1912-1914: Ireland, the Asgard and the Home Rule Crisis
In its early years, while the Home Rule Crisis developed in Ireland, the Asgard was used as a cruising yacht by Erskine and Molly.
Ireland in 1912 was in a state of political turmoil. A Bill to grant Home Rule to the country was once again being debated in Westminster. On two previous occasions in 1886 and 1893 the Home Rule Bill failed to get through both houses of parliament. In 1886 the Bill had failed to get through the House of Commons, the 1893 Bill was passed by the Commons only to be decisively defeated in the House of Lords. At this time the House of Lords had the right to veto any act of parliament indefinitely, and this combined with the fact that it was dominated by the Conservative party seemed to ensure that Home Rule would never be passed.
National Volunteers Review, 1916.
The Parliament Act 1911
However in 1909 a crisis developed which would resulted in the power of the House of Lords being limited. In that year the Lords attempted to block the budget from being approved. This represented a violation of the traditional role of the Lords, and resulted in the government taking steps to affirm the dominance of the House of Commons over the Lords. To do this they needed the support of John Redmond's Home Rule Party, which was only too keen to see the curtailment of the power of the House of Lords. The Parliament Act of 1911 stipulated among other things, that the Lords would only be able to block Bills from being passed for a period of 2 years. This could allow Home Rule to become a reality, in April 1912 the new Home Rule Bill was put before parliament, it was passed by the Commons, but rejected by the Lords. This would be repeated twice more over the following two years, but following the third rejection the government could use the provisions of the Parliament Act to bypass the House of Lords and send the Bill to be ratified by the King. By 1914 however, the forces opposed to the granting of Home Rule had mobilised creating a major problem for the government.
Unionism and the Ulster Volunteers
For the Unionist portion of the population prospect of Home Rule being granted was a very unwelcome development. Severing the link with Britain was seen as a threat to the religious liberty of the protestant population, and to the economic prosperity of the protestant dominated north-east of the country. There had been riots and acts of protest at the time of the previous Home Rule Bills, but with the inevitable prospect of Home Rule being granted in 1914, more organised and concrete resistance was planned.
In September 1912 over 200,000 men signed the Ulster Covenant pledging to fight the imposition of Home Rule in Ireland. In unionist communities across the north of Ireland small militia groups began drilling, and in January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer force was formally established. The Ulster Volunteers represented a major obstacle for the liberal Government in their efforts to introduce Home Rule in Ireland, they had the full support of the British Conservative party as well as many wealthy business interests in Ireland. With many ex-army personnel to aid in its organisation the UVF continued to drill during the summer of 1913 while the leadership raised money and made efforts to import arms for the movement.
The Irish Volunteers
As the Ulster Volunteers drilled, many nationalists in the south became concerned that they might threaten the granting of Home Rule. There had long been a tradition of violent nationalism in Ireland represented in 1912 by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but this had been secretive and marginalised since the emergence of the Home Rule movement. As more moderate elements within the nationalist camp came to see a need for an armed force to protect nationalist interests the more extreme nationalists were keen to get involved as this might afford them the opportunity to further their own objectives. Both the parliamentarian and Militant traditions of nationalism had benefited greatly from the growth of gaelic cultural organisations during the years prior to the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill. Many individuals became involved in politics through these organisations most prominently Eoin MacNeill and Pádraig Pearse. The different groups came together on November 25th 1913 to formally establish the Irish Volunteers with MacNeill as honorary secretary. Their stated aim was ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland’. The organisation attracted many members over the following months and began to drill. The forming of the volunteers was viewed with suspicion by John Redmond and members of the Home Rule Party, despite this, many Home Rulers also became involved.
As 1914 began, tensions were running high. The threat of violence when the Home Rule Bill came into force prompted the British government to look into using the army to suppress the Ulster Volunteers. This however prompted serious protests from the officers in command of the troops in Ireland. The army was a traditional bulwark of conservatism within the state and thus shared the views of the Unionists on the Home Rule question. Added to this many of the officers came from loyalist Anglo-Irish families. Consequently in March 1914 when the officers were briefed on the plan to move north to act against the Ulster Volunteers the majority choose to resign rather than obey the Governments orders. The incident became known as the Curragh Mutiny, though there had not actually been any insubordination, but the resignations did prompt the government to drop plans to use the Army to move against the Ulster Volunteers.
Larne Gun Running
This episode had greatly boosted the confidence of the Ulster Volunteers who now proceeded forward in the belief that the army would not act against them. Major Frederick Crawford, a member of the Ulster Unionist Council with extensive military experience, had been tasked with organising shipments of arms for the Volunteers. Through an arms dealer in Hamburg he purchased 24,000 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition and arranged for them to be shipped to the north of Ireland. The arms were landed successfully at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee on the night of 24th/25th April 1914 and hastily driven away in a fleet of assembled cars. Despite having knowledge of the plan the authorities took no action against these activities, this combined with the Curragh incident the previous month convinced the Irish Volunteers of the need to arm.