Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
Random Quote
Random Date

HISTORY

IRISH HISTORY

image title

Above: Erskine Childers at Howth pier watching Asgard's cargo of Mausers being
redistributed amongst the Irish Volunteers.

ASGARD & THE HOWTH GUN-RUNNING, 1914

 

By Turtle Bunbury

Shortly before noon on the hot, blue-skied Sunday morning in July 1914, a white sail floated out from behind Lambay Island and began to nonchalantly make its way towards the small port of Howth.

Asgard was on the home straight from one of the most daring gunrunning missions in modern history. At the helm was Erskine Childers, the best-selling spy novelist of the day. Over the previous three weeks, he had skippered the two-masted yacht out to meet a German tugboat in the North Sea from which he received a cargo of 900 Mauser rifles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition. The weapons were destined for the hands of the Irish Volunteers who had pledged to defend Home Rule for Ireland.

The importance of this iconic vessel’s role in shaping Irish history is considerable. Its cargo was to play a pivotal role in arming the rebels of 1916.

Less than a week after Childers sailed Asgard home with his extraordinary cargo, the planet had tumbled into the abyss of the First World War. It is inconceivable that the Asgard’s mission could have succeeded under those new circumstances.

And if Asgard had not made it back to Ireland, then the Irish Volunteers would have had precious few guns to hand when it came to launching their bid for an Irish Republic just 20 months later in Easter 1916.

The landing of Asgard also highlights the enormous and often overlooked role in which many leading members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and landed gentry played in igniting the flames of Irish independence.

Asgard, an elegant 50-foot gaff ketch, was built in 1905 by the designer Colin Archer, the son of a Scots couple who emigrated to Norway in the 1820s. As a youth, Archer had spent several years in Australia before returning to southern Norway to establish a shipbuilding yard at Larvik. He quickly became recognised as one of the world’s finest naval architects. Amongst his bets known boats was Fram, a ship that went on numerous expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic under men like Roald Amundsen.

Named for an Old Norse word meaning “Home of the Gods”, Asgard cost £1000 (£84,000 in 2006) to build, a fee paid by Dr. Hamilton Osgood, a prominent Boston physician credited with introducing the first rabies antibodies to the USA. He was a direct descendant of one of America’s oldest families; his ancestors had been on board the Mayflower.

Dr. Osgood and his wife, Margaret Cushing Osgood commissioned the yacht as a wedding present for their daughter Molly. Archer’s yard was instructed to custom-build the vessel to the specifications of Molly’s new husband, an unusual Anglo-Irish writer called Erskine Childers.

image title

Above: Asgard sets sail from Howth, July 1914.

Born in London in 1870, Childers was the son of an English professor of Oriental languages and his wife, one of the Bartons of Glendalough House, Co. Wicklow, and a kinsman of the vineyard-toting family who owned Straffan House, now the K-Club.

Childers was just six years old when his parents succumbed to tuberculosis – his father died immediately and his mother, to whom he was devoted, was packed off to a sanatorium, never to be seen again.

Together with his four siblings and his Barton cousins, he spent the remainder of his childhood in the care of an uncle and aunt, secreted amid the lush 15,000 acre Glendalough estate.

His formative years were typical of his class. He went from an English public school to Cambridge to a desk job at Westminster. Full of jingoistic zest, he joined the British Army in 1899 and marched off to South Africa to clobber the dastardly Boers.

And then he started to change.

His experiences of the Boer War - of villages in flames, of women and children incarcerated in disease-riddled concentration camps – led him to seriously question the merits of British imperialism.

Erskine’s passion had always been sailing. During his 20s, he and his brother enjoyed yachting around the rocky coastline of the North Sea, keeping an eye on Germany’s ever-growing naval might.

In 1903, he converted his knowledge into a best-selling thriller, “The Riddle of the Sands”, which, hailed as the first spy novel, made Childers a household name.

Shortly after “The Riddle” was published, Erskine attended a dinner party in Boston where he met and duly fell in love with Molly Osgood. Molly had fractured both hips as a child and spent twelve years on her back. She was obliged to use two canes to support herself for the remainder of her life. Despite this disability, she shared Erskine’s passion for the sea and was an accomplished helmsman.

The couple were married in 1904. His cousin Robert Barton stood as Best Man. And they scored Asgard as a wedding present.

The newlyweds then settled in London where their first son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, a future President of Ireland, was born in 1905.

Their social life was low-key and involved much sailing around the North Sea and the Baltic on Asgard.

image title

Above: The Fianna gathered at Howth Pier awaitng guns.

In 1908, Erskine joined his cousin Robert Barton and Horace Plunkett on a motor tour of southern Ireland. The experience convinced the cousins that colonialism was fundamentally wrong and they became open supporters of Home Rule and, from 1913, of the Irish Volunteers.

In April 1914, the Childers learned that Sir Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteers (who were utterly opposed to Home Rule) had successfully landed a shipment of 35,000 German rifles at Larne. The British authorities had seemingly watched the whole thing unfurl and done nothing to intervene.

Appalled by this sudden imbalance of strength in Ulster’s favour, Erskine and Molly joined a committee of well-to-do Republican sympathizers who began to look at ways of arming the Irish Volunteers in a like manner. As Padraig Pearse reputedly remarked, “the only thing more ridiculous than an Ulsterman with a rifle is a Nationalist without one”.

The group met at the London home of the County Meath born historian Alice Stopford Green and included Sir Roger Casement, Lord Ashbourne, Sir Alec Lawrence (of the Lucknow branch), Lady Young and G. F. Berkeley, a descendent of Bishop George Berkeley.

£1524 was raised and a plan hatched.

On May 28th 1914, Childers and the political activist Darrell Figgis, of the bookselling family, negotiated the purchase of 1,500 single shot Mauser rifles (designed in 1871 and known afterwards as Howth Mausers) and 49,000 rounds of black powder ammunition from Hamburg-based munitions firm of Moritz Magnus der Jungere. Yes, they were bargain basement guns but they were nonetheless reasonably efficient as the Sherwood Forresters would discover to their cost at Mount Street Bridge over Easter 1916.

Now to get them home.

The British authorities had fully anticipated such an arms shipment and were ready and waiting. However, they hadn’t banked on Childers’ ability to spin a web of deceit right into the heart of British intelligence. False reports convinced the British that, while a shipment was en route, it was being transported by an Irish fishing trawler.

And so, while the Royal Navy began intercepting all such trawlers, Asgard sailed out from Conway on the Welsh coast on 3rd July. On board the yacht were Erskine, Molly, Mary Spring-Rice (a cousin of the British Ambassador in Washington), a British aviator and two Donegal fishermen.

And close at hand was a second yacht, Kelpie, a 26 ton ketch, built in 1871. Mary Spring-Rice’s Limerick cousin Conor O'Brien was at the helm, along with his sister Kitty O’Brien, a young barrister called Diarmuid Coffey (whose daughter Darina reminded me of the tale of the neglected Kelpie the same weekend this article ran in the Irish Daily Mail) and two paid hands, Tom Fitzsimons and George Cahill. [1]

Nine days later, the two yachts rendezvoused with the German tug-boat Gladiator just off the Belgian coast, at the Roetigen Lightship at the mouth of the Scheldt River. Gladiator duly unloaded its cargo and about-turned for Hamburg.

Kelpie was first to arrive and slipped away with the smaller part of the shipment (600 Mausers and 20,000 rounds) just as Asgard arrived. It took five hours for the guns and ammunition to be loaded onto Asgard, as the rifles had to be unpacked from canvas bases and straw before being loaded onto the yacht.

image title

Above: Molly Childers and Mary Spring-Rice posing with their
cargo of guns from Hamburg.

Asgard steered her way home through a near fatal storm, a naval review in Spithead and a brief encounter with the British warship HMS Froward.

And on July 26th, she rolled out from Lambay Island, arriving into Howth Harbour at 12:45pm. She was flying the burgee of the Royal Cruising Club as she sailed in.

Standing in neat formation along the pier were 800 members of the Irish Volunteers and Na Fianna Éireann, headed up by Bulmer Hobson, The O'Rahilly and Eoin MacNeill, the Howth-based founder of the Irish Volunteers. The party was well prepared to receive the haul. Shortly before Asgard hove into view, phone-lines were cut and a Fianna trek-cart was emptied of its 150 oak batons. Lookouts were stationed at every coastguard and police station in the vicinity. And the Volunteer officers were informed that one of the reasons they had been parading their men back and forth so much over the past few weeks was so that it wouldn’t look remotely suspicious when, say, a handsome two-masted yacht landed alongside them in broad daylight with a cargo of 900 Mausers and 29,000 rounds of ammunition.

[NB: Precise figures for the following should be double-checked: The Ulster Volunteer Force may have had superior firepower but they were completely out-numbered in terms of members by the Irish Volunteers. The initial membership of the latter grew from 1,000 a week in the early days to 5,000 a week by July 1914. They had amassed some 190,000 Volunteers by the time of the split which is nearly as many as the number of Irish who served in the Great War.]

As Molly Childers disembarked, MacNeill gallantly kissed her hand, saying “You're the greatest soldier here, Ma'am, indeed ye are”.

According to The O’Rahilly, it did not take long to redistribute the cargo. ‘Twenty minutes sufficed to discharge her cargo as many motor-cars flew with the ammunition to prearranged caches. And, for the first time in a century, 1,000 Irishmen with guns on their shoulders marched on Dublin town.'’

When the authorities in Dublin Castle became aware of the Howth landings, they immediately dispatched a force of the Dublin Metropolitan Police to disarm the Volunteers. After a small skirmish on the Howth Road, the police secured an ineffectual haul of nineteen guns. During the ensuing parlay, Bulmer Hobson issued a discreet command for the Volunteers to disperse from the rear, with their guns, as quickly as possible. The Volunteers dissolved into the fields and by-ways; the guns and ammunition boxes vanished into thatched roofs and drainpipes, hedges and holes.

The day was to end on an ominous note when, in the wake of the landing, a detachment from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers opened fire on an angry crowd who were pelting them with rotten fruit on Bachelor’s Walk, leaving three civilians dead and thirty-two wounded, including young Luke Kelly, the father and namesake of The Dubliners singer.

News of Asgard’s heroic landing and the “Bachelor’s Walk massacre” spread like wildfire through the country. Many feared a full-blown war with the Ulster Volunteers was imminent, not least when the remainder of the German armaments landed at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, on 1st August.

Kelpie had been relieved of its load by the engine-powered Chotah, skippered by Sir Thomas Myles, a former President of the Royal College of Surgeons, who sailed out with Trinity-educated barrister James Meredith. [2] Hampered by a split in her main sail off the coast of Wales, Chotah reached the Kish Bank off the coast of Dublin on 1st August, nearly a week after the Howth landing. That evening, Eoin MacNeill dispatched a 35-foot fishing boat called The Nugget out to meet it. The fishing boat was crewed by the McLoughlin brothers and Michael Moore, and included some of MacNeill's men. They successfully transferred the weapons to The Nugget which took them on to Kilcoole Strand, County Wicklow, where the consignment was landed, shortly before dawn. The greeting party included Cathal Brugha and future President Sean T O'Kelly. The Nugget then innocently went out for a day's fishing before returning to Howth.

Three days later, Britain declared war on Germany and the world ‘slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war’, as Lloyd-George put it.

A Liberal with Home Rule sympathies, 44-year-old Erskine Childers threw himself behind the Allied cause, primarily as an observer and intelligence officer for the Royal Navy, winning the DSO and the rank of Major.

image title

Above: The German tug-boat Gladiator which met Asgard and Kelpie in the North Sea.

Childers was apalled by the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and subsequently joined Sinn Fein. [His cousin Robert Barton is often said to have resigned his commission in the army in disgust at the executions but a lengthy statement he later gave suggests otherwise, and is something I hope to address before long]. Childers followed suit and, greatly admired by de Valera, became de facto Director of Propaganda for the underground Dáil cabinet in 1920. He served as Chief Secretary for the delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty (which included his cousin Robert Barton) but steadfastly opposed the outcome. During the Civil War, he became the principal spin-doctor and campaign advisor for de Valera and the Anti-Treaty forces.

In November 1922, the “damned Englishman” – as Griffith now referred to him – was arrested by Free State soldiers at his beloved home in Glendalough. He was charged with possession of a gun, which had controversially been gifted to him by Michael Collins in happier times. De Valera described it as ‘a tiny automatic, little better than a toy and in no sense a war weapon’. But the Free State government had found the legal excuse to order the death penalty.

Diarmuid Coffey, who had sailed on the Kelpie in 1914, was apparently sent in to visit Childers with an offer to spare his life if he, presumably, transferred his allegiance to the Free State. Childers refused the offer. Perhaps, not unlike Pearse six years earlier, he felt his death would give the anti-Treaty cause a new martyr to rally around. Coffey had been best man at Robert Barton's wedding in happier times; like O'Higgins and O'Connor, their friendship was torn asunder by the unrelenting horrors of civil war.

On the day he died, Childers was 52 years old but looked 70 – his hair white, his face gaunt, his body racked by a constant cough that must have brought to mind the TB that carried away his parents. At 6am on 24th November 1922, HE wrote to Molly: “It all seems perfectly simple and inevitable, like lying down after a long day’s work”. When the firing squad took their positions in Beggar’s Bush Barracks later that morning, he called out to them: “Take a step closer, boys, it will be easier that way”.

‘Of all the men I ever met I would say he was the noblest’, lamented de Valera. Robert Barton likewise mourned that his death was 'the wreck of all our hopes'.

Churchill was not so enamoured. “No man has done more harm or more genuine malice”, he exaggerated, “or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth”.

The Childers legacy lived on through his son Erskine Hamilton Childers, who became 4th President of Ireland in 1973; his grandson Erskine Barton Childers, who served as Secretary General of the World Federation of United Nation Associations and his granddaughter Nessa Childers who has been a Labour MEP in Europe since 2009.

FOOTNOTES

[1] The involvement of so many wealthy patrons was by no means new. One thinks of Lady Gregory's extraordinary assemblage of intellect at Coole Park; heave a look at the autographs of the Copper Beech in her walled garden to gain an insight into that side of things. In the summer of 1912, a group of artists and intellectuals travelled to Achill Island to attend the Scoil Acla summer school where they would learn conversational and written Irish, as well as figure dancing, musci and sport. Amongst them were the artist Paul Henry, the poet Darrell Figgis, the journalist Anita McMahon, the Scoil Acla founder Emily Weddall, Claud Chavasse, two young Anglo-Irish protestant sisters, Cesca and Margot Chenevix Trench, and Diarmuid Coffey, a Dubliner, who would become a gun-runner for the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and married Cesca Trench. Cesca died on 30th October 1918, just six months after her marriage to Diramuid, a victim of the Spanish Flu. The last entry in her diary was for a Cumann na mBan meeting which she never attended. See http://www.theirishstory.com/2012/05/21/achill-island-1912-a-microcosm-of-swirling-political-movements/#.UCjCrXBFyKw and note the Coffey & Chenevix Trench Papers (Mss 46,290-46,337) at the National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

[2] In 1921, O’Brien was sailing “Kelpie” single-handed through the North Channel when his alarm failed to awaken him from a quick snooze, and she ran ashore on the Scottish coast and was wrecked. Conor rowed ashore in his dinghy and stepped out at the quay wall of Portpatrick.

 

THE RESTORATION OF ASGARD

After a five-year conservation project, Asgard was unveiled in Collins Barracks in August 2012 and is now on public display, for free, as a permanent exhibition entitled ‘Asgard: The 1914 Howth Gun-Running Vessel Conserved.’

The conservation of Asgard was an exceptional project, overseen by Arklow-born John Kearon, one of the world’s finest ship conservators, and shipwright Oliver Ward.

Their team was faced with the complex challenge of conserving as much of the original vessel as possible. Built in Norway in 1905 by the eminent Norwegian designer Colin Archer, Asgard measures nearly 51ft in length, with a beam of 13ft.

As well as the decade she spent at sea under the Childers, Asgard enjoyed a further six decades gliding through the corrosive salt-waters.

Her future was not always so assured. Just weeks after she played such a key role in the Howth gun-running, she was put into long-term dry-dock in Dickie's shipyard in Bangor, North Wales, where she remained for fourteen years.

In 1928, she was reluctantly sold by Molly Childers and passed through several hands until 1961 when the journalist and poet Liam MacGabhann alerted the Irish government that the iconic yacht was lying forlorn and endangered on the Truro River in Cornwall.

The government acted quickly and purchased Asgard. She was refitted in Southampton and then made a historic voyage back to Howth, arriving on 30th July 1961, under the command of Lt Joe Deasy (later Commodore Deasy of the Naval Service), with the assistance of Howth sailor Tom Cronin.

She was greeted by Naval Service vessels, a salvo of guns and a welcoming group led by then President Eamonn de Valera, and some of the surviving Irish Volunteers who had been standing on Howth pier on that epic day in 1914.

In 1968, the Department of Defence took responsibility for the ship and Asgard became Ireland's first national sail-training vessel for civilians. She also competed in various international tall-ships sailing competitions before she was retired in 1974.

She was transferred to Kilmainham Jail Historical Museum in 1979 where she remained on public exhibition until 2001 amid growing concerns about deterioration on her condition.[i] She was then transferred to Crosbie’s Yard while an on-going debate ensued about whether Asgard should be restored for further maritime adventures or conserved as a historic relic.

By 2005, the conservationists had won the debate and Asgard was relocated to the new National Museum of Ireland complex at Collins Barracks on Dublin’s northside.

Work began in 2007 in the old military gym at the barracks. The focus of the restoration was on preserving as much of the original and rather worn material from 1905, principally the wooden hull and its metal supports.

Asgard was constructed using the carvel-method with oak topsides and a kauri pine underbody, set upon sawn double-frames. Her Scots pine frame, alternated with bent oak timbers, is typical of Norwegian built vessels. In the rare instances where the timber proved too dilapidated, the bad bits were cut out and new material inserted.

The biggest challenge was combating the corrosive effects that the numerous metals on board the ship had wrought upon the timbers over the course of seven decades on the salty seas.

As well as the original brass boat nails, and treenails and cast-iron keel (a huge beast held in place by iron bolts nearly a foot long), there were large numbers of galvanised steel boat nails (the consequence of a restoration job in the 1960s) and iron butt-straps fixed onto the frame. All such ferrous materials have now been replaced with silicon bronze, brass or copper fastenings and fittings.

About 70 per cent of the original hull and deck has been saved. The team also worked hard to restore some of the design features lost during alteration projects in the 1930s and the 1960s.

The deckhouses, coachhouse, accommodation and companionways have been reconstructed. The upholstery, mattresses and even the dinghy have been replicated. The masting and rigging has been refurbished; the latter by a group of volunteers called the Howth Group.

And now she stands proud in her gallery at the National Museum, the masting (albeit a little shorter than the original) and rigging intact. Amongst those at the opening ceremony this week were Jimmy Deenihan, the Minister for Arts, and Labour MEP Nessa Childers, granddaughter of Erskine Childers.

Asgard will not sail the salty seas again. But she will hold pride of place at Collins Barracks as the centenary of Irish independence hove into view. It is a fitting pasture for this fine sea-dog after a particularly adventurous life.

FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN KEARON, August 10, 2012

‘It’s a common mistake but understandable to think it was a restoration. It was actually a conservation stroke replication. There was quite a bit of new material in the boat. As she was when we had her in the workshop, the actual hull and vessel was about 80-90% original. The interior accommodation and deck-housing and cockpit had all been removed from the vessel long ago. So we aimed to conserve as much of the original as possible and to replicate what was missing in original form. So we have returned her to what she was like when she was first built in 1905.

I’ve been associated with Asgard, on and off, for over 24 years. I worked with the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool for about 25 years until I retired in 2006. I was head of Maritime and Land Transport Conservation there. Becauuse of my expertise in building and conservation of wooden ships, I was asked to have a look at Asgard back in 1988. Through the 90s, while they were making up their mind what to do, I was pulled in occasionally to look at her again and come up with suggestions.

What helped enormously with the conservation was that we actually found a copy of the original outline plan of the vessel which had a lot of basic information in it. They were held in the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo. And then I found all the original correspondence stashed away in the Archer family archive in Larvik, Norway, between Colin Archer and Erskine Childers. There were over 50 letters, all hand-written, which gave an enormous amount of detail about what Childers wanted. These letters had never been seen before and none of Childers biographers had ever seen them. I also found some old black and white images taken on deck between 1906 and 1914 which nobody seemed to have seen before. These gave great detail on the structure and the deck and such like. So between the photos and the correspondence and the original plans, I had enough information to exactly replicate everything. That aspect of the project was very interesting from my own point of view. I ended up doing all the research on the vessel. I also found Colin Archer’s original hand-drawn specifications giving all the details of the different woods that he used and the fastenings and everything like that.

Now I feel relief (laugher). It has been a long process. While 5 or 6 years are quoted in the media a bit, the actual physical work aspect of conserving the vessel is closer to four years. Over 3.5 of those we had a team of four, sometimes five, including myself. We did everything in house ourselves. Everything. And really for the last 12 months there was myself and one other man Oliver Ward who came right through the project with me. He’s an extremely skilled shipwright. Even over the past few weeks we were working very much head down to get everything finished up. Myself and Oliver Ward and one of the other shipwrights all originated from Tyrells’s yard in Arklow. I trained with Tyrell’s back in the 60s as a wooden boat building shipwright, and also as a marine draftsmen.

I was involved with Jack Tyrell in the 1970s in building the builder’s model of Asgard II. [i] Oliver Ward worked on the building of Asgard II. She should never have been left on the bottom of the sea. She could have been lifted. In 1996 another of Colin Archer’s original yachts sank and 18 months after they raised her. She was sunk twice as deep as Asgard II and she’s back sailing again. That is remarkable. And all this talk that it would have been impossible to raise Asgard II was a load of nonsense. It is too late now especially where she is. I understand she’s being pulled around a lot by nets caught in her and so on.

With the conservation of Asgard, we also had terrific help from a small group of experienced Howth yachtsmen who voluntarily came in to do the rigging on the vessel. It was all natural fibre, like the original. (He could not say how much rigging – he ‘couldn’t hazard a guess even’). In the replication aspect, we also used the same species of wood as we found originally. Asgard’s hull and deck is approximately 70% original. She’s really looking probably like she was in 1905 when first launched.

FOOTNOTE

[i] The brigantine “Asgard II”, was designed specially for sail training purposes and commissioned by the Ministry of Defence in 1981. She was reckoned to be one of the fastest, safest and sturdiest ships afloat before she unexpectedly sank in the Bay of Biscay in 2008.

FURTHER READING

Francis Xavier Martin, 1922-2000 (ed.). The Howth gun-running and the Kilcoole gun-running, 1914 [Recollections and documents]; foreword by Eamon de Valera. Dublin: Browne and Nolan, (1964)

http://www.classicboat.co.uk/uncategorized/conserving-asgard/

With thanks to Lord Monteagle, Sandra Heise (National Museum), Seamus Lynam, Hilary Keatinge, Julian Walton, Tony Storan and John Kearon.


Articles