Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Irish Flames: Peter Waller's true story of the arrival of the Black and Tans by John Waller, Yiannis Books, ISBN 0954788729, £8.99 pbk
BEFORE PETER Waller died in 1990 he gave his half-brother a partially finished manuscript. Peter had been born in Ireland in 1911 and grew up during the war of independence and civil war. It was a novel-style story of a boy growing up and presumably it was his story.
If one takes Irish Flames as simply a thriller based on the memories of Peter Waller, then it is an interesting read.
As history we have some problems, not the least because John Waller admits that "In respect for the past and the sensitivity of the present, I have changed their names" - that is the names of the characters in the book. But the past is no respecter of disguise or half-truths and the sensitivities of the present cry out for a proper, historical account of the 'Black and Tans'.
As it has been admitted, stories of the brutality of the 'Black and Tans', the force recruited from demobilised soldiers to supplement the depleted ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary, have passed down and grown in the telling. Only one book, Richard Bennett's 1959 study has been devoted to The Black and Tans. But because of the refusal to release papers and service records from the British side, we have little real knowledge of these men. Most atrocities in Ireland during the 1920-21 period were ascribed to them.
But in fact, far worse were the Auxiliaries recruited from demobilised officers to augment the Royal Irish Constabulary in July, 1920. These were called 'cadets' - a title used for propaganda purses by Britain, for when a 'cadet' was shot, the title conjured boys in the minds of the public rather than the battle seasoned lieutenants, captains, majors, colonels and brigadiers who actually constituted the Auxies.
The Auxies were paid £1 per day plus expenses and plus three months paid leave. They were the highest paid mercenary force in Europe. And they were the real notorious and indiscriminate killers in Ireland.
Perhaps I came to this book looking wrongly for hard and fast facts as promised by "the words of an eyewitness". I am afraid it cannot take its place as history but only as an historical novel and in that later category, it works well.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Peter Berresford Ellis