12th January – Howth Gun Running

by  Gerry Byrne
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – January 2016)

Howth Gun Running 1914
Not many Skerries Historical Society presentations read like a Boys’ Own adventure but Gerry Byrne’s talk on the Howth Gun Running of 1914 was an exception – with the added ingredient that there were a good many women involved too! Perhaps the high octane nature of the story is unsurprising when you realise that one of the main characters was author Erskine Childers whose 1903 novel, ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, was one of the first classic spy adventures and was based on Childers’ own sailing experiences.

Most of us know the basics of the Howth Gun Running but how many of us were aware that Skerries nearly had a central role in the drama? One day early in 1914, a man called Bulmer Hobson bicycled nonchalantly into Skerries and took in the sights. The casual observer would never have guessed that Hobson was a founder member of the Irish Volunteers and was on a mission to find a good location for landing arms which might be needed to secure the goal of Irish Home Rule. He eyed up the pier, noted the distance from pier to train station and calculated the strength of the local police force and Coast Guard.

In the end it was decided that Skerries would not do. As a port it had much to recommend it and local law enforcement might not present too much of a problem but Skerries was too far away from the public eye to present a dramatic propaganda coup. Wanting to demonstrate that Irish nationalists were serious about Home Rule, the Gun Running Committee decided to bring most of the guns into Howth from where they could be paraded into the centre of Dublin, cocking a snook to the authorities in Dublin Castle. The remaining guns were smuggled via Kilcoole Beach near Wicklow town.

But it was a long journey from deciding a strategy for unloading the guns and there were many nail-biting moments along the way – the two yachts, Asgard and Kelpie, that set out to bring the guns from the North Sea to Ireland were beset by difficulties. Both captains, Childers and Conor O’Brien, were excellent yachtsmen but even the best sailor will find it hard to navigate when becalmed in dense fog, or make good time in a fierce headwind.

As we know, they overcame all their difficulties and landed the guns successfully – though none of the conspirators expected them to be used in a Rising in Easter 1916 and Bulmer Hobson did his best to stop it.

Report by Oona Roycroft