By Joe Healy
Following the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin on 25 November 1913, leaders of the newly formed organisation set about obtaining arms and equipment for its members, in a bid to finally end Britain’s continuing occupation of Ireland.
With Home Rule for Ireland being regarded as a realistic prospect, the Ulster unionists began importing huge quantities of arms unhindered into the country (by 1914, almost 20,000 Protestant Ulstermen were under arms).
The Howth gun running, which took place on the 26th of July 1914, was essentially a direct response to the successful landing of a shipment of 35,000 German rifles at Larne for Sir Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteers the previous April.
The Howth landing was the first military operation in Ireland’s twentieth-century fight for independence and was a significant event in the lead up to the Easter Rising of 1916. It succeeded in putting a large haul of German Mauser M1871 11 mm calibre single shot rifles and ammunition in the hands of the Irish Volunteers. The guns dated from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but were still functioning. Many were used to great effect in the GPO during the Rising two years later.
The initial plan was conceived and successfully carried out by a group of Anglo-Irish Republican sympathisers, including Erskine Childers, Molly Childers, Sir Roger Casement, Alice Stopford Green and Mary Spring Rice. Molly Childers and Spring Rice raised over £2000 in funds to purchase the arms while the Childers provided their yacht, the Asgard, to run the guns into Ireland.
Childers was a committed supporter of Home Rule and the Larne gun-running had convinced him of the need to counterbalance the situation by carrying out a similar venture on behalf of the Irish Volunteers.
Roger Casement was appointed as the link with the Volunteers’ leadership and Darrell Figgis was co-opted at Casement’s suggestion. At the end of May, Childers and Figgis travelled to the Hamburg arms firm of Moritz Magnus der Jüngere and bought a consignment of 1,500 Mauser Model 1871 rifles and 49,000 rounds of ammunition. On 12 July 1914 the arms were transferred at sea, from a German tugboat to Childers’s yacht Asgard and the Kelpie of Conor O’Brien.
As the movements of Kelpie were being monitored by the authorities, O’Brien transferred his cargo to Sir Thomas Myles in the Chotah off the coast of Wales. This was landed under cover of darkness on 1st August at Kilcoole, about 25 kilometres south of Dublin.
Only 900 of the rifles could be taken by the Asgard, and they completely filled the cabin. With space at such a premium, those on board had to eat and sleep while lying on the guns.
As it made its way to Ireland, the 51-foot yacht ran into the biggest storm to hit the Irish Sea for a number of years. It was due to Childers’ seamanship and courage that the vessel survived at all and wasn’t swamped by the high seas.
On the morning of July 26, 1914, with the storm behind them, the Asgard sailed into Howth Harbour. The guns and ammunition were quickly unloaded by members of the Irish Volunteers and Na Fianna.
Kerry-born Republican, The O’Rahilly, later described the scene. `Twenty minutes sufficed to discharge her cargo; as many motor-cars flew with the ammunition to pre-arranged caches; and for the first time in a century 1,000 Irishmen with guns on their shoulders marched on Dublin town.”
The Volunteers and Fianna headed back to Dublin in military formation, passing armed policemen in Raheny and bypassing a military blockade in Clontarf.
Meanwhile, Dublin Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Harrel had declared the march ‘an illegal assembly’. The DMP, aided by troops of the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers were deployed to halt the Volunteers.
While returning to their barracks in Dublin, after an unsuccessful attempt to confiscate the weapons, a number of the troops opened fire on a hostile crowd of civilians. Three people were killed and thirty-eight others wounded.
At the official inquest into the incident the government’s commission concluded that the actions of the Scottish Borderers were ‘tainted with illegality’. The Borderers were subsequently transferred to the Western Front where they were to suffer many losses.
The Bachelor’s Walk shootings highlighted British double standards, where Unionists were effectively allowed to arm without government interference while Republicans were violently prevented from doing so when they tried to do likewise.
Whenever the exploits of the Howth landing are discussed the first name that usually springs to mind is that of Erskine Childers, who was born in England in 1870. His formative years were spent in Ireland at his aunt’s estate at Glandalough, County Wicklow. after he was effectively orphaned following his father’s death and his mothers confinement to a sanatorium. In 1880, aged ten, he returned to England and began preparatory school.
Nine years later he entered Cambridge University. There he earned a law degree and subsequently entered the British Civil Service as a Committee Clerk in the House of Commons.
Twice he volunteered to serve the country of his birth. In 1898 he enlisted as an artilleryman and served in the Boer War in South Africa. And then at the outbreak of World War One in 1914 – at the age of 44, and married with two children – he enlisted in the Royal Navy, firm in the belief that the Allies would ultimately respect the claims of Irish Nationality. For his naval service during the war, Childers was awarded Britain’s highest military honour, the Distinguished Service Cross.
However, the violent reaction of the British Government to the Easter Rising, particularly the harsh punishments imposed on the participants, including the execution of sixteen of its leaders, shocked Childers. In 1918, a Westminster bill proposing to extend military conscription to Ireland further angered him.
In March 1919, he returned with his family to Ireland and joined his cousin Robert Barton at Glendalough. Barton, a Sinn Fein member, introduced Childers to Michael Collins and also Éamon de Valera. Influenced by these and other nationalists, his Home Rule sympathies hardened into full support for an Irish Republic.
He was made Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament and in 1921 he was elected to the Second Dáil as Sinn Féin member for the Kildare/Wicklow constituency. He was appointed Minister for Propaganda and was secretary to the Irish delegation during the negotiations for a treaty with Britain in 1921. Despite attending the negotiations, Childers strongly disagreed with the signing of the Treaty.
One of the traits of Childers personality was that he would often become obsessed with whatever concerned him. It was a characteristic that remained with him throughout his life and may have accounted for the transformation from one who once argued for peaceful Home Rule legislation in 1912, to becoming ‘more Republican in outlook that the Republicans themselves’.
As the chief propagandist of the republican movement during the subsequent Civil War, Childers was hunted relentlessly by Free State Army soldiers. He was arrested at Glendalough House for carrying a gun, which it is said had originally been given to him by Michael Collins.
He was sentenced to death and was executed at Beggars Bush Barracks on November 24th 1922, having first shaken hands with each member of the firing squad. He was buried in the grounds of the barracks until 1923 when his body was reinterred in the republican plot of Glasnevin Cemetery.
Erskine Childers initially considered the Howth action to be as much a symbolic response to the Larne gun-running as it was an exercise in procuring arms. Was he to know that it would act as a catalyst for the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and ultimately the establishment of an Irish Republic?
Today he is remembered as a writer and sailor, as a soldier of the British Empire who became an Irish Nationalist and as a Republican that could never come to terms with the outcome of the struggle.
In 1961, the Irish government acquired the Asgard and returned it to Wicklow in a re-enactment of the Howth gun-running. Several surviving members of the Volunteers and Na Fianna attended, some with the original Mauser rifles.
It was used for sail training until 1974, when it was dry-docked and installed as part of a National Museum exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol. From 2007 to 2012, a major restoration and conservation programme of the historic yacht was undertaken at the National Museum of Ireland Collins Barracks, and it is now on permanent display there.
Many thanks to member Joe Healy for a great article.