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On 26th July 1914 there was unusual crowding on the East Pier of the fishing harbour of Howth, Dublin and great excitement which grew as the sail of yacht was spotted making for the harbour. Among those gathered on the pier were members of the Irish Volunteers and of Na Fianna Éireann, the Irish Republican youth organisation. As the yacht, the Asgard, maneouvered to pull into position along the pier, mooring ropes thrown were quickly made fast. Then an amazing number of Mauser rifles and ammunition began to be unloaded into eager hands.
On Sunday 26th July this year the annual commemoration of the historic event was organised by the Anti-Imperialist Action group to take place in Howth. A group of people formed up at the start of the pier and proceeded along to the end, where the commemorative plaque is and where the ceremony was to be held. A small colour party preceded the procession, followed by a banner against the extradition of Liam Campbell, in turn followed by another banner stating: “This Is Our Mandate, This Is Our Republic” (from the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, 1919), with the rest of the procession following behind.
The idea of arming the Irish Volunteers to counter the arming of the Ulster Volunteers, who had declared their aim to prevent the limited autonomy of Home Rule being given to Ireland by the British Government, had been discussed in 1914 by a group that could best be described as Anglo-Irish, middle class and including even an aristocrat – nearly all of Protestant background. The eventual sailing of the gun-laden yacht from off the Belgian coast to Dublin was accomplished by a crew of the Asgard assembled for the purpose: Erskine and Molly Childers, Molly Spring-Rice, Conor O’Brien and two seamen from Gola in Donegal: Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan. Apart from the Captain, Erskine Childers, they all had some Irish in their backgrounds but only Conor O’Brien and the Donegal men were of indigenous stock, with only the latter two native Irish speakers.
The rifles were successfully landed and were used effectively during the 1916 Rising, though only single-shot against the five-shot magazines of the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifles, of which the Volunteers had only a few (and no machine-guns at all).
When the commemorative procession reached the pier head, the attendance fanned out in a square with an open end facing Margaret McKearney, who was to chair the event. The colour party stood to to one side, the flags bearing the designs of the Irish Citzen Army and Na Fianna Éireann, along with the Tricolour, fluttering in the gentle sea-breeze.
McKearney called for a minute’s silence in remembrance and honour of all those who had given their lives in the struggle for Irish independence, during which the colour party performed the presentation, lowering and raising of the flags. Floral wreaths on behalf of Anti-Imperialist Action and Spirit of Freedom Westmeath were then laid underneath the commemorative plaque to the historic landing of the weapons.
McKearney, a life-long Republican from a Republican family in East Tyrone, had once been described by Scotland Yard as “possibly the most dangerous woman terrorist in Britain” but had legally defeated extradition attempts to extradite her from the Irish state in 1975. Two of her brothers had been killed on active service and another murdered by Loyalists during the three-decades war in the Six Counties; another brother had barely survived 53 days of the 1980 hunger strike upon its termination.
Recounting the events of the obtaining of the rifles and ammunition and their landing at Howth in 1914, McKearney went on to tell of the failure of the colonial Dublin Metropolitan police and British Army to confiscate the weapons and how at Bachelors’ Walk, the King’s Own Scottish Borders opened fire on a crowd mocking their failure and bayoneted at least one, killing four and injuring 38.
The guns had been used in the 1916 Rising, McKearney related and went on to refer to the long struggle for Irish independence since, still uncompleted, with the Good Friday Agreement seeking to draw a line under it and preserve the status quo.
Referring to the growing danger of fascism in Ireland and in the world, McKearney pointed out that as the financial losses incurred during the Covid19 epidemic mounted, the ruling class in Ireland and its government would be seeking to break the resistance of the people in order to impose austerity upon them and it was then that they might well turn to the fascists.
The chair then introduced historian Peter Rogers of the Spirit of Freedom who delivered a lengthy speech on the nature of Irish Republicanism and the struggle for independence. Rogers referred to Good Friday Agreement as having failed to resolve the situation with even Francis Molloy (a Provisional Sinn Féin TD, i.e member of the Irish Parliament) remarking that they “had been sold a pup”. The speaker concluded saying that Sinn Féin must be given time to fail in the Dáil when the option of a united Ireland would be more easily embraced.
A speaker from Macra – Irish Republican Youth was then called forward and delivered a short statement.
Diarmuid Breatnach, representing the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland, was next to speak. Pointing out that internment without trial of Republican activists was continuing albeit under other forms, Breatnach related how Irish Republicans were being charged and refused bail prior to being brought before non-jury special courts on both sides of the British Border. In the unlikely event of their being found not guilty subsequently, they had nevertheless spent two years in jail. Also the practice of rearresting without trial or even charge of Republican prisoners released on licence constituted a form of internment, Breatnach said.
Going on to speak of the historic Howth event, the speaker remarked upon the varied nature of those who had planned and carried out the operation, including a number who would not have satisfied the criteria for “Irishness” of the current crop of Irish racists and fascists of the Far-Right in Ireland. Yet some involved in the gun-running had made that contribution before leaving the struggle, while most had gone on to fight in the 1916 Rising, joined there also by the workers’s Irish Citizen Army. Many had gone on the fight in the War of Independence and while some had sided with the Free State in the split and Civil War in 1922, most of the fighters had remained on the Republican side.
The lesson he drew from that, Breatnach continued, was that the fight for freedom had to be extended in as broad an alliance as possible but also remaining aware that some of that alliance would be temporary and to prepare accordingly.
The speaker commented on the historical importance of possession of weapons when facing an armed enemy and concluded by saying that though the time for weapons might not be now, the lesson of history is that such a time would come in the future.
McKearney thanked the organisers, attendance and all the speakers for their contributions and announced the handing over of a donation from Anti-Imperialist Action to the Loughgall Memorial Martyrs’ fund.
The event then concluded with the singing of a verse and chorus of Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem, sung in Irish by Breatnach.
HISTORICAL POSTSCRIPT: THE ASGARD TODAY
The boat was built in Norway by an acclaimed Scottish migrant boat-builder and sold in 1904 to the Erskine Childers and his USA bride, Molly (Mary Alden Osgood), with the interior built to the specifications of Erskine and Molly. Childers, though English and had volunteered for the British armed forces during WWI, nevertheless took up the cause of Irish independence, joining the IRA in the War of Independence and continuing on the Republican side. He was captured by the Free State forces and executed by the State in 1922 (his son Erskine Hamilton Childers was elected the 4th President of the State in 1973).
The Asgard was sold and in 1961 Journalist Liam Mac Gabhann discovered the vessel in the River Truro, Cornwall and wrote about it. After lobbying, the Irish State purchased and overhauled the ship and sailed back to Howth in 1961, where the original event was re-enacted with surviving members of the Irish Volunteers. The Irish Navy used her as a sail training vessel but in 1974 the Yacht was dry-docked in what was in essence a large shed in Kilmainham, partly open to the elements, until new restoration work began in 2007. In 2012 the yacht was moved to the National Museum complex at Collins Barracks, where it has resided since in a separate and permanent exhibiton, along with memorabilia and related information and photographs. In normal times the National Museum is open six days a week and entry is free to both the Asgard exhibition and the general Museum exhibitions.
Anti-Imperialist Action: https://www.facebook.com/antievictionflyingcolumn/
The Howth Gun-Running: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howth_gun-running
The Asgard: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asgard_(yacht)
Loughgall Martyrs Memorial: https://www.lurganmail.co.uk/news/crime/memorial-two-ira-men-killed-loughgall-razed-ground-639757