22 July 2005

Remembering the Past - The Asgard

An Phoblacht

BY SHANE Mac THOMÁIS

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Painting of Howth Harbour by Norman J. McCaig from here

On 24 April 1914 the unionist paramilitary Ulster Volunteers successfully imported into Ireland 10,000 Manlicher rifles, 9,100 Mauser rifles and 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition all purchased in Hamburg, Germany. The purpose of the importation was to oppose by violence any introduction of Home Rule for Ireland.

In London Eoin MacNeill met with some Anglo-Irish Protestants including Roger Casement, Alice Stopford Green, and Maura Comerford, and provoked by the success of the unionists they decided to respond in kind.

Three months later, on 3 July, the Asgard began a voyage that would see her sail into the pages of Irish history. On board Erskine Childers, Molly Childers, Mary Spring Rice and Gordon Shephard sailed the rifle-laden yacht for 21 days which took them right through the entire British Naval Fleet, then under review by the King of England at Spithead and weathering at least one severe storm

In Dublin, about 20 members of the IRB under the command of Cathal Brugha were sent to Howth early on the morning of Sunday 26 July with instructions to hire boats and generally look as much like tourists as possible. Their business was to receive the yacht, moor her and, in the event of any police interference, to deal with it. The Irish Volunteers met on Sunday morning at Father Matthew Park in Fairview, totalling 800 in all. They were told they were about to go on a route march to North Dublin.

Just 48 hours before Austria served an ultimatum on Serbia, the Asgard, with Molly at the helm, sailed into Howth. On the pier the Irish Volunteers, who had been kept in ignorance of their purpose there until the last moment broke ranks in their excitement. As the Volunteers began to unload the rifles a coastguard cutter was seen approaching and rifles were instantly raised by the IRB, and the cutter's crew, conceding that caution was the better part of valour, restricted themselves to firing rockets to alert a far too distant HMS Porpoise. Within half an hour the unloading was complete and the newly-armed Volunteers formed up to cheer the yacht out of the harbour. Two days later the Asgard and its occupants were in North Wales reading in an alarmed British Press about the landing of guns in Dublin.

Sadly, the gun running was not without further incident. On their way back to Dublin the Volunteers were accosted at Clontarf by police and a battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. Ordered to surrender their arms, the leaders, Thomas MacDonagh and Darrell Figgis cleverly argued while their men melted away one by one into the fields with their weapons, saving all but 19 of the rifles. The Scottish Battalion withdrew towards their barracks in Dublin followed by a growing, jeering crowd. At Batchelor's Walk on the Liffey Quays the soldiers came to attention and fired randomly into the crowd of civilians, killing three and wounding 38.

Of the 1,500 guns purchased by Darrell Figgis in Antwerp, Childers brought 900 to Howth. The other 600 and a portion of the ammunition were placed on Conor O'Briens yacht which sailed into Kilcoole on the 1 August 1914. Two years later in the streets of Dublin, the Howth rifles could be heard announcing Ireland's cry for freedom.

On Sunday 26 July 1914, 91 years ago, the Asgard sailed into Howth Harbour.

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