Improvised Weapons of the Irish Underground (Ulster)

By Dan Shea

The travails of the Irish are not hard to follow if one has an eye for history. Over 400 years of foreign occupation and rule hardened the Irish resolve, and there has always been a fierce national pride. This bred an underground of what could be termed “Freedom Fighters” or “Terrorists” depending on the point of view one takes. There is, however, no doubt that the actions of a few had devolved so far from national pride and a desire for autonomy, or what would be considered the right actions of soldiers in war, that they were the very definition of terrorist acts. The beautiful Emerald Isle had the red blood of innocents on it, and the last few decades of the 20th Century bore witness to some truly horrific incidents. SAR is not in the business of politicizing, generally, and this article is presented to record some of the improvised weaponry that comes from underground fighting.

In order to survive, successful creatures learn to improvise, overcome, and adapt. This is especially true of soldiers, and even more so of underground fighters. Necessity is the mother of invention. It is not the intention of this magazine to enter into judgment of the groups that have fought in Ireland. It is our intention to show the ingenuity exhibited in some of the relics found from that period of The Troubles, and in the process educate our readers to the problems faced by the authorities who had to contend with an underground war.

There were two basic groups of the Underground in Ireland - The Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the larger formal group in Ireland with the different Catholic minority in Ulster region, and there is a Protestant majority in the North that was for a union with Great Britain, with the Loyalist Paramilitaries as an underground group of the same general vein. The scope of the differences between the groups is beyond this article, suffice it to say that the groups are divided by religion, region, and the extent they were willing to go to for their beliefs. These groups were mortal enemies. The core issues surrounded both religion and politics, with the British occupation of Northern Ireland as the catalyst. “The Troubles” were a sad and horrible fact of life for the Irish and the history of The Troubles dates far further back than the infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1972 that it is usually attributed to. The Emerald Isle has been under the boot of foreign armies for four centuries, and the Great Famine of the 1800s thinned the population and hardened their already tough lives. Emigration to the United States was the end journey for millions of the Irish, with many perishing on the journey or on the arrival in the United States. Like many immigrant groups, the roots of the Irish were strong and contact with the old country was kept. The politics of Ireland frequently exploded across the Atlantic and many a Southie bar or Hell’s Kitchen pub was involved in collecting funds or illegal guns to ship back to Eire. This author can clearly remember a gun shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that experienced a smash-n-grab; a stolen car driven through the front window of the shop, and 107 handguns disappeared, only to have some recovered when they were being smuggled on their way to Ireland. In the 1980s there was a major sting operation involving a large pile of fully transferable MK760 submachine guns as well, where the plan had been to sell them for double the retail price in Boston bars. These were clearly intended for the trip to Ireland, and were confiscated by the ATF. What was never too clear was which side would be getting the weapons, although it would be probable to surmise that the IRA would receive them due to the funding and support in the Boston area being predominantly for that group.

The Irish Republican Army would generally be termed “The Catholics” and they were rooted in the anti-British fighters of the 1800s. There was large general support for them in the population, and at the end of World War I, they were reasonably well financed. There was an influx of Colt Thompson submachine guns for the IRA that still surface today. They have usually been well armed, and in the earlier days, organized much like an army. There were re-supplies of weapons by participation in raids on armories, as well as major purchases in the United States. The famous “Armalites” of the IRA (An Armalite in one hand, a Ballot box in the other) were Armalite AR-180 semi-automatic rifles in 5.56x45mm, possibly of Sterling (British) manufacture and purchased in the United States. (This author has been unable to examine these to determine if the “Armalites” were in fact Sterling, Howa, or Costa Mesa guns but the source was undoubtedly the US commercial market- one individual who was hands-on in Ireland said from his memory these were Howa - Japanese- made). Frequently the IRA had commercial hunting rifles such as the Remington 742 Woodsmaster in 308 caliber, or handguns in 38 Special and 357 Magnum. In the later 1970s, the Colt AR-15 SP1 semi-automatic rifles were acquired in some quantity using illegal straw man sales to IRA sympathizers in the US, and these were smuggled back to Ireland. M1 Carbines and later M1 Garands were quite popular, having also been illegally obtained in the United States’ military surplus market and smuggled back to Ireland. Loopholes in the US laws that were exploited for this purpose have been closed. Thus, the IRA was not the predominant user of improvised weapons, having a more traditional, well-funded, organization. The IRA did, however, utilized improvised small arms where needed, and frequently more and more sophisticated improvised explosive devices.

The Loyalists were based in Northern Ireland, and the extremist faction was frequently referred to publicly as the “Loyalist Paramilitaries”. They were primarily termed “The Protestants”, and were supporters of the United Kingdom- and Ireland’s participation in that entity as subjects under British rule, but like the Catholic groups, very divided in how far they were willing to go. In truth, much of the fighting had more to do with religion, and deep seated anger over past battles and murders, than with current political climate. Control of Ireland was at the heart of the discussion, and the Loyalists were based in Northern Ireland, with the Loyalist Paramilitaries particularly the Belfast region. The Loyalists did not have the financial resources of the IRA, nor the supporters in the United States. They did, however, manage to acquire and stockpile some quantities of weapons that were distinct and readily identifiable. There was a Loyalist support faction in Canada, but nowhere near on the level of the IRA support in the US. The rifles tended to be much older rifles (Steyrs and Vetterlis) and handguns, very out of date, having been smuggled in one large group in 1912. Typical military rifles included SMLE rifles and Martinis in .303, and any other military type weapons that could be harvested from armory raids. The Loyalist Paramilitaries armory was distinctly smaller than the IRA one, and a preponderance of improvised weapons have been Loyalist in nature. The Loyalist Paramilitaries also manufactured two distinct types of home made submachine guns; one type being round tube, the other using a square tube. There appear to be two major manufacturing runs of each, as well as a number of “One-offs”. Both of these SMG styles bear close resemblance to the designs in “Black Ops” books published by underground presses in the United States during the 1970s, as well as the design sold as the “American Underground Submachine Gun” that was once an underground pamphlet and today is seen on the Internet. Whether the Loyalist Paramilitaries followed the recipe in these books, or vice versa, is unknown. One thing is certain, that the designers quickly discovered what most small arms designers in the world today know- the magazine is the key. Magazines are probably one of the hardest parts of a weapon system to fabricate- magazines that feed reliably of course. Thus, most improvised semi or fully automatic weapons use commonly found magazines.

The British Army stationed in Northern Ireland underwent a daily barrage of attacks as they tried to keep the two groups from each other, adding a third major faction to the fighting. Since the British had armor and modern weapons, an arms race of sorts ensued where the IRA worked to penetrate the British Army vehicles, leading the British to upgrade their quality of protection, leading to more sophisticated attacks by the IRA. In the end, Northern Ireland was a duty station for many British soldiers that surged and waned in size according to events like the Hunger-Strike, and there were many tragic incidents of attacks on them as well as many operations they undertook to disarm or capture both IRA and Loyalists.

Most of the underground groups in Ireland are broken up, and today there is an uneasy peace, with the violence a distant memory for most. But the losses and sacrifices are still clear in the minds and hearts of many. Some American politicians have claimed to be the “Peacemakers” in Ireland, claimed they have solved The Troubles. It is the opinion of many that the politicians may have offered some solutions, but generally the people of Ireland are tired of the fighting, and want the country to heal. Most knowledgeable people agree that the weapons that were in Ireland are still in Ireland, just buried deeply in case of another outbreak. This would be in keeping with underground movements throughout history. The ingenuity of the underground movement should be evident in the accompanying photos.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N6 (March 2007)
and was posted online on February 7, 2014


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