The Tommy Gun–the Irish connection

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 8

The Thompson submachine gun or ‘Tommy gun’ as it became known, started life on the drawing board of retired US Army Lt. Col. Marcellus Thompson sometime during 1916. He was an enthusiastic gun designer with a lot of ideas of his own. He wanted to develop an automatic rifle from his personal specifications. His designs were based upon the principal of recoil which simplified the mechanism for the proposed gun. Most machine guns of the period used a gas and piston system for their operation.
Development was delayed by United States entry into the Great War. Thompson rejoined the army and served until the armistice in 1918. Afterwards, he founded the Auto Ordnance Corporation to oversee development of his designs. By the end of this development period he held no less than 285 patents for small arms designs. He sought investment for his project from financier Thomas Fortune Ryan, who became his partner.
Thomas Fortune Ryan was also a senior member of Clan na Gael. He was shrewd enough to know a good thing when he saw one. Not only had it the prospect of making money, but he also recognised the importance of such a weapon to the hard-pressed IRA at home in Ireland. He contacted Michael Collins who agreed to finance the project with republican money channelled through Ryan. Harry Boland was given instructions to contact the financier when he arrived in America with de Valera in June 1919. Dev apparently knew nothing about Boland’s secret mission as a go-between.
At the time Collins was able to raise the money, but what he needed most of all were guns. There was a severe shortage of weapons among the active service units of the IRA. He was fighting a professional, well equipped army, backed up by armoured cars and machine guns. What he needed was firepower if the IRA was to gain the advantage. The Tommy Gun sounded ideal for his type of close quarter work. It had few moving parts and was easy to strip down and reassemble. It had a detachable stock, which made it easy enough to conceal under an overcoat. But best of all was its devastating fire power. It could fire in short or prolonged bursts, from either a twenty round magazine or a fifty round drum.
These guns weighted in with a price tag of $225 each. Money was quietly channelled through Boland to Ryan. By early 1921 the first guns were off the production line. Two of these were tested out by a couple of Clan na Gael men in the 69th New York Regimental Armoury. They were very impressed with the result. An order was place for 500 guns, magazines, spare parts and ammunition. The first time the Thompson was used in combat was in June 1921 when an early production model opened on a troop train near Drumcondra, Dublin up during an IRA attack, inflicting numerous injuries but no fatalities.
Production of the guns was licensed to the Colt Arms Company. Larry Delacey, an IRB agent and a member of Clan na Gael in New York arranged to warehouse the guns in the Bronx, until they could be shipped to Ireland. At this time, unknown to the rest of the world, the IRA were the sole customers for the new Thompson sub-machine gun. A freighter aptly named East Side was moored at Pier 2 in New York harbour waiting for the consignment of guns and ammunition to be loaded. It was due to leave port on 17 June 1921.
Very few people in Ireland knew about the plan. The guns were to be landed at Baltimore, West Cork, around the end of June. They would then be deployed among the more active Cork flying columns. But the plan did not work out; the night before the East Side was due to sail with its deadly cargo it was raided by the US Customs and Justice Department agents. The guns were impounded, finally turning up later in the hands of G-division of the FBI in the course of its struggle with Prohibition-inspired gangsterism. This was a severe blow to Collins and the IRA. It was a waste of nearly two years work and effort and a lot of money.
Nevertheless, a few early production models found their way into the IRA arsenal in Ireland. Tim Pat Coogan and George Morrison in The Irish Civil War (London 1998), p.130, maintain that there were only two, but since the same two guns kept re-appearing in propaganda photographs the impression was created that there were many of them.

Liam Farrell is a local historian.

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