Starting in 1913, the British government had brought in new legislation to clamp down on the private arms trade into Britain and Ireland, with a mind to curtail the possible arming of both the Ulster and the Irish Volunteers, that coming into the summer of 1914 were still mostly carrying only personal firearms, and in most cases, nothing at all beyond hurleys and sticks. But the leaders of both were of a mind to change this, with the Ulster Volunteers the first to launch an audacious scheme to import the arms they needed in order to become a truly viable threat to the idea of Home Rule.
The UVF’s operation was largely the work of a Frederick H. Crawford, a former Major in the British Army, and, somewhat ironically, the descendent of a United Irishman. Crawford had been approached by the Ulster Unionist Council, a predecessor of the modern UUP, to be a middleman in the quest for arms. Crawford dutifully contacted foreign arms manufacturers, most notably in Germany, and for a few years before 1914 was involved in plans to smuggle arms into the north, that all largely ended in failure, beset by naval patrols and RIC raids.
In 1914, using funds supplied by the Ulster Volunteers and UUC, Crawford secured a deal with an arms trader in Germany, and further secured the use of a boat, the SS Fanny, to transport them. The cargo consisted of nearly 25’000 rifles of various make, mostly Austrian and German, along with five million rounds of ammunition. In late March, the ship departed from Hamburg.
After narrowly avoiding Danish custom officials, wary of guns being sent to arm Icelandic nationalists, the Fanny made it to Irish shores, where Crawford, desperate to keep things under wraps, transferred the cargo to the SS Clyde Valley off the coast of Wexford, subsequently re-named the Mountjoy II in honour of the man who had broken the boom during the relief of Derry centuries before. At the same time, orders were given for the UVF to undergo a full mobilisation, nominally as a training exercise, with those based in the surrounds of Larne, County Antrim, to be in place at the port with vehicles in the early hours of the morning.
The planning that went into the operation was extensive: the coordination of vehicles, the setting up of guard-posts and check-points along the intended routes, the provision of car repair supplies if needed, the organisation of hiding spots, the tapping of official communications, Crawford and the leaders of the UVF left very little to chance. A decoy ship, the SS Balmerino, was even hired to steam into Belfast with a “suspicious” cargo, with the local police suitably tipped off.
Meanwhile, in Larne, the landing of the guns went about as smoothly as anybody could have expected: the weapons and ammunition were unloaded, transported and hidden by a cadre of well-ordered and well-directed volunteers, who went about their mission with a purpose and clarity that drew comment from nearly all observers. The authorities, intentionally or not, were paralyzed with ignorance of what was really happening, and by the time that any of the local police were in a position to do something, the moment for such intervention had passed.
The incredible operation made headlines throughout the Empire, and caused a great deal of consternation among the Irish Volunteers. It was already clear that the British government wanted to institute a partition policy, and that the British military could not be counted upon to go toe-to-toe with the Ulster Volunteers if called upon to defend Home Rule by force. Now, the Ulster Volunteers were, or at least appeared to be, heavily armed, in a way that the Irish Volunteers simply weren’t, even if, in subsequent commentary, it has been suggested that a great deal of the Larne guns were antiquated models. Very quickly, members of the Irish Volunteer leadership made efforts to rectify this situation.
Initial attempts at gun-running had been attempted by the IV earlier that year, in response to the Curragh Mutiny, with no success. After the Lane gun-running, efforts to find arms intensified, spearheaded by Eoin McNeill, and including figures like Darrel Figgis, a future Free State parliamentarian, Michael O’Rahilly, better known to history as “The” O’Rahilly, Alice Stopford Green, an Irish historian, Sir Roger Casement, a famous government diplomat, humanitarian and anti-imperialist and Erskine Childers, a famous writer and Boer War veteran. Casement, Figgis and Childers met with arms dealing agents through O’Rahilly, and paid for guns with a loan from Green, amounting to 1’500 rifles.
The purchased guns were fairly antiquated, some of them as old as the 1870’s, but the IV purchased them nonetheless. Childers volunteered the use of his own pleasure yacht, the Asgard, to transport the guns. Braving storms and patrols from the British Navy, the Asgard, packed to the gills with guns and ammunition, crept its way into Howth, Dublin, on the morning of the 26th of July 1914.
With less guns to unload than at Larne, the process did not take that long, aided by members of the IRB and Fianna Eireann, the youth wing of Irish nationalism, using hand-carts and wheelbarrows. On this occasion the local police were warned in time, and a violent clash erupted in Clontarf between the DMP and the Volunteers. Shots may have been fired at this meeting, but no-one was killed, and the Volunteers were able to secret most of the guns away.
The drama of the day was not yet over, and unlike Larne, blood was going to be shed over the Howth gun-running. A unit of the British Army, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, had been called out as part of the unsuccessful attempt to impede the Howth gun-running. Upon marching back to their barracks, the soldiers were the subject of taunting from a largely pro-nationalist crowd on Bachelors Walk. However it happened, a volley was fired into the crowd, possibly an unintentional reaction to a single misfire meant to serve as a warning. Three people were killed, and 38 others injured, causing widespread outrage in Ireland and abroad.
While the Howth gun-running largely paled in comparison to the scale of the Larne gun-running it was still a very significant moment in the history of Irish nationalism. Now, for the first time in decades, maybe a century if you want to be technical, a regular entity dedicated to the cause of Irish self-government was armed, albeit in a limited manner. Many of the guns brought in at Howth would later be used in 1916 and beyond, and in simple propaganda terms the effort was a huge moment, especially in combination with the shooting on Bachelors Walk. Indeed, as the Howth gun-running was carried out in broad daylight, in comparison to the night-time Larne operation, the Irish Volunteers’ plan has often been seen as predominantly a propaganda exercise, one that undoubtedly succeeded.
Both the Ulster and Irish Volunteers had now upped the ante in the quasi-conflict between the two, putting the gun into Irish politics decisively, and creating an even greater headache for the British government, which at the time of the Howth incident was dealing with a rapidly disintegrating continental crisis. Things were at a fever pitch, and we must also realise that, even while all of this was going on, internal squabbles were threatening to tear the overall cause of Home Rule apart. The IRB’s internal control of the Irish Volunteers was inevitably going to lead to conflict with more moderate elements, namely the Irish Parliamentary Party, and in the summer of 1914, John Redmond would make his move to gain control of the Volunteers.
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