‘Drunken Tans’: Reflecting on Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War


In recent years there has been growing concern about the use of gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, as a weapon of war. The sexual abuse of women and girls during the so-called ISIS caliphate has received international media attention and widespread condemnation.

But it is important to acknowledge that gender-based violence is not new and has long been a feature of armed conflict. Moreover, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war is not only something inflicted by brutalised men in conflicts such as that in Syria. Indeed, British soldiers, in military arenas much closer to home, have also been culpable in grotesque acts of sexual violence against ‘enemy’ women.

This was the subject of my article ‘”Drunken Tans”: Representations of Sex and Violence in the Anglo-Irish War (1919–21)’, published in 2000 in Feminist Review.  During the Anglo-Irish War, also known as the Irish War of Independence, when thousands of British troops were sent to occupy Ireland and quell the Republican rebellion, there were numerous reports of sexual attacks on Irish women by British soldiers. In particular, the notorious ‘Black and Tans’, so-called because of their multi-coloured uniform, were implicated in attacks on women and girls across the country. First-hand accounts by witnesses often referred to these soldiers as drunk, undisciplined and out of control, rampaging through villages or rural farming communities in night-time raids. Hence, the image of the ‘drunken Tan’ became established in popular discourse throughout Ireland, especially in areas with a heavy concentration of British troops such as counties Cork and Kerry.

Image of the cover of Feminist Review issue 66, Autumn 2000. The issue title is 'Political Currents'. Description of the contents reads: 'Neo-liberalism interrogated / Catherine Belsey interviewed / Irigaray and Goddess Spirituality / Representations of Sex and Violence in the Anglo-Iris War / Lesbians and Gay Men Working Together. There is a drawn image of dark burgundy coin, with an etching of a goddess on a horse, set against a turquoise background. Cover design by Helen Senior.
Cover of Feminist Review 66, Autumn 2000. Cover design by Helen Senior.

I had grown up in county Cork where stories and songs about the ‘Tans’ were still recalled by the older generation. But it was only when I started to undertake my own archival research in the late 1990s that I became aware of the sexual nature of many of these incidents. While researching sources for my book Gender, Identity and the Irish Press, 1922-1937: Embodying the Nation (2001), I came across numerous accounts of so-called ‘outrages’ against women and girls during the Irish War of Independence. I was intrigued by newspaper reports from 1920-21 relating accounts of night-time raids on isolated farm houses during which women were dragged out of bed and assaulted by groups of armed soldiers. These assaults often involved women having their hair crudely shorn off with razor blades. 

On 12 November 1920, the Cork Examiner newspaper reported a ‘Limerick Outrage’ in which six armed and masked men entered the home of Miss Christina Maher and cut off her hair. The short newspaper report added that Miss Maher’s brother had earlier been arrested by the military. Within the constraints of strict press censorship these newspaper reports were usually brief and did not state explicitly that the women were active Republicans or that the armed, masked men were British soldiers. However, information like the fact that Miss Maher’s brother had been arrested ‘by the military’ subtly help to situate the ‘outrage’ in the context of British army reprisals on known Republican sympathisers.

Despite newspaper censorship, these reports managed to convey enough information, such as the family names of the women and locations of the farmhouses, to enable me to cross-reference some of these accounts with other sources. At that time the main sources I used were newspapers – both provincial and national – as well as biographical and auto-biographical sources. Drawing on these documents the scale of these attacks became apparent. The many similar accounts suggest that women who were subjected to such abuse were often, though not always, from Republican families and that these were military reprisals carried out to punish families for harbouring or supporting Republican fighters. 

As a result of their guerrilla war tactics, the Irish Republicans operated in small groups, so-called ‘flying columns’, that moved through the countryside carrying out ambushes on British troops. This invisible enemy served to continually frustrate the larger and better armed British forces. Frustrated by the success of this guerrilla army, the Black and Tans vented their spleen on the civilian population. Women usually bore the brunt of these attacks.

Between 2019 and 2021, we are marking the 100th anniversary of the Irish War of Independence. It is also twenty years since my ‘Drunken Tans’ article was originally published. Since its publication, it has been well-cited, and many researchers have credited this paper with sparking a growing interest in the use of sexual violence in armed conflict, particularly in the Irish context. Last month, the article was cited in the Irish Times newspaper.

In recent years, other scholars such as Mary McAuliffe and Linda Connolly have also begun to work on this topic. Indeed, recent scholars have the advantage of new sources which were not available to me twenty years ago. These new sources include the Irish Bureau of Military History documents, which have many witness statements from 1920-21 available online. It is great to see the new research emerging on this important topic. 

Louise Ryan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield. Originally from Cork, she has a PhD from University College Cork. Louise has published on a range of topics from migration, to religion and ethnicity. Although trained as a sociologist, she has a particular interest in taking an historical lens to understand current social issues. She has published extensively, including several co-edited books with Margaret Ward on nationalism and on suffrage. Her most recent article is ‘The “Irish question”: Marginalizations at the nexus of sociology of migration and ethnic and racial studies in Britain’, co-authored with Mary Hickman and published in Ethnic and Racial Studies 43(16).

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