A day out in Howth that was a foretaste of rebellion to come
Diarmaid Ferriter on a daring and chaotic act of defiance 100 years ago today that ended in violence and became part of the nationalist narrative
One of the striking aspects of the Irish revolutionary period in the early 20th century was the intense involvement of individuals whose backgrounds would suggest little sympathy with militant Irish nationalism.
Central players in the Howth gun running, for example, which took place 100 years ago today, included the owner of the Asgard yacht that transported the guns, Erskine Childers - a British civil servant and renowned author, who had become a supporter of home rule.
Another key individual was Roger Casement, a member of the British consular staff, knighted in 1911, who had become an organiser for the Irish Volunteers, established in November 1913. Casement was involved in coordinating the purchase of the guns, while Darrell Figgis, brought up in London as the son of a tea merchant, and who had also joined the Volunteers, had bought the guns in Hamburg and transported them to Belgium before their journey to Dublin.
Alice Stopford Green, daughter of the Protestant Archdeacon of Meath, was the chairperson of the committee set up to organise the importation of arms. She provided half of the money for their purchase.
Their efforts led to dramatic scenes on July 26, 1914, when over 1,000 members of the Irish Volunteers assembled in Dublin city for what had been billed as a routine march; but the march took them to Howth. By lunchtime, 900 German Mauser rifles were being passed up Howth harbour from the deck of the Asgard after thousands of rounds of ammunition had already been taken away in five motorcars.
The unloading and distribution of the weapons was largely carried out by members of Na Fianna Eireann. This republican boy scout organisation, established in 1909 by Bulmer Hobson and Constance Markievicz, was an Irish version of the military youth groups common in western countries in the early 20th discipline, manliness and military training.
At the time of the formation of the Na Fianna, and later the Irish Volunteers, Europe was riven with conflict and militarism on the part of civilians. This was common in Germany, Britain and Poland. Independent military action of smaller nations was evident in the Balkan wars of 1911-12 and the emerging nation states of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece - developments that did not go unrecorded in Ireland.
Whatever about the wider context for what happened in Howth, the more practical issue that afternoon was how to get the guns to safe havens without interference. The few members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Howth were powerless to intervene, and the Volunteers began their march back to Dublin. Some members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) half-heartedly attempted to intercept the Volunteers, but were aware of how outnumbered they were, and also had mixed feelings about what was happening, not all of them negative.
William Harrel, the assistant commissioner of the DMP, gathered policemen to block the Howth Road; he had sent for military reinforcements and 160 Crown soldiers arrived to block the Volunteer column as it reached Fairview and demanded surrender. Darrell Figgis surrendered for arrest, and during the lull, Volunteers had made off through fields to the city.
It was then that Harrel ordered the soldiers forward. There was a minor scuffle and a small amount of rifles seized, but it was clear there would be no significant seizure. The soldiers then began to retreat towards their city barracks, being subjected to abuse and taunting as they went. When the Volunteers reached Bachelor's Walk, the soldiers fired two volleys; three people were killed instantly and over 50 wounded.
The three dead were: Mary Duffy, a 56-year-old widow (with a son in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers); Patrick Quinn, a coal porter and father of six; and James Brennan, a 17-year-old messenger boy.
Harrel was sacked the following day.
The following week, on August 2, the remaining rifles were landed by the Kelpie boat, owned by Conor O'Brien (another Protestant from an imperial background who had converted to Irish nationalism) at Kilcoole in County Wicklow.
This operation was more rigorously secret than the Howth one. As a result of the Howth and Kilcoole escapades, a total 1,500 rifles were landed, with 45,000 rounds of ammunition.
The funerals of the victims of the Bachelor's Walk shootings attracted massive crowds; the funeral procession was headed by Volunteers equipped with the new guns. It was a remarkable display of unity from nationalist Ireland and included Lorcan Sherlock, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, trade unions, students, Christian Brothers and members of Cumann na mBan.
The Howth and Kilcoole events were the second act of a daring drama for Irish militants who were intent on forcing the British government to respond to their demands. For Ulster unionists, the demand was to abandon the implementation of home rule; for their southern counterparts, the demand was that the home rule commitment be honoured. On April 25, unionists had landed 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition, mostly at Larne. These were distributed, and hidden quickly and efficiently, by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
This was regarded as both a political and military victory. It generated much publicity, but also highlighted the level of distrust between unionists and the British political establishment. It should not be forgotten that it also created a dilemma for unionist political leaders, who hoped the UVF would not have to fight. They feared backing themselves into a corner, being well aware that conflict with the British army could be suicidal, and that 25,000 rifles would not go far amongst 100,000 UVF members.
Neither, of course, would 1500 rifles go far amongst 150,000 Irish Volunteers. But whatever about the numbers, it was clear the political and military temperature in Ireland was dangerously high, and the arms had been landed in defiance of a British proclamation prohibiting such importations.
While John Redmond, as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), made much of the "monstrous discrimination" made between the Ulster and the Irish Volunteers (the UVF operation had occurred without confrontation or challenge), privately the IPP was angered as the gun running had been organised without its knowledge.
Though all this gunrunning was partly just tactical and symbolic, it raised troubling questions about the precariousness of constitutional politics and the gulf between moderate nationalists and the more militant. There was now a significant presence of arms in Ireland, even though many of them were old - the Mauser was the first cartridge rifle adopted by the Prussian army in 1872, but by 1914 had been superseded by the 1898 Mauser Gewehr rifle.
Contemporaries, however, were not too concerned about that. Figgis described the older guns as "ideal for our purpose, cheap and undeniably effective". But it should not be assumed that the Irish Volunteers involved in gun running were intent on a military uprising; they saw themselves as arming to counter the unionist threat to home rule, not to fight for Irish independence.
Eoin MacNeill, as chief of staff, characterised the Volunteers as a defensive, organisation. "The Irish Volunteers, if they are a military force, are not a militarist force, and their objective is to secure Ireland's rights and liberties and nothing else," he said. But ultimately, this was the same MacNeill who, two years later, attempted to prevent the 1916 Rising, during which, some of the arms smuggled into Howth were used.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD