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1914: The Howth Gun Running

Cycle Corps of the Irish Volunteers marching from Howth with their rifles, 26th July 1914.

The Larne gun running and the Curragh mutiny convinced the nationalist volunteers that they needed to arm to protect the cause of Home Rule. However compared to the Ulster volunteers, the Irish Volunteers were poorly funded and they had far fewer members with military experience.

In spite of this, in London, a group of wealthy British and Anglo-Irish supporters of the Home Rule cause had formed a committee to raise funds for the purchase of arms. This was the group that would plan the Howth gun running, it's key members were Sir Roger Casement, Erskine Childers, Mary Spring Rice, Darrell Figgis, Mary Childers and Alice Stopford Green.


On 28th May 1914 Figgis and Childers travelled to Hamburg to negotiate the purchase of arms from the dealer Moritz Magnus Jnr. They succeeded in purchasing 1,500 Mauser model 1871 rifles with 49,000 rounds of ammunition. These were single shot, bolt action rifles which were inferior to those landed by the Unionists at Larne but they were serviceable and fired a high calibre round. To transport them to Ireland a plan was formulated which involved Erskine Childers sailing the Asgard to the mouth of the R. Scheldt to rendezvous with a German tug boat the Gladiator. He would take a portion of the arms while another member of the committee, Conor O'Brien would take the remainder in his smaller yacht, the Kelpie.

The Voyage

The Asgard set out from Conwy in north Wales on July 3rd. On board were Erskine and Molly Childers, Mary Spring Rice, Gordon Shephard, and two fishermen from Gola Island in Co. Donegal, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan. Mary Spring Rice kept a detailed diary in which she described the journey.

The voyage south down the Welsh coast and around Land's End passed without incident, although they had to contend with the prevailing south-westerly wind typical of the Irish Sea. Having rounded Land's End they picked up speed travelling up the English Channel. On July 8th they put into Cowes to meet with the Kelpie and carry out repairs. The two vessels left Cowes on July 10th, and successfully linked up with the Gladiator during the evening of July 12th.

The return journey was a far more difficult and uncomfortable trip than the outward leg. The rifles took up much of the cabin space and made for an uncomfortable sleeping area. They reached Milford Haven on July 19th where Gordon Shepard left for London.

The journey from Milford Haven to Howth coincided with one of the worst storms to hit the area for decades. After drifting westwards during the night of the 20th, they managed to sail to Holyhead where they put in to repair damage to the sails. The ship remained in Holyhead for two days while they waited for the westerly wind to die down.

On the 24th the vessel left for Howth and despite the challenging conditions they sighted the Irish coast the following day. By the morning of the 26th the vessel was in position north of Howth harbour awaiting a motor boat which was scheduled to meet with them and guide them into the harbour.

After an anxious wait the motor boat failed to arrive and Erskine decided to approach the harbour anyway in the hope that the volunteers would be there to unload the cargo. To the relief of the crew the volunteers lined the quayside as they came into view and the arms were successfully unloaded. 

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