Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY

IRISH HISTORY

 

KELPIE, CHOTAH & THE KILCOOLE GUN-RUN, 1914

Kilcoole, County Wicklow, August 1st 1914.

Constables Dalton and Webb knew something was up. As they patrolled the railway line between Greystones and Kilcoole, they saw lights flashing from a yacht lying at anchor off Ballygannon Point. An unusual location, they agreed. In haste, they about turned for the Railway Station in Kilcoole to alert their superiors in Greystones. Suddenly the two policemen found themselves surrounded by a group of men armed with batons, who duly locked them up in the Station House, where the Station Master and his family were also being held.

The constables had witnessed an exchange of light signals between Chotah, a private yacht laden with German guns and ammunition, and a large number of Irish Volunteers waiting on the Wicklow shore to collect the cargo.

It was not yet a week since Erskine Childers had sailed Asgard into Howth with a cargo of 900 Mauser rifles and 20,000 rounds of ammunition for the Irish Volunteers and Na Fianna Éireann youngsters gathered on the pier.

The Howth landing had been a deliberately public affair, at least partly designed to awaken Ireland to the fact that the Irish Volunteers could arm themselves just as efficiently as the Ulster Unionists who had pulled off a similar coup in Larne just over three months earlier.

The landing of the guns at Kilcoole was always intended as a much more secretive event.

Not that anyone would have associated Conor O’Brien with discretion. O’Brien was arguably the most important player in the events that culminated at Kilcoole. The 34-year-old architect – a grandson of William Smith O’Brien, who led the Young Ireland rebellion in 1848 - was regarded as something of a loud-mouth by his fellow nationalists. A fluent Irish speaker, O’Brien co-founded the Coláiste Uí Chomhraí (Irish summer school) at Carrigaholt in Co. Clare with his sister Nellie.

In the summer of 1914, O’Brien was approached by his cousin Mary Spring-Rice who told him of a covert plan, conceived by her, to buy guns in Europe and ship them into Ireland for the Irish Volunteers. O’Brien was instantly – and loudly - supportive of the venture, offering the services of his yacht Kelpie.

Kelpie was then moored in the Shannon near Foynes, County Limerick. In early July, O’Brien took his yacht south around the coast of Ireland with instructions to rendezvous with Asgard at Cowes on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. His fellow crew comprised of his sister Kitty, his barrister friend Diarmuid Coffey and two ‘paid hands’ from Foynes, George Cahill and Tom Fitzsimons.[i]

Five days later they reached Cowes where they were joined by Hervey de Montmorency, a wealthy friend of O’Brien, who came to serve as an extra hand.[ii] That evening, de Montmorency regaled them all with tales of treasure hunts in the Cocos Islands and exotic knife-fights in South Africa. The impact of such stories was somewhat dented when ‘the bold buccaneer’ arose during the night, complaining that he couldn’t sleep because the cabin clock ticked too loud. He then disembarked, checked into a hotel and, the following day, with no sign or word of Asgard, he disappeared. [iii]

Another day passed before Asgard arrived, during which time O’Brien became increasingly stressed and threatened to call off the whole trip. He approached the ship, shouting ‘Asgard ahoy’ on his loudhailer. His cousin Mary, who was breakfasting at the time, clambered upstairs to receive ‘a torrent of abuse’ for their delay and for her failure to keep him abreast of what was going on. As she listened, she realized ‘to my horror’ that O’Brien had been ‘sending a series of wild telegrams’ to try and establish Asgard’s whereabouts. ‘If all Cowes, and Dublin, not to say the Castle, do not know of our expedition, it is a miracle,’ she told her diary.

Mary soothed her cousin’s nerves and the two crews were friends again by the time the yachts set sail, with some haste, for their next rendezvous: the Ruytigen Bank lightship off the Belgian coast.

Here they were to meet Darrell Figgis, an Anglo-Irish tea merchant and poet who, together with Childers, had arranged the purchase of 1,500 second-hand rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition from the Hamburg-based munitions firm of Moritz Magnus. Under Figgis’s watch, this cargo was transported by a German tug Gladiator to the Ruytigen lightship.

Kelpie was the first to reach the lightship, arriving in a fog on the afternoon of 12th July. Figgis had told Gladiator’s crew the cargo was destined for Mexico so he shuddered when, standing on the lightship, he saw a black yacht arrive out of the mist and heard O’Brien’s voice bellowing out of a loud-hailer: ‘Is that the boat with the rifles for the Irish Volunteers?’ O’Brien maintained he asked his question in Irish. Certainly everyone was speaking Irish and pretending to be Mexican by the time Figgis boarded Kelpie to help transfer 600 rifles, contained in canvas parcels stuffed with straw, and 29,000 rounds of boxed ammunition into their hold.[iv] Coffey described it as ‘the most strenuous few hours I had ever spent’.

And then, as Figgis recalled, ‘the black yacht cast clear and lurched into the gathering dusk’, just as Asgard hove into view to collect the remaining guns.

While it would be relatively straightforward for an established writer and yachtsman like Childers to sail the seas without drawing undue attention, the same could not be said for O’Brien who had long been shouting about the need to arm the Irish Volunteers. Understandably, he felt it might be unwise for him to approach the Irish coast with a cargo of guns.

Step forward James Creed Meredith, an athletic young Protestant barrister and Irish Volunteer.[v] Meredith was soon working closely with Bulmer Hobson, the most influential of the Irish Republican Brotherhood leaders involved with the gun-run.

Meredith invited Hobson to his home and introduced him to Sir Thomas Myles, arguably the most remarkable of the Irish Volunteers’ gun-runners. As a young surgeon in Dublin in 1882, the Limerick-born Myles had been the first doctor on the scene to try, in vain, to save the lives of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Irish Chief Secretary, and his Under Secretary, when they were fatally attacked in the Phoenix Park. His resume by 1914 was exemplary – a past

President of the Royal College of Surgeons, an Honorary Burgess of Limerick City, honorary surgeon to the King in Ireland and a knighthood bestowed by Edward VII.

For all the Royal pomp, Tom Myles, who once served as Parnell’s bodyguard, had been committed to Home Rule since the early days. He was also a skilled yachtsman and, during his meeting with Hobson, the venerable surgeon offered the services of his steam-yacht Chotah. Meredith simultaneously volunteered to join his crew; so too did Hervey de Montmorency, now back in Ireland.

Kelpie and Chotah were to rendezvous in the Irish Sea 25 miles southwest of the Welsh island of Bardsey. Myles was then to land the guns by night on the secluded beach at Kilcoole on the evening of Saturday 26 July.

Kelpie duly began ‘the long beat down Channel’ from Belgium to Wales, nervously passing a Royal Navy fleet and losing the use of their cooking stove en route. Heavy rains and a severe gale delayed them but a bigger calamity came when, unbeknownst to Kelpie, Chotah’s mainsail split, making it impossible for Myles to meet as planned. The guns were instead transferred at St Tudwal’s off the coast of North Wales on Saturday 25th, a day before Asgard successfully landed her guns at Howth - albeit with the unhappy conclusion of a British military attack on a crowd at Bachelor’s Walk that evening which ultimately left four dead.

Chotah bade her time until 1st August when Tom Myles sailed her across to Kish. A small fishing trawler called The Nugget then guided her as close to Kilcoole beach as practicable that evening. She was sighted at 11:30pm by an Irish Volunteer unit commanded by Seán Fitzgibbon, a close friend of Hobson and a senior Sinn Fein member. Hobson, Seán McDermott, Eamon Ceannt, Cathal Brugha, Tom Clark and future Irish President Sean T O’Kelly were amongst those waiting on the beach, having arrived in a motor charabanc at a nearby convent as dusk fell. They had spent the day visiting tourist sites such as Powerscourt Gardens in order not to arouse suspicion.

Lights flashed through the rain-swept night and, shortly after midnight, a flotilla of small fishing boats pushed out into the Irish Sea and rowed out to collect the guns. [vi] As they returned, more Volunteers assembled, along with thirty Fianna boys, to pull the boats up on the shingly beach and to carry the cargo back to the charabanc. It was by no means easy; when Éamon Murphy – who had also been at Howth - waded out to pull the boats up, he gashed his leg badly.[vii]

Hobson reckoned the job was complete within three or four hours.

The final hurdle was the axis on the charabanc which snapped as it was making its way through Bray. However, a fleet of cars quickly arrived, scooped up the rifles and vanished. Meanwhile, the two constables and the Station Master’s family were freed and their captors likewise disappeared.

The Kilcoole gun-run was over but the guns themselves enabled the Irish Volunteers to march with a defiant step - and without them there would have been no Rising.

It was a particularly extraordinary event because there were so many things that could have gone wrong, not least with the project being conducted under such strict secrecy and, as FX Martin put it, the boats being ‘at the mercy of wind and wave’. And yet amazingly all the guns that Figgis and Childers bought in Hamburg reached their final destination in Ireland.

Having delivered her cargo, Chotah voyaged north to Kingstown where her crew berthed and slept. When De Montmorency went out to collect the papers the next day, the headlines informed him that the world was now at war. He served with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers before transferring to an artillery unit, serving on the frontline in France for the war. After Bloody Sunday, he was so riddled with guilt for his role in bringing guns into Ireland that he became Intelligence Officer for the Auxiliaries in Westmeath.

Sir Thomas Myles was to play an important part in the Easter Rising 1916, treating many wounded men from both sides to Richmond hospital. He remained an active sailor until his death at his old hospital, the Richmond, in 1937. A good story is told of him by Éamon Martin who was present at both Kilcoole and Howth landings. During the Easter Rising, Martin was serving at the Four Courts when he met Myles by chance outside the Richmond which the eminent surgeon had run since 1890. They reminisced briefly about their last encounter at Kilcoole before Myles declared his belief that the Rising was a mad venture. When Martin was later shot in chest and lung, Myles had him and some 25 other Volunteers brought into a ward at the Richmond Hospital for treatment. After the rebels surrender, the RIC maintained tight surveillance on the hospital. However, when Martin was suitably recovered, Myles and his former gun-running accomplice drove out of the hospital in the back seat of the surgeon’s chauffeur-driven car. Nobody detected Martin because he was wearing Lt. Colonel Myles’ British uniform at the time. Myles subsequently helped Martin escape from Ireland to America.

O’Brien, Myles and Childers all served with the British forces.[viii] Conor O’Brien served with the Royal Navy during the war and became a yachting icon in 1923 when he set off from Dun Laoghaire and successfully circum-navigated the world. He also became a skilled mountaineer, preferring to climb in his bare feet. He died at Foynes in 1952.

Coffey became head of the Public Records Office and Meredith became president of the Supreme Court. A less happy fate awaited Darrel Figgis who, beset by personal tragedy, committed suicide in 1925.

FURTHER READING

F.X. Martin, ‘The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running: Recollections & Documents’ (Merrion, 2014)

‘Forgotten History: The Kilcoole Gunrunning’ by the Kilcoole Heritage Group (ISBN: 9780951975497)

FOOTNOTES

[i] Coffey was a cousin of Sir Alexander Waldemar Lawrence who was, along with his mother– a Kennedy from Belgard – among those who financed the gun-run. O’Brien’s cousin Hugh Vere O’Brien of Monare, Foynes, was another subscriber.

Coffey described Kitty O’Brien as being ‘as good as a man’.

[ii] Coffey described Montmorency as ‘a man of means who lived in Hatch St. Dublin and was interested in Irish politics’. Bulmer Hobson recorded de Montmorency as ‘a Kilkenny man’ but the de Montmorency family of Bennetsbridge once assured Kevin Myers he was not their relative!

[iii] As Mary Spring Rice remarked in her diary: ‘It was a great blow after the pictures we had been drawing of de Montmorency as the bold buccaneer to find that he had left the Kelpie because the cabin clock ticked too loud and after a night at the hotel had gone back to Dublin … it was a sad blow to all our romantic theories about him.’

[iv] They were supposed to take 750 rifles but, for reasons unclear, only took 600 which was to cause some discomfort to Asgard’s crew who were obliged to take the lion’s share.

[v] O’Brien initially turned to his friends Cruise O’Brien and W. E. G. Lloyd to arrange a landing. As neither man was a Volunteer, it was they who approached James Creed Meredith, who was in the movement. Meredith, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and a prominent Home Ruler was also a member of the Young Ireland branch of the United Irish League, along with Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Cruise O’Brien, Rory O’Connor and Tom Kettle. He was also a fluent German speaker.

[vi] Gregori Meakin wrote to me in July 2014: ‘This is a confusing story with various accounts in witness statement but essentially they were on the Chotah from the 25th at St Tudwalls until it sailed across to Kish (and met the Nugget though this is also vague) and sailed down to Kilcoole on the evening of the 1st August, was sighted at 11:30 and then offloaded after midnight. Con Salmon, whose father as a boy helped unload the bundles and boxes from the Chotah is sure the boats used were a 23/24 ft Lugger, a waist high fishing boat with a mast and sail and a tiller that was rowed or sailed. It took a four man crew when fishing. It would have taken 10 men to pull it up and down a beach. These sailed out from the fishing community at Greystones north beach. They were not motorised. Con does not know how many boats were involved. Con's father was Paddy and Paddy's father was also Cornelius.’

[vii] Eyewitness account - Eamon Martin recalls the events of 26 July 1914: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42E4LqXYVcM

[viii] Brigadier General Gordon Shepherd, who was on Asgard, was killed in France when his plane crashed near Baileuil.

With thanks to Gregori Meakin.


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