On Tuesday 7th June 1921, three men were executed at Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol. Executions of Republicans were almost commonplace during the Irish War of Independence [1919-21]. On that day however, although two of the men hanged were Republicans, the third man was not. Thirty-three year old William Mitchell was a temporary constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary – a so-called Black and Tan. Moreover, he was the only member of the British Crown Forces to be hanged for murder during that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom.
At the height of the conflict, ambushes, abductions and killings were perpetrated almost daily by both sides: the Irish Volunteers (later IRA) and the Royal Irish Constabulary. In that bloody war of reprisals, local magistrates and constabulary, viewed as instruments of British repression in Ireland, were the IRA’s preferred target. By 1920 one hundred policemen had been killed and five hundred had resigned, out of fear or conscience.
WHO WERE THE BLACK AND TANS?
That autumn, temporary constables were recruited in Britain to bolster the ranks of the RIC. Contrary to popular myth, there is no evidence to suggest these recruits included a greater number of criminals than any other police force before or since. They were battle-hardened ex-combatants of the Great War. Facing unemployment back in the ‘Land fit for Heroes’, they welcomed the chance to use their soldiers’ skills, at the generous rate of ten shillings a day. Their hastily assembled uniforms of dark police jackets and khaki army trousers gained them the popular title Black and Tans – the name famously deriving from Limerick hunting hounds. The temporary constables were posted to police barracks around Ireland to assist the regular constables in maintaining the law. Without effective management however, they relieved their boredom with excessive drinking and soon gained a reputation for dishonesty and brutality.
De-mobilised officers (termed auxiliaries) were also recruited, ostensibly to provide an officer cadre for the temporary constables, but quickly formed themselves into local strike forces instead, assaulting, abducting and killing suspects without due process of law. Though the temporary constables and auxiliaries were collectively known as Tans, eye-witness accounts suggest it was actually the auxiliaries who carried out the worst of the atrocities ascribed to the Tans. Less well known is that around a quarter of the Tans were Irish. Many Irish ex-soldiers, demobilised in England, had remained there seeking work.
SO WHO WAS MITCHELL?
The few accounts of the conflict which even mention Mitchell describe him, wrongly, as ‘English’. My research identified Mitchell as an Irishman, born in Monto, North Dublin’s squalid slum district. The son of a professional soldier, Mitchell became a soldier himself, serving King and empire in India and on the Western Front. Wounded at the Somme and invalided out of the army, he found himself unemployed with a pregnant wife to support, until, fatefully, the RIC beckoned.
WHY DID HE HANG?
By June 1921, some two dozen Republicans had been executed and numerous Irish citizens killed by Crown Forces. Thus far however, no Tan had been hanged. Although several auxiliaries were tried for murder, the suborning and abduction of prosecution witnesses meant none was executed. With the attention of the world’s press focused on the Tans’ conduct, the governments of America and Australia protested. Other nations of the British Empire watched developments in Ireland with interest and the British feared that Ireland’s independence would spark the disintegration of that empire. King George V himself now intervened, demanding that Lloyd George rein in his pseudo-gendarmerie and effect at least a semblance of even-handedness in doling out justice.
Earlier that year, magistrate Robert Dixon had been killed during the course of a robbery at his County Wicklow home. The man suspected of the murder, Scots Temporary Constable Arthur Hardie, committed suicide at the nearby police barracks before he could be brought to trial. Hardie’s colleague, Mitchell, immediately fell under suspicion of being his accomplice and was arrested.
Under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, martial law had been imposed and so Mitchell was subjected to a court martial – a trial without jury or right of appeal. Whether Mitchell carried out the killing, or was even present when the robbery occurred, is disputable. However, he and his Cork-born civil lawyer faced an intimidating battery of high-ranking, legally trained military officers, led by the British Judge Advocate General himself. At the end of proceedings lasting barely two days, a ‘guilty’ verdict was pronounced. Mitchell went to the scaffold, still protesting his innocence and leaving his young widow and baby daughter destitute, though his execution helped counter accusations of bias in favour of the Crown Forces.