Howth gun-running

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The Howth gun running took place in Ireland on 26 July 1914. It was a key step in providing arms to the Irish Volunteers, and played a role in the run-up to the Easter Rising of 1916.

The gun-running plan[edit]

The 1871 model Mauser rifle

In response to the success of the Larne gun-running in arming the Ulster Volunteers, the Howth gun running intended to redress the balance by providing arms to the Irish Volunteers. Senior Irish Volunteer Patrick Pearse had commented that: "the only thing more ridiculous than an Ulsterman with a rifle is a Nationalist without one".

According to Darrell Figgis, the plan was first conceived in April some weeks before the Larne gun-running, and was in response to the Curragh incident on 20 March. It seemed apparent that the British army could not be relied on to enforce Home Rule when it was enacted, and many volunteers also felt that arms would aid recruitment. At a lunch attended by Alice Stopford Green, Sir Roger Casement, Figgis and Eoin MacNeill, Figgis was to contact Michael O'Rahilly to raise funds to buy arms. O'Rahilly could not do so, and the unwelcome news of the Larne landings added a sense of urgency to the planners. Casement then asked Alice Green for a loan to be repaid when the volunteers bought their rifles. Casement, Figgis and Erskine Childers visited the London agent of a Belgian arms dealer, eventually closing with a dealer in Hamburg, introduced to them by O'Rahilly, who arranged the sale of 1,500 rifles.[1]

Transport from Germany to Ireland was then carried out by Erskine Childers, Molly Childers, Sir Roger Casement, Alice Green and Mary Spring Rice.[2] Molly Childers and Spring Rice established a board to raise more funds for the arms, and succeeded in acquiring just over £2,000. Molly kept a diary of the events, a priceless (and witty) historical document. The Childers offered their yacht, the Asgard, a pleasure craft, to carry 900 Mauser M1871 11 mm calibre single shot rifles and 29,000 rounds of its black powder ammunition.[3] In order to be able to buy these guns, Childers - who drafted the contract - informed the German arms dealers that the rifles were destined for Mexico. The guns, dating from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 but still functioning, are remembered in the song "My Old Howth Gun", and were used in the GPO in the Easter Rising of 1916. This lively song was recorded by Dublin ballad singer Danny Doyle in an album released in 1967.

A much smaller number of rifles was landed from the Chotah simultaneously at Kilcoole in County Wicklow by Sir Thomas Myles, a surgeon, barrister and politician Tom Kettle and barrister James Meredith.

Shipping the guns[edit]

Conor O'Brien, the Childers, Spring Rice and two Gola Island, County Donegal sailors, Patrick McGinley and Charles Dugen, sailed the Asgard and O'Brien's yacht Kelpie to the 'Ruytingen' buoy near the Belgian coast, where they met the tugboat that had carried the rifles from Hamburg. The arms filled the boat's cabin entirely, leaving little space to sleep or prepare food, all of which was done on top of the arms. On the return journey, they were met with bad storms, and had to sail their illicit cargo through an entire fleet of the British navy, out in anticipation of the outbreak of the coming war.[4]

Arrival in Howth[edit]

The Asgard unloaded the arms in Howth harbour on July 26, 1914. It was met by members of Fianna Eireann ready with hand carts and wheelbarrows. Present were Bulmer Hobson, Douglas Hyde, Darrell Figgis, Peadar Kearney and Thomas MacDonagh. The harbour master informed the authorities about the situation, and the Dublin Metropolitan Police were called out. Harrell the Assistant Commissioner also appealed for military assistance and a detachment of the King's Own Scottish Borderers were dispatched from their barracks at Kilmainham.The two groups met at Clontarf.

A riot ensued between Volunteers armed with batons and the Police. Many policemen refused to obey orders to disarm the Volunteers and those that followed orders were unable to seize the weapons. There followed another confrontation with the military detachment in which there was more hand to hand fighting involving bayonets and rifle butts. There may also have been pistol shots fired by Volunteers or Fianna members. [5]


In the confusion Thomas MacDonagh and Bulmer Hobson succeeded in ordering the back ranks of Fianna Eireann Volunteers to quietly relay the guns away and hide them in the nearby Christian Brothers' grounds. In total, 19 rifles were seized,[4] however these had to be returned as they were seized illegally by the authorities.[6]

Bachelor's Walk[edit]

By this stage a crowd had gathered, and on seeing the soldiers frustrated they began to heckle and jeer.

Whilst returning to their barracks, some soldiers from the Borderers reached Bachelors Walk, where they came across an unarmed but hostile crowd[7] who baited them.[6] The crowd mocked them for not seizing the arms. An officer who had joined them en route was unaware that their arms were prepared to fire, and gave the order to face the crowd. While he was addressing the civilians, a shot was fired by one of the troops and this was followed by a volley.[8] Three people were killed instantly—Mrs Duffy, James Brennan and Patrick Quinn—and thirty-eight were injured.[6] One man died later of bayonet wounds.[9]

A subsequent commission of inquiry censured the use of the military. The incident caused widespread indignation throughout Ireland.[10]

Comparison with the Larne gun-running[edit]

Despite claims of collusion between the Ulster Volunteers and the authorities over the Larne gun-running, in contrast to the Irish Volunteers who were intercepted by the police and army, the manner of both gun-runnings say more about the strategies used by either side.[7] Whilst the Ulster Volunteers planned theirs as a secret operation to arm their members, Bulmer Hobson of the Irish Volunteers sought to create a propaganda coup.[7] This is emphasised by the fact the Ulster Volunteers split their weapons into three different caches, used a decoy vessel to distract the authorities, and landed their arms under the cover of darkness.[7] The Irish Volunteers on the other hand landed theirs in daylight, under a "blaze of publicity", as close to the capital, Dublin, as possible.[7]

The weapons in both landings were also very different. The Mauser M1871 used gunpowder (black powder) that can foul a gun after several shots, and each round had to be hand-loaded individually. The unionists had mostly landed Gewehr 88s and M1870/87 Vetterli-Vitalis of the next generation of rifles, each with a magazine for rapid firing and smokeless powder ammunition in stripper clips for faster loading. Smokeless powder yields about 4 times the energy of black powder, resulting in flatter trajectories and longer range, and produces less muzzle blast than black powder. The comparison adds to the conclusion that the Howth guns were bought primarily for the publicity effect and, while lethal, did not compare to the Larne guns on a like-for-like basis. Given his experience in the Second Boer War, Childers would have been well aware of these differences.

Patrick Pearse complained in a letter to Joseph McGarrity that the rifles were of an "antiquated type".[11]

Commemoration[edit]

The killing of unarmed civilians at Bachelors Walk shocked many in Ireland and beyond. "Remember Bachelor's Walk" became a rallying cry, and the ranks of the Irish Volunteers swelled as a result.[3]

In 1961, the Irish government arranged a reenactment of the Howth gun running, procuring the original Asgard from its owner and featuring some of the original Mausers and surviving Volunteers who were present that day. An address was read by then president Éamon de Valera, and a plaque was erected on the pier commemorating the events.

F.X. Martin published 'The Howth Gun-Running'(Browne & Nolan) to coincide with 50th anniversary of the Gun-Running, the book is largely academic and includes Mary Spring Rice's log of the voyage on board the Asgard.

For the centenary celebrations Vincent Breslin published 'Gun-Running' - The Story of the Howth and Kilcoole Gun-Running 1914. ISBN:978-0-9929878-0-0. The book contains new never before published sources, the book is less of an academic read than Martin's book, but full versions of all transcripts are included as appendixes.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Inglis, B., Roger Casement; Coronet, 1973, pp.262-265 and 275-277. ISBN 0-340-18292-X
  2. ^ Martin, Francis Xavier, 1922-2000 (ed.) The Howth gun-running and the Kilcoole gun-running, 1914 [Recollections and documents]; foreword by Eamon de Valera. Dublin: Browne and Nolan, (1964)
  3. ^ a b http://www.irishtimes.com/focus/easterrising/sunday/
  4. ^ a b Martin, Francis Xavier, 1922-2000 (ed.). The Howth gun-running and the Kilcoole gun-running, 1914 [Recollections and documents]; foreword by Eamon de Valera. Dublin: Browne and Nolan, (1964)
  5. ^ The Howth Gun Running The Irish Story
  6. ^ a b c Connolly, J.S.; Oxford Companion to Irish History, page 263-4. Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-19-923483-7
  7. ^ a b c d e Jackson, Alvin; Home Rule - An Irish History 1800-2000, page 136. ISBN 1-84212-724-1
  8. ^ A Dictionary of Irish History, D J Hickey & J E Doherty, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1980, p. 21, ISBN 0-7171-1567-4
  9. ^ Robert Kee's book, The Green Flag, Vol 2, The Bold Fenian Men. pp. 214-215
  10. ^ Irish Independent, 29 July 1914
  11. ^ Inglis B., Roger Casement Coronet, 1973, p.277
  • McGurk, John, The Riddle of Erskine Childers, Contemporary Review (1996)
  • Diarmid Coffey, O'Neill & Ormond: A Chapter in Irish History (Dublin & London: Maunsel & Co. 1914), xvi, 246pp., ded. Erskine Childers.
  • Martin, Francis Xavier, 1922-2000 (ed.). The Howth gun-running and the Kilcoole gun-running, 1914 [Recollections and documents]; foreword by Eamon de Valera. Dublin: Browne and Nolan, (1964)