Book Review: P. O’Brien, Havoc, The Auxiliaries in Ireland’s War of Independence (Cork, 2016)

Paul O’Brien’s excellent new book examines the role of the para-military Auxiliary Division in the 1920-21 British counter-insurgency campaign against the IRA during the Irish War of Independence.

The Auxiliary Division, known as the Auxiliaries, ARDIC (shortened form of Auxiliary Division) or ‘Auxies’, were a temporary, paramilitary police force which was created in the summer of 1920 to help to reinforce the civilian police in Ireland, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), to counter a campaign of guerrilla attacks by volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The IRA aimed to make Ireland independent of British rule and was conducting an insurgency and terrorist offensive against RIC members, besieging them in their stations, ambushing them on patrol and encouraging their social isolation from their communities. By the late 1919 and early 1920, RIC constables were beginning to resign and retire in large numbers and intimidation of potential police recruits made it impossible for the force to recruit sufficient replacements. Prime Minster Lloyd George, in response to the security situation in Ireland, sought to bolster police man power and capabilities by two methods; creating the Auxiliaries but also directly recruiting British ex-serviceman as constables directly into the RIC. The men in the latter group were initially clothed in a mixture of dark police green and military khaki and became known, as a result, as the Black and Tans.[1]

Paul O’Brien’s book focuses on the Auxiliaries. His history is ‘not an exhaustive account of every possible mission…but rather the fullest account possible of a selection of operations conducted by the ADRIC on successive assignments’. He does not attempt to make them look ‘good or bad’ but aims to show the ‘complex and challenging nature of conducting counter-insurgency warfare in Ireland from 1920 to 1921’.[2]

He points out that the ARDIC were very different from the Black and Tans. The former were recruited from ex-officers only and were formed into separate, military-style companies and allocated to areas in which they operated. They worse distinctive uniforms topped with a ‘balmoral’, a flat wool cap with a tam-o-shanter (a wool bonnet with a pom-pom in the centre). The ARDIC were a proactive, offensive force, tasked with finding and destroying the IRA and were highly mobile and well-armed with military weapons such as the Lewis gun, hand grenade and armoured car. The force numbered 2,263 operatives and organised in around 20 companies (given letters (A, B, etc) to identify them) of 100 men distributed throughout Ireland.[3] The Black and Tans, on the other hand, were recruited from privates and NCOs. Their role was in the conflict was primarily static and defensive part. They secured police barracks, patrolled with RIC members and were mainly adjuncts to the RIC.[4]

The ARDIC had a very short life from being created in the Summer of 1920 to its disbandment in January 1922. It operated for around ten months in Ireland from September 1920 to the July 1921 truce between Irish and British forces. Over that time, the ARDIC suffered 60 fatalities from various causes, three quarters in action with the IRA. O’Brien’s book is primarily a chronological history of key events, mainly detailing offensive IRA operations against the ARDIC that include ambushes at Kilmichael (November 1920), Coolavokig (January 1921), Clonfin (February 1921) and Rathcoole (June 1921), and the attack on Q Company’s HQ in Dublin during April 1921.[5]

He also touches on several incidents where ARDIC members committed looting, murder, torture and theft. For example, K Company, based in Cork, was responsible for a series of incidents. In December 1920, Section Leader Hart shot two men for no apparant reasons,  including a parish priest from Dunmanway, Canon Magner. Later that month, the Company committed arson (with others) to large portions of Cork in which 300 residential properties and 40 business premises were destroyed at an estimated cost of £3m (1920 prices).[6]

The damage in Cork after K Company, and other British forces, burnt sections of the City

In Trim in February 1921, N Company looted the premises of Richard and Frances Chandler, who were loyalist Protestants, and stole food, drink and linen valued at £355.[7] In Tralee, Kerry, during April 1921, H Company burned the offices of the newspaper The Liberator when the paper refused to carry the obituary of their commander, J.A. MacKinnon, assassinated by the IRA.[8]

The question that arises from this catalogue of atrocity is why did the ARDIC (and other British police and army units) behaved in this way? O’Brien rejects the conventional notion that the ARDIC, put forward by some IRA men, were ‘half mad with blood lust’ not being ‘ordinary decent men’ and were poor quality because no-one else would want to be a ‘terrorist policemen’.[9] He points out that ARDIC men were required to have a good conduct rating from their army service in order to be eimployed.[10] He suggests that the reasons for the ARDIC’s excesses were that discipline in the ARDIC was lax, politicians did not want to hear about the atrocities and ARDIC was not under any real control or direction in that they fell under police authority for matters of administration and military control for operational matters[11]. This is an intriguing area which could have prompted further discussion. For example, what was the role of role of group cohesion, junior leadership, perceptions of the Ireland/Irish people, and social norms such as masculinity, duty and patriotism to Britain and the Empire.

From an academic perspective, the book does have weaknesses. As Professor of Modern History at UCD, Diarmaid Ferriter, has pointed out, though the book draws on ‘archival material from the bloody annals of British imperial policy’ around 6% of the archival references refer to British archives. His criticism that O’Brien relied on the website, without relation to ‘provenance, context or authorship’, is also pertinent.[12] However, despite these minor reservations, I found this book interesting and engaging. As a general history of the ARDIC, I found it informative and the style was enjoyable to read. For me, it has proved an excellent introduction into the complexities of Ireland’s War of Independence and filled a major gap in my own knowledge of events in post First World War Ireland.


[1] D.M. Leeson, ‘Black and Tans and Auxiliaries’, in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by U. Daniel, P. Gatrell, O. Janz, H. Jones, J. Keene, A. Kramer & B. Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08. DOI: 10.15463/ie1418.10539. P. O’Brien, Havoc, The Auxiliaries in Ireland’s War of Independence (Cork, 2016), pp.6-9.

[2] O’Brien, Havoc, p.xii.

[3] Ibid, pp.5, 28-38, 266.

[4] Lesson.

[5] O’Brien, Havoc, pp.54-61, 153-164, 165-175, 192-200, 186-191.

[6] Ibid, p.86, 106

[7] Ibid, pp.124-126.

[8] Ibid, pp.201-202.

[9] Ibid, p.4.

[10] Ibid, p.26.

[11] Ibid, pp. 119-134, 251.

[12] Diarmaid Ferriter review, Irish Times, 13 May 2017,