American Commission of Inquiry into Black & Tan terror, 1920

DURING the winter of 1920 and spring of 1921, at the height of the Tan War, an American Commission of Inquiry on Conditions in Ireland focused worldwide attention on the campaign of terror being waged by the British forces against the Irish people.

Launched in August 1920 by Dr W. J. Maloney and Frank Walsh, with the support of the Government of the Irish Republic, the American Commission of Inquiry sought to investigate means of checking the excesses of British troops and police in Ireland.

Of the original committee (which comprised 150 individuals, including prominent clergymen, a number of senators, congressmen, newspaper editors, labour and industrial representatives) a list of members was selected to act as the court of the commission: The court, which consisted of five members, had power to request the attendance of witnesses representing English and Irish opinion and was to take evidence at public sessions in Washington.

The committee secured promises from the British authorities, who declined an invitation to attend, that passports would be issued to persons travelling from Ireland to testify and that reprisals would not be taken against them.

The testimony given during the winter of 1920, under skilled examination, constitutes an appalling record of terrorism by British troops and police while at the same time giving an extraordinary account of what can be endured by a risen people in defence of their national integrity.


The court held its first session on 19 November. One of the first witnesses requested to attend was Fr Michael Griffin of Gurteen, County Galway, but the following day they received word that he had been murdered by the Black & Tans.

Three weeks later, in early December, Daniel Crowley, a former member of the Royal Irish Constabulary who had resigned the previous June, gave evidence to the commission explaining the reasons for his action. His testimony also reflected considerable tension between the RIC and the Tans.

The situation which he described as existing at Clogheen, County Tipperary, was typical of Ireland at the time.

He described how, at the time of the murder of the Mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain, the previous March, the police had received an order which required them to accompany the military in patrolling the country night and day. “They were,” he continued, “to go on an armoured car with a machine-gun . . . and every man who took a prominent part in the Sinn Féin movement they were to stand up in front of his own house and turn the machine-gun on it. In the armoured car there were put 120 cans of petrol and also 120 Mills bombs, and the reason for this was that they were for burning houses.”

Black & Tans


He went on to describe how, on the night of 21 May, a number of RIC constables, accompanied by heavily-armed Tans, arrived at the home of Maurice Walsh, the Chairperson of Clogheen District Council. One of the Tans said that he was going to shoot them. “We reminded him that he was not in the army now,” recalled Crowley, “and he said that when he left the training depot he was told that he could not be subjected to any discipline whatever if he shot any Sinn Féiners.” The dispute ended with the Tans firing on the police.

During the following months, the commission heard numerous accounts of the horrific atrocities being committed in Ireland by the RIC, Tans, Auxiliaries and British military.

The committee’s interim report, published early in 1921, which was a huge embarrassment to the British authorities, highlighted the appalling conditions in Ireland and brought further pressure on the English government to bring about an end to their reign of terror in Ireland.

Details of some of the atrocities being committed in Ireland by the crown forces were vividly described at one of the public sessions of the American Commission of Inquiry on conditions in Ireland on 12 December 1920, 95 years ago.