The Howth Gun-Running – 26 July 1914

The Howth gun-running was set against a background of the Liberals and Conservatives struggling for power in the British Parliament and civil war ready to erupt at any moment in Ireland.

H.H. Asquith, British Prime Minister  
from 1908 to 1916.
H.H. Asquith, British Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916.

The immediate issue at stake was whether the Liberal Government under H.H. Asquith could succeed in enacting and enforcing a Home Rule Bill to give Ireland a measure of self-government. The threat of civil war grew with the ‘Orangemen’ now resolving to produce the gun.

Although their end goals were polar opposites to that of the Republican movement, the example of the Orangemen was infectious. Without the consent of John Redmond – who was the leader of the Irish Nationalist MP’s in Westminster at the time – a new military organisation, the Irish Volunteers, sprang into existence in Dublin.

The acquisition of arms was an obvious priority, a task that was rendered difficult by the proclamation of 4th December 1913, which prohibited the importation of arms and ammunition into Ireland. The Irish Volunteers saw there was only one solution – gun-running!

Childers at the helm of the Asgard.

A daring plan, masterminded by Bulmer Hobson and Erskine Childers, involved the purchase of guns and ammunition on the continent and their subsequent transportation to Ireland and, finally, distribution to the Volunteers. It was decided that Childers’ own yacht, Asgard, and the Kelpie owned by Conor O’Brien, should be used for the gun-running.

In the last week in May 1914, Irish writer and activist Darrell Figgis and Erskine Childers travelled to Hamburg where 1,500 second-hand Mauser rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition, supposedly destined for Mexico, were purchased. The cargo was stored in a warehouse in Liège, Belgium.

One month later on 9th July, the Asgard and the Kelpie rendezvoused at Cowes before proceeding separately to meet the German tug Gladiator, which would provide the necessary transport to the Roetigen Lightship in the North Sea.

The German tug Gladiator awaiting the Asgard.

Under weather conditions that tested the navigational skills of both crews to the limit, the two yachts met the tug on 12th July. Childers, who sailed with his wife Molly, took 750 rifles and half the ammunition and O’Brien the other half of the cargo.

Diary of the Asgard

by Mary Spring Rice

Wednesday 1 July 1914

A long, hot and anxious journey over to Conway to join the yacht, starting with breakfast at 6:15am, motoring to Limerick for the 8:15, and crossing over by the 1:15 boat.

I was full of apprehensions that even now, at the eleventh hour, something might have upset all our carefully-laid schemes.

Mary Spring Rice (l) and Molly Childers aboard Asgard, rifles in hand.

Mary Spring Rice was a close friend of the Childers family, a strong supporter of Home Rule and later of Sinn Féin, and accompanied the Childers’ on the Asgard‘s epic journey.

…shortly before 1pm, the Asgard sailed into Howth harbour...

The final stage of the plan was daring in its concept. O’Brien had his cargo transferred to Sir Thomas Myles off the Welsh coast, who then landed it on an unfrequented beach at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow on 25th July. It was met by a small contingent of Volunteers.

The next day, on Sunday 26th July 1914, shortly before 1pm, the Asgard sailed into Howth harbour in North County Dublin and discharged her cargo of arms and ammunition to one thousand Volunteers and Fianna boy scouts who eagerly awaited their arrival on the East Pier. To expedite the unloading, Childers had taken the guns out of their packaging while at sea and laid them in layers on the floor of the cabin, so that the moment the hatches were off, the guns were passed from hand to hand. As a result, the whole unloading of the guns took approximately half an hour.

The Volunteers on Howth Pier (Childers in the foreground on the right).

When the last gun came ashore, the ammunition was already on its way, the bulk by taxis accompanied by several IRB members, to their appointed destinations around the city.

Some 2,000 rounds remained, along with the rifles, with the Fianna, “who were the only body on whose discipline I could count” claimed Bulmer Hobson. These were then to be carried via Raheny and the Howth Road.

Route (R-L): East Pier of Howth harbour (i), past Sutton (ii), via Howth Road (iii) to Raheny (iv) and Clontarf (v).

Hobson accounts in F.X. Martin’s book “The Howth Gun-Running” that he was afraid of the authorities cutting them off before they got past Sutton. As he suspected, the authorities had sent out soldiers and police to intercept them.

The Volunteers, some with bicycles, ready to run the guns.

At Clontarf, the Volunteers and Fianna, carrying the unloaded rifles, were confronted by a combined force of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and two companies of the King’s Own Borders armed with rifles and bayonets. Assistant Commissioner Harrell was in charge. The demand to surrender the rifles was denied. A general free-for-all ensued with the DMP attempting to disarm the Volunteers. Clubbed rifles and bayonets were used freely. The fight only lasted a few minutes.

A London Times correspondent reported that orders were quietly given that Volunteers with guns disperse and disappear through the city and return home while front ranks were kept solid to disguise the manoeuvre.

“Harrell began to complain of a ‘discreditable manoeuvre'”, said Figgis upon realising the Volunteers had gone, rifles and all.

We have got the guns!

The Howth gun-running was important in its immediate consequences. Darrell Figgis said, “It revealed to every doubter, and even to us who never doubted, what ancient hopes were in the nature of each man’s blood.” The Volunteers were armed. Arthur Griffith exclaimed, “We have got the guns! But better still, we have got back some of our respect and confidence in ourselves. The Volunteer movement is making men by the thousand, out of doubting and vacillating.”

But more important than the immediate consequences was the fact that the Howth gun-running made the Rising of Easter Week 1916 possible, why Easter Week 1916 saw the Irish Volunteer and the Irish Citizen Army, with their Howth rifles, banded together in revolution and bloody protest in the heart of Dublin.

Further reading:

  • The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running 1914 by F.X. Martin, Browne & Nolan Ltd., 1964.
  • An Phoblacht – the first paper in Ireland to go online, in August 2003 the new website was launched.
My Old Howth Gun

by Seamus McGallogly

There is sorrow in my heart,
O, my old Howth Gun!
Since we lately had to part,
O, my old Howth Gun!
For in Ireland's day of need
Well you proved a friend indeed,
When you made the bullets speed,
O, my old Howth Gun!

How glorious was your feel,
O, my old Howth Gun!
When you made the Saxon reel,
O, my old Howth Gun!
When the Lancers, trim and neat,
Charging down O'Connell Street,
Had to beat a quick retreat,
O, my old Howth Gun!

But a day will come again,
O, my old Howth Gun!
When I'll join the fighting men,
O, my old Howth Gun!
With some brave, determined band,
Proudly there I'll take my stand
For the freedom of our land,
O, my old Howth Gun!