The Kilcoole Heritage group came together in 2012 to plan for the Centenary of the landing of guns at the beach in Kilcoole. With the Decade of Centenaries taking shape and much discussion round the rights and wrongs of events a challenge the group face was to convince a village that a festival about guns was a worthwhile undertaking. The landing of guns at Kilcoole is part of the same operation that saw guns unloaded in Howth from the Asgard captained by Erskine Childers. Most accounts of this operation focus on events at Howth, the offloading of 900 guns and ammunition to the Irish Volunteers, and the shooting dead of members of the public later that day at Bachelors Walk. Yet, when we went to look at the story behind the landings Kilcoole is all but forgotten. The landing at Kilcoole is at best an addendum to the story, describing a smaller consignment of 600 guns and ammunition. Often Kilcoole had been eliminated from modern accounts altogether. When we began to draw the full details together we discovered an intriguing story about how the operation came about and set about telling the story of the landing from its inception to implementation. What transpired is a story involving incredible planning and daring for an unlikely successful outcome. While most of us are familiar about organisations involved at the time such as the Irish Volunteer, the IRB, Cumann na mBan and na Fianna Eireann, the main group behind the organisation of the gun-running were women and men from aristocratic Anglo-Irish Protestant families, or privileged professions, with wealth and influence, but who were committed Irish nationalism. To fully understand the now famous Howth Gun Running and Kilcoole’s equally audacious role in events, we need to go explore events for the beginning.
For that we need to go back to the 8th May 1914 to Grosvenor Road in London and the arrival of Roger Casement to the house of Historian and Irish Nationalist Alice Stopford Green. Aware that the Ulster Volunteers had managed to land 35,000 guns at Larne on the 25th April 1914 there as an urgency in arming the Irish Volunteers. Casement, an ex British diplomat and now Irish Nationalist and member of the IRB, was frustrated by the failure to arrange any significant acquisition of arms or even the funds to purchase them. At Alice’s house were yachtsman Erskine Childers and his wife, Mollie, Mary Spring Rice, an Irish Nationalist of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, and Achill-based Irish Volunteer, Darrell Figgis. Top of the agenda was the raising for funds to buy guns but discussion also turned to the procurement and transportation of these guns. Half the money was put up by Alice with Casement and the Childers opting to contact Protestant sympathisers in Ireland while Spring-Rice undertaking to raise funds from prominent Irish families in London. It was Mary Spring-Rice, in correspondence with Michael ‘The’ O’Rahilly, who first mooted the idea of using small pleasure boats to bring a shipment from Europe. While her own boat was not of sufficient capacity, that Childers, the ‘Asgard’ was. They found a willing participant in Foynes based sailor and adventurer Conor O’Brien with his boat, the ‘Kelpie’. O’Brien was from a wealth family with a strong nationalist pedigree; his own grandfather being one of the ‘Young Irelanders’.
From a meeting in London between O’Rahilly and Hamburg-based arms-dealer Moritz Magnus a consignment of arms was identified. Casement and Figgis were dispatched to Liege in Belgium to check out the 1,500 Prussian 71-Mauser and 49,000 rounds offered in the deal. Casement reported the suitability of the consignment to O’Rahilly, MacNeill and Hobson and the go-ahead was given. Figgis remained in Belgium to arrange shipment to the port of Hamburg ready for transportation to Ireland.
The Asgard, moored in Holyhead and the Kelpie moored in Foynes in Limerick were readied for the journey. The plan was to make sail to the English Channel, stopping off a various ports that would be frequented such boats; it was as if they were just on a leisure trip upon the seas. On board the Asgard were the Childers and Mary Spring-Rice accompanied by Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggen, both from Gola island. Also on board was Royal Flying Corps officer, Gordon Shepard. Crewing the Kelpie were O’Brien and his sister Kitty, Diarmaid Coffey, George Cahill and Tom FitzSimmons. The two boats rendezvoused at Cowes on the Isle of Wight on the 9th July. Running behind schedule, word was sent to Figgis in Hamburg where he had arranged for the shipment to be transferred from the tug the ‘Gladiator’ at the yachts near the Ruytingen Lightship which lay off the coast from Dunkirk just inside the North Sea. It would be ‘normal’ for such pleasure craft to day-sail up to this mark from Dunkirk in France or Ramsgate in England and come about to return back to harbour; the perfect ruse. On the 12th July the Kelpie, arriving first, met the Gladiator. Although the shipment was supposed to be split in half between the two yachts, O’Brien could only fit 600 guns and ammunition leaving a very annoyed Childers determined to take the remaining 900 when he arrived later; the Asgard was sitting dangerously low in the water but Childers was determined to take the lot. Sailing back through the Straits of Dover, the Kelpie passed the Royal fleet. Unbeknown to the crew the King was reviewing the fleet in readiness for the outbreak of war with Germany. There was little room for the crew in either boat to sleep and with strong head-winds progress was slow. After stopping for supplies near Penzance, the Kelpie sailed on the St Tudwals Roads off the Welsh Coast. O’Brien was not known for discretion and thought he could hide in plain sight by telling people of the operation thinking he would not be believed. However, O’Brien became concerned he would be detected. Contacts were made through Creed Meredith to Sir Thomas Myles and he agreed to bring the cargo the rest of the way to Kilcoole on his yacht, the ‘Chotah’. Myles was a former President of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Home Rule supporter. He arranged to meet the Kelpie on Friday, 24th July at Bradley Islands. Crossing the Irish Sea in a heavy storm, the Chotah sustained damage to its mainsail and failed to meet the Kelpie at the agreed time; the Kelpie returned to St Tudwalls and the Chotah followed in later and the guns were transferred. Maintaining the ruse, Myles intention was to appear as a weekend sailor, as was his habit, and he feared breaking his routine would raise suspicion. As repairs could not be carried out until after the weekend Diamaid Coffey was sent by ferry from Holyhead to raise the alert for a change of plan. The landing would be delayed by a week.
Meanwhile, the Asgard was sailing towards Howth through the storm Myles had encountered, with its heavy load. The objective at Howth was to be a very public spectacle of the Volunteer’s ability to import arms. It was to be carried out in broad daylight in defiance of the embargo placed on importation of arms. Organised by Bulmer Hobson, Volunteer units had drilled on the streets of Dublin for weeks and no longer attracted the attention of the Police. However, on the 26th July they marched to Howth where the guns and ammunitions were offloaded by crowds of Volunteers to be spirited away and hidden in the nearby Christian Brothers. When Diarmaid Coffey arrived in Dublin he found the Volunteers marching out toward Howth and following them where he met Hobson and relayed his message. While the guns were being unloaded the Harbour Master alerted the Authorities but Hobson and McDonagh distracted them in discussion while the rest of the guns were removed from sight. While the operation went smoothly, later that day jeering crowds as Batchelor’s Walk were fired upon by British soldiers, killing three and injuring many others.
While the seafarers mission was conceived around subterfuge so it as that the landing at Kilcoole was also planned. The landing at Kilcoole as an insurance policy that guns would be successfully acquired by the Volunteers. While the landing at Howth was done in the open, Kilcoole would take place in the dead of night. To have manpower and transportation required to remove the guns to safety, members of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na nBan posed as daytripers. Complete with picnics and travelling in a rented Charabanc open bus, they visited tourist sites such as Rathdrum, Powerscourt Gardens and Rocky Valley in Kilmacanoque. Most returned home by train that evening and the Charabanc waited at Glen of the Downs until dark were it was met by other cars and motorbikes. All then moved to a dip in the grounds of the Holy Faith Convent in Kilcoole to await orders to arrive and collect their contraband. Meanwhile, members of the IRB, Irish Volunteers and members of Na Fianna hEireann arrived to secure the area, cutting telegraph wires and managing to capture two patrolling RIC officers who were held along with the railway Station master and is wife in the Station house. Present that night were people who are now household names; Bulmer Hobson, Cathal Brugha, Eamon Ceannt, Michael O’Hanrahan and Thomas McDonagh.
Myles had reached south of the Kish lighthouse where he was met by the motorised trawler, the ‘Nugget’ with its crew skippered by James McLoughlin. On board were IRB men Daly, Kenny and Tobin; to look like they were on a fishing trip they carried bait and tackle, and also a revolver. The Nugget accompanied the Chotah to the shore at Kilcoole on the morning of the 2nd August 1914 where they were signalled to start offloading their cargo. Local fishermen in small craft had been recruited to ferry the cargo to the shore; amongst the men was 10 year-old Paddy Salmon and his father, Cornelius. On shore they were met by the awaiting assemblage of men and vehicles and the cargo was quickly hauled up the beach by Kilcoole man William Foley, a coal man and member of the Irish Volunteers with his horse and dray. The guns were loaded onto the ensemble of vehicles and driven away. At Sunnybank in Bray the greatly overload Charabanc bust an axel. While Liam Mellows and Cathal Brugha sped off on motorcycles for help, driver Joseph Rosney, a ex-Bray resident, ran around knocking on doors of old neighbours. The guns and ammunition were hidden in houses and backyards until a convoy of cars arrived to ferry the guns to Pearce’s school, St Enda’s in Rathfarnham. The guns were then divided into a fleet of cars to be dispersed to secret stores across the city. The mission now complete had been a great success. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany.
For the Kilcoole Heritage Group it was an amazing journey of discovery and it climaxed into a very successful commemorative event on the 26th and 27th July 2014. Through our publication ‘Forgotten History: The Kilcoole Gunrunning’ (available on Amazon.com) the community were gifted the opportunity to reflect on its own part in a greater story and to realise the contributions and sacrifices made by so many. Speaking to the onlookers at the gun-running re-enactment at Kilcoole beach, Wicklow historian, Dr Ruan O’Donnell said ‘the drama of the Howth and Kilcoole gunrunning beggars belief that it worked. The success wasn’t simple about the number of weapons landed, it was the symbolism of it. It was a propaganda triumph of the highest order that electrified the situation of the Irish Volunteers. It is inconceivable that the Rising could have taken without its success’.
Casement would ride high on the success of the operation and would have one last adventure. With him would be a Wicklow man who grew up nearby between the villages of Kilcoole and Newtownmountkennedy, Captain Robert Monteith; but that is another story…
Kilcoole Heritage Group