Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
The progressive impulses that informed the British government’s attempts to build homes fit for heroes in the aftermath of the Great War were always tempered by violence. Comforting ideas of Britain as a ‘peaceable nation’ and a new mass democracy required a remarkable exercise of cultural amnesia in the 1920s. At the same time as the franchise was extended, the British state relied on brutal force to maintain its power in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Nowhere was the shadowy underside of Britain’s ‘modernity’ revealed than in Ireland, where the Easter Rising of 1916 turned into a bloody struggle over national self-determination. In September 1920, units of the notorious ‘Black and Tans’ burnt and looted houses, shops and a factory in the town of Balbriggan near Dublin–an act of reprisal for the shooting of two officers from the Royal Irish Constabulary earlier that day.
Remarkably we can see the aftermath of the incident, captured in a short British Pathe film introduced with the intertitle: “LAWLESS IRELAND. ‘Sacked’ Balbriggan, reported to be the work of the ‘Black and Tans’ as reprisals”. As much as the quotation marks tried to diffuse the idea that British forces were responsible for the violence, the moving footage of homeless families and burned out buildings drew attention to the complicity of the British state in rendering Ireland ‘lawless.’