Guns to fuel a Fishing Boat?
In June of 1914, 900 guns, specifically Mauser riffles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition were purchased from Germany and shipped to Ireland. The guns were supposed to be used to protect Home Rule but in 1916 they would be used for an all-out rebellion against England. Several women were at the heart of this mission: Alice Stopford Green, Molly Childers, (wife of Erskine Childers who also was involved) and Mary Spring Rice.
Mary Spring Rice grew up in a wealthy Anglo-Irish household whose compassion and free-thinking atmosphere encouraged independent thinking and a love for Irish culture. The family spoke Irish fluently. When she was selling Irish lace in London she met Erskine and Molly Childers, Alice Stopford Green and eventually Roger Casement who were part of an Anglo Irish Committee. Motivated by the Ulster Volunteers ability to smuggle guns into Larne and march all over Belfast, the group was determined to find a way to arm the Irish Volunteers as well. But how?
Mary Spring Rice put up her own money as did Alice Stopford Green. Mary offered her own fishing boat for the adventure as well, the Santa Cruz, but upon inspection, Erskine Childers found the boat to be inferior for the job. He offered his pleasure yacht, the Asgard instead. The guns were smuggled aboard.
A second smaller boat called the Kelpie skippered by Mary’s cousin Conor O’Brien was backup for part of the shipment.The weapons were transferred from the German tugboat, the Gladiator off the Belgium coast.
Mary complained that her cousin ‘was useless in a crisis.’ She was referring to the miscommunication between the group and Conor whereby he sent numerous wild telegrams to Mrs. Green asking where they were leading Mary to write, ‘If the castle does not know of our mission it is a miracle. The only hope is the government are fairly stupid.’
A Yacht for a Present !
The Asgard was a wedding present for the Childers and Erskine had it commissioned for the sole comfort of his wife. Molly had a spinal injury since the age of four and had had multiple operations until the age of twelve and her bridegroom helped design the craft with his wife’s comfort in mind.
Molly also had severe sea sickness while aboard the Asgard during the gun-running to Howth Harbor.
Both Alice Stopford Green and Mary Spring Rice financed much of the operation with the conditions that the Volunteers would pay one pound for each rifle. Funds from the American group of Clan na Gael also contributed.
Mary had opposed English colonial policy in South Africa during the Boer Wars and supported Roger Casement’s Congo Reform movement.
One storm nearly capsized them!
It was not an easy journey. The boat was small and though it was July, the voyage was rough with mounting waves that crashed over the stern, one storm, the worst since 1882, nearly capsized the tiny vessel. Mary kept a thorough diary of their twenty-three day journey chronicling their experience. Heavy cargo took up every available space on the boat leaving little room for food and water.
As they landed in Howth, they were greeted by waiting Volunteers. Concealed by a cordon, they unloaded the cargo within 45 minutes, and then took the rifles on their shoulders and marched down the Malihide Road. Fianna Scouts hid most of the ammunition in covered carts, which they quickly wheeled away under the noses of the British.
At first, they met little resistance until they reached Clontarf and an impasse with the police and British Military.
Arthur Griffith, who was there at the time, stated in his writing, “this was our rifle boat against club and baton.‘
Many of the Volunteers managed to escape over walls while other Volunteers held the line until Scottish reinforcements arrived with bayonettes.
Having seized only a handful of weapons, the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, who had a reputation for being brutal, marched down O’Connell Street on their way back to their barracks. They turned onto Bachelor’s Walk into a densely populated area of Dublin. People jeered and threw rocks at the Scots until in a fit of anger; the enraged Scots retaliated by opening fire on the crowd. Three people were killed with a fourth dieing later of his wounds and 38 were wounded. One woman suffered a bayonet in the stomach and then was shot; her son was a British soldier.
“Madame hide em guns, quick!”
Constance Markievicz did not know about the excitement in Howth until one of her Fianna boys showed up with guns to hide in her house.
While all this was going on, the Asgard and her crew continued onto Holyhead and then boarded a train to London and Westminster just in time to hear Edward Grey announcing England’s entry into the Great War.
For more stories on extraordinary women who fought for Ireland check out my German Spies post or and one of my favorite heroines, Doctor Kathleen Lynn, one of the first female doctors in Ireland.
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