Arms smuggling routes 1921


IRA Emissary Harry Boland had ordered and paid for 653 Thompson Guns but only 495 were seized on the steamer East Side in New York.

The balance were re-routed onto regular tried and tested American arms shipments from New York to Liverpool.



The S.S. Celtic and her sister ship S.S. Baltic of the B&I line were used reliably and the courier was a Mister Rees. Once in Liverpool, England the arms were received by Patrick Daly and his crew of dockside gun-runners who were referred to as ‘Q’ Company. He noted that machine guns required special handling, “Thompsons with their magazines and supplies of ammunition were rather bulky…………..taking them out of the docks to our dumps and then back again increased risk of discovery”.


Daly recorded that the first lot of three guns, three drums and twelve stick magazines arrived 12th May in Liverpool and were sent on to Dublin. The trusted courier Mr.Rees had brought them from America and he hoped for a ‘regular supply’. Next shipment through Liverpool, he said, was 6th July 1921. On this occasion four Thompsons were landed and sent on to Dublin.

By end of July , New York had shipped 15 guns to Liverpool which arrived safely in Liverpool on 23rd August, 6th, 7th ,20th September and 4th October which were sent on to Dublin.


 The Truce between the IRA and the British came into play on 11th July along with     the easing of British controls on Irish Ports. This resulted in a rapid increase in arms smuggling traffic. A steady stream of Thompson Guns appeared. On 27th November, at a critical time in the peace negotiations, disaster struck when British Customs found ten Thompsons during a random search of the S.S. Baltic at Liverpool. This was a potential diplomatic disaster since the IRA had agreed to halt imports after the Truce. This find was covered up and no information released to the Press. The Treaty between Ireland and Britain was signed in December 1921. By end of October 1921 the IRA recorded 49 Thompsons in Ireland of which Dublin held 7. During November and December only two more guns were received.


From September the IRA held a series of training camps to keep the volunteers active and prepare for any breakdown in negotiations with the British. The new Thompson gun featured heavily with instructions given using hand written manuals since all the manuals purchased were seized on the East Side. The Irish Times of 4th October reported that volunteers were being trained in the use of the Thompson.

 “The IRA is the first fighting force to make use of it in actual warfare……not only is it the latest and finest machine gun made but………has proved to be especially well adopted for use in the particular form of guerilla operations in town and country”, said General Mulcahy of the IRA.

In October 1921 it was reported that there were only 100 rounds per gun available to the IRA.


Ironically the Thompson Gun would see more use against former comrades during the Irish Civil War rather than against British Forces in the War of Independence.


Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) reported in their monthly reports that they had seen “a small sized machine gun of American pattern” in Armagh, Cavan, South Tipperary and Kerry at this time.


In April 1921, the British were acutely aware that IRA munitions were arriving into Ireland via the ports. They formed “Q” Company led by Brigadier-General E A Wood, a unit of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary whose purpose was to prevent the importation of arms and explosives. The press carried this news quoting British officer “we shall have a complete stranglehold on the traffic in munitions” -  Q” Company comprised ex-naval officers and had a special Intelligence Staff to follow up investigations in the shipping quarter. During the Truce on 27th October 1921, a question was asked in the British House of Commons of the Chief Secretary for Ireland why these ports searches had stopped and “what number of Thomson (sic) machine guns and other arms had been imported into Ireland during the Truce for the use of the IRA”. Sir Hamar Greenwood confirmed that searches at six Irish ports had been suspended with the July 11th Truce between the British and the IRA and was resumed on September 18th after rumours of arms smuggling. The Government had no knowledge of any arms landings.




In a Belfast court case November 22nd 1921 , the police accused a man of possession of a notebook containing notes on various weapons including the “Thomson machine gun” (sic).

In the House of Commons on 25th May 1921, the Chief Secretary for Ireland Greenwood disclosed that in the past two months, 16388 rounds of American made ammunition (.45 calibre) had been seized in Dublin alone.


The devastating power of the Thompson was witnessed in the border town of Clones on 11 February 1922 when the IRA and the Ulster Special Police Constabulary were involved in a fire fight in the confined space of a train. Four Constables, one IRA officer were killed while numerous other combatants and civilians were wounded.

By 23rd April 1922, five more Thompsons had arrived into Liverpool from the US, one of which disappeared in England.

By June 1922, the SS Baltic and SS Celtic were ferrying 800 rounds per week of .45 ammunition.


Reports from the field recorded that IRA Thompsons were rendered idle because of poor maintenance and shortage of .45ACP ammunition.


In March 1923 some 23,000 rounds did get through to Dublin.

In May 1923 some 76 silencers for machine guns and 3,500 rounds of .45 ammunition were seized by Police in Liverpool.

In 1933 the US Justice department investigators were able to match serial numbers from the East Side IRA shipment to ‘underworld’ guns.

By 1936 the entire original supply of IRA Thompsons in New York had all be sent to Ireland.

In 1937 the IRA were able to purchase forty brand new Thompsons in the US which were duly sent to the Dublin Brigade.


[Reference: “Irish Sword” , Journal Military History Society of Ireland ]