The Howth gun-running and the Waterford decoy

Erskine Childers (foreground) overseeing operations at Howth harbour (All images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

Erskine Childers, (foreground), overseeing operations at Howth harbour (All images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

The famed Howth gun-running has an oft forgotten Waterford connection.

The audacious landing of 900 Mauser rifles at Howth harbour on 26 July 1914 reverberated throughout Ireland. While the exploit was not as large as the Ulster Volunteer Force’s gun-running operation (24 – 25 April) at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee, where the UVF illegally acquired nearly 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition; landing the ‘Howth rifles’ in broad daylight, in such a ‘sufficiently spectacular manner’, was a major propaganda coup for the Irish Volunteers.

The apathetic stance of the British authorities to the UVF’s operation had also reinforced nationalist opinion that there was a bias favouring one Volunteer force over the other. Therefore, to insure the safe landing of Erskine Childers’ yacht, the Asgard, an elaborate diversion was concocted to thwart any attempt by the British to scupper the operation.

On 24 July 1914, Seán Matthews – a prominent IRB man in Waterford – was handed a mysterious letter stating that a sailing boat, the Naraganses, was due to land a consignment of arms at ‘The Island’, today the site of Waterford Castle Hotel. A Mr Gerald Purcell Fitzgerald, who had only ‘recently identified himself with the Volunteer movement’, was in fact the owner of the property where the guns were proposed to land.

Matthews recalled that a fellow Volunteer officer, J. D. Walsh, was the one who gave him this mysterious letter, which was ‘postmarked British’. The heavily sealed letter ‘stated that ‘the schooner, “Naraganses”, would arrive at “The Island” with a cargo of arms and instructed that a body of men were to be there to take delivery of [them]’. Liam Walsh – another local IRB man – surmised that the British had probably opened this letter, hailing from the Irish American Society in Bristol, thus revealing the plot to unload the arms at Waterford.

With Matthews believing the contents to be true, he decided to procure a yacht from Gerald Purcell to meet the incoming Naraganses. In his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement he remembered how they ‘searched down the river and down to the sea as far as Craden, about ten miles south of the city on the coast, near Dunmore East, but failed to find any trace of the schooner’. The local Munster Express also reported that the coastguard in Tramore had recorded ‘sighting a small vessel off the coast, one of suspicious nature’, and communicated this with Queenstown and the Royal Irish Constabulary. The RIC was duly dispatched, ‘and a force of police was stationed near the city during the Friday night’. Over the weekend ‘police armed to the teeth with rifles, bayonets, and revolvers’, were also seen in the Newtown area, ‘all in consequence of a rumour that an attempt had been made to land rifles for the Irish Volunteers near Tramore on Friday 24 July’. Subsequently, a cruiser and three destroyers from the Queenstown squadron are said to have appeared off Tramore.

Yet no guns arrived, for the Naraganses was merely a decoy. So while a British gunboat, the Heather, fruitlessly patrolled Waterford Harbour on 26 July, Childers’ yacht sailed into Howth unimpeded. Matthews would later remember: ‘When news eventually came through of the landing of guns at Howth, it confirmed our suspicions that the letter from Bristol was a decoy to put the British off the track of the Howth landing… I never found out who sent the letter from Bristol’. Liam Walsh would also humorously remark that the Heather ‘was only wasting her time’.

Interestingly, Bulmer Hobson – who had masterminded this propaganda exercise at Howth; of flagrantly bringing in the guns in broad daylight, disregarding the British authorities – asserted that he purposefully went to see John Gore, an elderly solicitor and one of the Treasurers on the Volunteer Committee; and told him in ‘strict confidence’ of plans to land guns at Waterford. Gore was, in Hobson’s opinion, ‘a charming old man, but he was an inveterate gossip’. Whether Gore’s loose tongue let slip is hard to ascertain. However, in the weeks prior to the Howth landing, Hobson has stated that a British naval vessel was indeed ‘anchored in Dublin Bay’. As a result, two days after telling Gore of his plan to land guns in Waterford, the ship ‘steamed south’.

There is some conjecture here as to the name of the ship anchored off Dublin bay. Hobson recalls two different names in two separate accounts, the H. M. S. Panther and the H. M. S. Forward. Both statements were made after the fact, but what can be ascertained is that a British navy ship was certainly patrolling Dublin bay just prior to the Howth landings. Whether this ties in with the false letter and the Naraganses is difficult to know. Hobson may well have sussed that the British vessel was another obstacle in their way and, thus, tied this in with the decoy plan already under operation. Therefore, as a result of both these decoys, Childers’ famed yacht managed to unload 900 Mauser rifles and 19,000 rounds of ammunition, unopposed by any British navy vessel.

Mary Spring Rice & Molly Childers aboard the Asgard with the famous ‘Howth rifles’

Mary Spring Rice & Molly Childers aboard the Asgard with the famous ‘Howth rifles’

Subsequently, with the initial stage of the landing a success, the Irish Volunteers marched from Howth harbour to Dublin, assisted by the boys of Fianna Éireann. It was not all plain sailing, however, as members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police soon stopped them. In the words of the Commissioner of the DMP: ‘A body of more than 1,000 men armed with rifles marching on Dublin, the seat of the Irish Government, constituted an unlawful assembly of a peculiarly audacious character’. Unsurprisingly a small skirmish ensued, with the police capturing 19 rifles. Hobson has described how this haul – ‘all of which were broken in the struggle’ – was actually returned to them, after Colonel Maurice Moore, Inspector-General of the Irish Volunteers, nonchalantly went to Dublin Castle the following day asking for the remnants to be given back.

The day in question ended ominously, however, when troops from the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderer’s opened fire on a crowd as they marched along Bachelor’s Walk. The Scottish Borderer’s had been ordered to return to barracks – having been mobilised because of the disturbances at Howth – but were pelted with stones from a jeering mob as they marched. Turning to face down the mob they callously opened fire, killing three; with a fourth later dying of injuries sustained. Although a highly regrettable action, it was a propaganda coup for those of an advanced nationalist persuasion. Coupled with attempts to disarm the Volunteers at Howth, these actions were seen by many nationalists as confirmation that the authorities were biased towards the Ulster rebels; for whom ‘no attempt, however feeble, had been made to stop the Larne operation’.

Seán Matthews would later remember that only two or three of the famed ‘Howth rifles’ – many of which could be heard on the streets of Dublin on Easter Week 1916 – ever made their way into the hands of the Waterford battalion.

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