickly promoted. He had the brains to make a successful and honest man out of himself, but time and again he returned to the pattern of theft he had first espoused in Dublin. Although his thefts gradually became more serious, and involved more money, none of them involved violence. When the crimes he committed in the pursuit of easy riches were found out he never suffered as much as his family whose reputation was damaged by association with him.

As the London police net closed in for a crime that would have put him behind bars for years, Mitchell's angry father marched him to the British army recruiting office. DJ Kelly’s descriptions of William Mitchell’s time in India, and the decent army comrades he lived with, showed how he found a sort of calm without crime there. Her descriptions of Colonial India are just as telling as the way in which she writes about Dublin and London. But once back in England, mourning the losses of the friends he had left behind him, one of whom had fallen to disease and the other to the sort of marriage with an Anglo-Indian bride which might also have ensured Mitch’s happiness, William Mitchell fell back into his bad habits and was dishonorably discharged from the army.

At the beginning of the 1914-1918 war William Mitchell managed to hide his dishonorable discharge and he joined up again, only to be disappointed by the lack of action. After the war he couldn’t be sure if he had killed a single German. Whenever he was not ‘hurrying up and waiting’ he spent a major part of his time in the army being punished for insubordination. DJ Kelly’s description of the Abancourt Number 1 military prison near Rouen ; how the conscientious objectors, mostly Quakers, went naked and were kicked and battered there by sadistic guards because of their refusal to wear uniforms ; the ways in which the Australian and New Zealander soldiers were brutally manhandled and provoked into a ‘non-mutiny’ that resulted in two ‘Dinkums’ nevertheless being shot for ‘mutiny’ ; points up the inhumane way in which ‘Great War’ soldiers were mistreated, often by officers who punished their men to conceal their own incompetence. A few examples of these officers, some of them from the Colonies, later turned up in the RIC auxiliaries where, dare one say it, they gave the Black and Tans an even worse name than they would have earned solely from their own activities.

Ironically, it was when William Mitchell, under pressure from his new wife, a decent woman whom he had fooled into believing he was wealthier than he was, decided to earn an honest living that he decided to apply for the job of temporary policeman with the RIC. His misgivings about joining up became evident when the newly recruited Black and Tans were driven through Dublin in a personnel carrier to be familiarized with the streets. It suddenly occurred to him as they entered the ‘Monto’ that he would feel ashamed if any of his former neighbors saw him riding in the back of a police vehicle.

During the few short weeks that he spent as a Tan after that drive through Dublin, although he had earlier participated in intimidatory raids into the countryside, he seems to have engaged in none of the more serious crimes against the Irish population that made his comrades deservedly infamous.

In even a longish review it is difficult to do justice to DJ Kelly’s novel. In addition to the examples I have already mentioned of Dublin, Bermondsey, India and the Somme, the book contains some very fine passages, such as the description of how William Mitchell struggled to maintain an erection as he guiltily resorted to the services of a prostitute in a French WWI brothel. While in the act, DJ Kelly successfully plumbs the depths of the male mind to bring forth William Mitchell's memories of his Rose, the sixteen year old prostitute he had loved in the Monto came back to him :

'He glanced at his upper arm and the red rose he had had tattooed there in memory of his first love. He now felt his desire abate. This wouldn’t do. He gazed out of the window, over the gray slate roof of the neighboring cattle byre, to the bleak landscape beyond. He regarded the desolate acres of dark gray mud fading into a paler gray in what should have been a summer scene.

On the horizon, a lone tree trunk stripped of its foliage and branches arose erect out of the wasteland, crooked like a dead man’s accusing finger. Closing his eyes did not help. In his head the tree became a real dead man’s finger, like the ones he had seen poking out of the earth in the trenches.’

Mitchell spent less than two months as a Black and Tan before he was sentenced to die by hanging on the same morning as two IRA men were also executed.

This fine novel, which sheds light on an area that is still often talked about in Ireland, but not in any great detail, reminded me of a non-fiction book, ‘Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution ...’, in which Christopher Browning showed how Battalion 101 became one of Nazi Germany’s most efficient extermination units. Browning interviewed hundreds of the killers who had survived the war. In pre-war civilian life they had been ‘ordinary men’ and after the war they went back to being ordinary men. Although most of them were fully conscious of what they had done, they could not explain how they had been manipulated into such savagery under Hitler. In an Amazon.com review Tim Appelo wrote, ‘...the sad-sack German draftees who perpetrated much of the Holocaust were not expressing some uniquely Germanic evil, but... they were average men comparable to the run of humanity, twisted by historical forces into inhuman shapes.’

DJ Kelly could have depicted William as a ‘sad-sack’ ex-British serviceman, but instead of that she has painted him with all his humanity, as an average man with some very serious flaws, who grew up in the poverty-stricken days of pre-1914 Ireland and England. The repetitive nature of his character at times leads the reader to wonder if there is such a thing as ‘free will’, or if the fate of at least a minority of humanity is determined even before it leaves the womb.

In the end, William Mitchell began to run with bigger crows than his mother could ever have imagined, the British authorities in Ireland. Far from thanking Mitchell for his efforts on their behalf, hoping to placate their high placed critics back in Britain they killed him as an expedient scapegoat. As DJ Kelly shows in the Court Martial scene, William Mitchell was represented by a competent and honest Irish Barrister who was time after time prevented from presenting a professional defense. William Mitchell’s fate had been signed and sealed even before he walked into the room.

Between the eve of William Mitchell’s death and the morning of his execution, DJ Kelly takes the reader through a guided tour of the British Empire which Ireland was struggling to leave. I advise you to buy this book.

(*) Background information for this review was found in two short papers by John Ainsworth : The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in Ireland, to be found at http://eprints.qut.edu.au/9/1/Ainsworth_Black_conf.PDF ; and British Security Policy in Ireland, to be found at : http://eprints.qut.edu.au/6/1/British_Security_Policy_in_Ireland.pdf

(**) I came to learn of this novel when DJ Kelly very gracefully reviewed one of my own novels.

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Tags: Asia, Bermondsey, Cork, Dublin, England, Europe., France, Germany, India, Irish Freedom Struggle, More…London, London., Monto, Poland, Rouen, Somme

Comment by Bit Devine on November 29, 2013 at 11:38am

Another book to add to my ever growing reading list....

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