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1 July 2014 Edition

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Centenary of the Howth and Kilcoole gun-running

Remembering the Past

• Volunteer Cycle and Signalling Corps in Fairview Park, ready for the journey to Howth

The Dublin Brigade mobilised about 700 men in Fairview with over 100 members of Fianna Éireann and set off for Howth to receive the weapons

On the 26th day of July, the truth I’ll tell to you,

The Irish Volunteers all swore their enemies to subdue,

They marched straight out to Howth and soon the people were alarmed

When they heard the glorious news ‘Our Irish Volunteers are armed.’

God rest the souls of those who sleep apart from earthly sin,

Including Mrs Duffy, James Brennan and Patrick Quinn,

But we will yet avenge them and the time will surely come

That we’ll make the Scottish Borderers pay for the cowardly deeds they done.

From ‘Bachelor’s Walk’, a Dublin street ballad, 1914


Volunteer officers receive orders before the march

SUMMER 1914: Ireland was like an armed camp but the largest military body in the country, the Irish Volunteers, were mostly unarmed. The country was occupied by the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary, both heavily armed with modern weaponry. The unionist Ulster Volunteer Force was equipped with 35,000 new rifles and three million rounds of ammunition brought into Larne, County Antrim, on the night of 24 April.

The ranks of the Irish Volunteers had grown by thousands every week across the 32 Counties since they were established the previous November. But without arms they would, in the words of one of their leaders,  Pádraig Pearse, remain a “stage army” rather than a real army.

The determination of the Irish Volunteers to acquire arms has to be seen against the political background. In 1912, after decades of agitation at Westminster, the Irish Party had finally secured the backing of a British Liberal government for Home Rule for Ireland — a very limited form of autonomy within the British Empire. But the prospect of even that measure of independence was now in doubt as the British Tory Party allied with the unionists in the north-east of Ireland and helped to arm them, threatening civil war in Britain and Ireland if Home Rule was enacted.

Spring 1914 saw the Curragh Mutiny, when British Army officers made clear that they  would refuse to obey orders if instructed to go to Ulster. They got away with it. This was followed by the Larne gun-running, which was allowed to proceed unheeded by the RIC and the British Army.


(clockwise from top left) Roger Casement, Darrell Figgis, Alice Stopford Green, Bulmer Hobson, The O’Rahilly and Erskine Childers

In this situation the Irish Volunteers could only continue to grow stronger and the demand for arms grow louder. Roger Casement was a founder member of the Irish Volunteers and he played a pivotal role in the plans that led to the Howth and Kilcoole gun-running. The key meeting that initiated the whole venture was held, ironically, not in Ireland but at the heart of the Empire, in the house of the historian Alice Stopford Green on Grosvenor Road, Westminster, overlooking the River Thames.

Present on 8 May 1914 were Casement, Eoin MacNeill, head of the Irish Volunteers, Alice Stopford Green, Darrell Figgis and Erskine Childers, a former British Army officer who was also an official of the House of Commons and a skilled yachtsman. He was also an Irishman and an ardent supporter of Home Rule. At the London meeting it was agreed that a large-scale importation of arms was needed and finances and logistics were put in place.

Another key figure was Mary Spring Rice. Like Erskine Childers, she was at this time a Home Ruler who would go on to support Sinn Féin and republicanism. She came from a background of landed gentry in County Limerick. In Dublin, the project was co-ordinated by MacNeill and The O’Rahilly, Director of Arms for the Volunteers. Bulmer Hobson was put in charge of the actual landing of the weapons. Casement was the link with the London committee. Figgis was given the task of purchasing the arms and it was the mission of Childers to get the cargo to Ireland.

At the end of May, Figgis and Childers travelled to Hamburg to purchase the arms. They went to the weapons firm of Moritz Magnus, where they bought  1,500 rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition. The rifle was the Mauser model 71. It had been adopted by the Prussian Army in 1872, following the Franco-Prussian War. It was a single-shot rifle, having no magazine and was thus inferior to the British Lee Enfield service rifle. It was, however, noted for the accuracy of its firing and it was to prove a very effective sniper weapon during the Easter Rising.

The consignment of weapons was taken by tug from Hamburg to the Ruytigen lightship off the Belgian coast where, on 12 July 1914, it began the second stage of its voyage. There to meet it were two yachts: the Asgard skippered by Erskine Childers and the Kelpie skippered by Conor O’Brien. The Kelpie met the tug first and took 600 rifles and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. This left the greater part of the cargo for the Asgard.


Molly Childers and Mary Spring Rice aboard the Asgard

Nine hundred rifles and most of the remaining ammunition were stowed on the Asgard, taking up every available space and forcing the crew to sleep on top of the rifles.

The dangerously overloaded yacht sailed for Ireland with its cargo and crew: Erskine and Molly Childers; Mary Spring Rice; Gordon Shephard (a yachtsman friend of the Childers); and two Donegal fishermen, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan.

It was an eventful voyage, with contrary winds, rough seas, encounters with British warships and one of the worst storms in the Irish Sea for decades. The Asgard sailed along the south coast of England, stopped at Milford Haven in Wales on 19 and 20 July, and then sailed for Howth via Holyhead.

The date fixed for the landing at Howth was the afternoon of Sunday 26 July. The Irish Volunteers had carried out route marches to the fishing village on the previous two Sundays to allay the suspicions of the British authorities and on the day itself there was no military or police presence. A false report of an arms landing at Waterford had been planted by Bulmer Hobson and as a result a British gunboat that usually patrolled Dublin Bay had gone south.

The Dublin Brigade of the Volunteers mobilised about 700 men at the Fr Mathew Hall in Fairview on the Sunday morning, together with over 100 members of Fianna Éireann. The columns of men set off for Howth, with the Fianna in the centre. Meanwhile, the Asgard was off Lambay Island and awaiting the signal that was to be given by a boat from Howth Harbour. That signal was not given and Childers faced a dilemma. Should he risk sailing into Howth anyway and perhaps lose the arms? He took the risk.

Remarkably, the Volunteer column was reaching the end of the East Pier as the Asgard was sailing into the harbour.

The Fianna had brought trek carts full of wooden batons which were distributed to the Volunteers guarding the head of the pier to cover the landing. Among the Volunteer leaders present were MacNeill, Cathal Brugha, Thomas Mac Donagh, The O’Rahilly and Eámonn Ceannt .

The guns and ammunition were quickly unloaded and distributed. Too late, the British authorities were alerted. The Volunteers were already marching back to the city.

When the Volunteers reached Fairview there was a cordon of armed police and British soldiers under Assistant Commissioner Harrel of the Dublin Metropolitan Police across the Howth Road. They ordered the Volunteers to halt and give up their rifles. When the Volunteers tried to evade them the cordon was extended to the Malahide Road. There was a tense stand-off which almost developed into a battle after the British wounded Volunteers with bayonets and some Volunteer officers fired pistols.

But the Volunteers deceived the British by having their front ranks hold their ground while the bulk of the Volunteers behind slipped away with their Howth Mausers which were soon distributed in taxis, on bicycles and by men on foot to arms dumps across the city.


A woman points out a bullet hole following the Bachelor’s Walk killings by British troops

The British Army detachment at Fairview was from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and they marched back to the city. On the way they were jeered by crowds at several places and they attacked people with bayonets in Talbot Street. At Bachelor’s Walk, near Liffey Street and the Halfpenny Bridge, their commander ordered them to halt and take aim. Their rear ranks knelt and fired into a crowd of civilians. Three people were killed and over 30 were injured.

The Howth gun-running and the Bachelor’s Walk murders aroused nationalist Ireland and exposed the hypocrisy and double-standards of the British regime. A week later, the 600 guns of the Kelpie were landed at Kilcoole, County Wicklow. The murdered civilians (Mary Duffy, James Brennan and Patrick Quinn) were given military funerals by the Volunteers. James Connolly wrote of these events:

“Magnificent Dublin! As you emerged with spirit unbroken and heart undaunted from your industrial tribulation so you will arise mightier and more united from the midst of the military holocaust with which this government of all the treacheries meets your plans for political freedom.” (‘Forward’, 1 August 1914).


Asgard Centenary Commemoration 1914-2014

3pm Saturday 26th July,  East Pier, Howth 

• Historical re-enactment

• Family day out

• Prominent speakers

• Live music

• Irish Volunteers exhibition – Irish Volunteers Commemorative Society exhibition, Angling Centre, West Pier

All welcome

Social later in the Angling Centre, West Pier


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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