Irish history can be a controversial area. Its study can be fraught with difficulty, primarily because of the diametrically opposed views of some observers. The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is sure to provide ample opportunity for historians of all hues to examine Ireland’s role in that conflict.
However there is no doubt that one piece of military hardware united all of the participants in the early 20th Century conflicts that affected our country. Pro-Home Rulers, Anti-Home Rulers, the British Army, Republicans and Free Staters all used this iconic piece of kit.
Introducing the Short Magazine Lee Enfield or S.M.L.E.:
This .303 inch calibre rifle was named after James Paris Lee, who designed the innovative bolt mechanism, and Enfield after the location of the manufacturing works in which it was made. It served the British Army from 1907 all the way through the Second World War and into the 1960s. 3.8 million S.M.L.E. rifles were produced in the UK during the First World War alone. Fitted with its 16 inch blade bayonet, and 9 lbs of weight behind it, it must have been a fearsome weapon to have been “at the wrong end of”.
The bayonet was manufactured by Wilkinson, better known today as manufacturers of razor blades.
The Lee Enfield was used by the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Rising. These examples would have been captured from the British Army – although there are reports from the time that certain sympathetic Irishmen in British Army uniform were prepared to “mislay” their weapons for a price!
In November 1914 they could be purchased as a Christmas present for the Volunteer in your life. Just pop down to 17 Ormond Quay with £5/5!
Here’s a page from the Irish Volunteer newspaper of November 1915, complete with parts named “As Gaeilge”
The War of Independence would see IRA Active Service units use them against the British Army, the Black and Tans and later during the Civil War against the Irish Free State Army.
Here’s an example of the Lee being used by the Free State Army and British Army in the same photo! This image was taken during the handover of Beggars Bush Barracks by the British Army to the Free State on 2nd February 1922. British army to the left and right, Free State soldier at centre:
The Lee Enfield was used by the ambush party at Beal na Bláth in the attack that tragically ended the life of Michael Collins. It continued to be made in India right up to the 1980s and this version used the original .303 inch, with some modified and re-barrelled to take current NATO standard 7.62mm ammunition. It was a favourite weapon of Afghan rebels fighting the Russians in the 1980s as it was more accurate than the Kalashnikov.
Its lives on today in the United States and Canada as a big game rifle. Original examples are modified by removing the woodwork at the front to reveal the barrel within. This (apparently) gives it a “sportier” look.
The Short Magazine Lee Enfield. It hasn’t gone away you know!