Larne Gun Running

Larne Gun Running

Larne Gun Running occurred in 1914 when loyalists in Ulster, Ireland, who were opposed to Home Rule in Ireland imported guns and ammunition from Germany in order to prepare for armed resistance against it.

In March 1914, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Herbert Asquith re-introduced the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland into the British House of Commons. This alarmed members of the Ulster Unionist Party because they knew the House of Lords could no longer save them from Home Rule because of the recent adoption of the 1911 Parliament Act. By April 1914, the Unionists, lead by Edward Carson and James Craig, were desperate. They approached Major Fred Crawford, a well-known smuggler, to import guns and ammunition from Imperial Germany into Ulster for their Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to show their determination to oppose Home Rule. Crawford hatched "Operation Lion", hiring two ships, the "Fanny" and the "Clyde Valley" to transport arms from Hamburg to the North. The main operation took place on the 24 April 1914, when the two ships landed 20,000 rifles (Mannlicher and Mauser) and four million rounds of ammunition in Larne. [Fisk gives the figures as 19,100 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition. See p.15] Secondary shipments were landed later at Bangor and Donaghadee. No attempts were made by the Royal Irish Constabulary or the British Army to prevent the landing or to seize the arms.

A fleet of cars was waiting at Larne to take the arms. Those present included well-to-do Unionists, Members of Parliament, even Bonar Law, a future Prime Minister. The weapons meant that the Ulster Volunteers could fight any British Government and its forces if Home Rule were "forced" on them. This would be treason, yet those involved maintained they were simply "defending" Ulster.

The Home Rule Bill passed as the Government of Ireland Act 1914 but its implementation was delayed until the end of the First World War, which many thought would be over by Christmas. Significantly, six counties in Ulster were to be excluded "temporarily" from the territory of the new Irish parliament and government and to continue to be governed as before from Westminster and Whitehall; this was the first step towards the partition of Ireland.

The Gunrunners

On Saturday 21 March, the news that officers of the British Army at the Curragh camp (see Curragh incident) had mutinied, and refused to participate in what they saw as a betrayal of Ulster, put paid to the Government’s plans for Home Rule. Directives for military action were withdrawn and tension was defused, if only by Asquith’s abject capitulation to the rebellious officers. However, the Unionist leaders felt that the UVF was not properly prepared to take on the British Army unless it was fully equipped with arms. Plans were made for a large-scale gun-running operation. It would, however, be foolish to imagine that the UVF had been reliant on wooden rifles until the spring of 1914. In many of the rural areas, the periodic threat of Home Rule over the past decades had led to the presence of guns in cupboards or under beds, in houses of Ulster loyalists.

In the Waringstown area, farmers had regularly fattened extra pigs to get money for guns. Especially popular was a Webley pistol which had been issued to British officers in the Second Boer War. The first semblance of training in the use of guns, around Lurgan and Portadown was provided under the aegis of sporting gun clubs when, of a Sunday afternoon, townspeople who were unused to guns could obtain training at the hand of farmers who were in the Volunteer movement and were well acquainted with the use of firearms. Some of the models which turned up in the early UVF were obsolete mid-nineteenth-century muzzle-loading rifles. Other antique shotguns would prove equally inaccurate and when modern rifles did begin to arrive a whole new, more accurate, standard of musketry had to be achieved. The smuggling of guns had been taking place on a haphazard basis before 1912

Guns came in on fishing boats to ports such as Kilkeel, and were hidden in boxes of herring. Colliers also landed guns, to be entrusted to someone specially delegated for the task on the quayside. Volunteers in the village of Waringstown, County Down, received rifles smuggled to the province in these ways, then sent by train to Lurgan; a carriage would be diverted down by Brownlow Terrace from where there was easy access for a local lorry driver who would then deliver the precious cargo around country areas. However, the number of guns getting through was inadequate to the needs of the UVF, especially now that a watch was being kept on key British ports, following the discovery that the gun-running had become a standard practice. So the go-ahead was given to an enterprising and influential figure in the Belfast Volunteer hierarchy, Fred Crawford, to endeavour to buy a very large consignment of rifles on the continent and ship them en masse direct to Ulster.

Crawford, a former artillery officer in the British Army, had been involved in the Volunteer movement since 1911 and had built up contacts with a German, Bruno Spiro, which were to prove invaluable. The so-called business committee of the UVF approved Crawford’s plan to buy 20,000 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition from Spiro in Hamburg, acquire a suitable steamer in a foreign port and bring the weapons back to Ulster, perhaps with a secret mid-voyage transfer to some other vessel. The Kaiser of Imperial Germany, who was eager to make trouble for Britain, approved the sale. The gun-running was planned secretly and scrupulously. The operation was code-named "Lion". On the night of 24 April 1914, there was to be a test mobilisation of the UVF under cover of which the County Antrim "Regiment" was to take over the port of Larne, whilst the Clyde Valley docked there and unloaded. According to his obituary in "The Times", Colonel William Hacket Pain was "was always believed to have planned and carried out" the operation to make sure the guns got ashore safely."Sir W. Hacket Pain" (Obituary), "The Times", 15 February 1924, p. 15.]

Many lorries and cars assembled in Larne and waited with engines turning, to collect their parcels of guns and deliver them to secret locations in their home areas. In Belfast, Volunteers were to endeavour to draw attention away from the Larne operation: they were to march a contingent to the docks where the SS Balmerino would arrive in what would be a decoy run, a great effort was to be made to frustrate the Customs authorities in their attempt to search the vessel, adding to the suspicion that she contained arms for the waiting Belfast Volunteers.

On the night all went according to plan. The UVF took control of Larne under cover of darkness, and column after column of vehicles approached the port, past checkpoint after checkpoint. Men from the local UVF battalions had been placed at key points along the highways to guide drivers unfamiliar with the roads. At certain points there were reserve supplies of petrol and tools for possible breakdowns. It was a cold wet night at Larne and many of the men involved had already done a day’s work but by the time the Clyde Valley had pulled into the harbour, the headlights of 500 motor vehicles were flaring in the Antrim town. Lorry drivers were soon on their way with their clandestine cargo. At Larne two local ships were loaded with guns for Belfast and Donaghadee, and soon the Clyde Valley was heading for Bangor on the Down coast where a further, smaller consignment of guns and ammunition was unloaded. By 7.30, as Bangor came awake the last cars were leaving the pier with their cargo, and at Donaghadee and Belfast the guns had also been quietly slipped ashore. The Clyde Valley operation had been an unqualified success. The local police made no attempt to stop the landing or to seize the arms.

The weapons were soon being secreted in stockpiles across Ulster. Stewart-Moore and his Volunteers had spent a disappointingly dull night guarding Stranocum village. They were to prevent police from entering the village, but there was no sight of the RIC through the night. At 4.30 am, tired and sleepy, they were ordered home. The next afternoon, Stewart Moore drove to Stranocum House and found his uncle James Reade, revolver in hand, organising a group of men who were loading a car with bundles of rifles, done up in canvas. They had originally been delivered at 7 am, but a disturbing report had come through that there were five policemen fishing on the river nearby, with only one fishing rod. It was decided swiftly that the rifles had better be distributed around the country for safekeeping. Moore put a bundle of guns under a rug on the floor of his cart, stopped briefly at a neighbour's for afternoon tea, then returned home, where with stifled excitement, he and his sister hid the rifles after nightfall in an unused loft above the scullery. Shortly afterwards the guns would be handed out to his Volunteers for the first time.

Outside Crossgar, Co. Down, Hugh James Adams and John Martin lay in a ditch along the main road, awaiting the guns from Bangor. When the weapons finally arrived, early in the morning, they were taken to Tobar Mhuire for swift distribution to a variety of locations. Bundles were placed in carts and taken quietly to houses in and around the village, where they were hidden under floorboards until further orders arrived. In Lisburn, Hugh Stewart, who had originally been forbidden by his father from joining the UVF, found his nights duties hard going, and as he lay out on Moss Road, on guard, he fell asleep. However, the guns were safely brought in and stored in buildings around the town. Stewart recalled how he had got his old dummy rifle for 1s.6d. and had been proud of it too, but was keen now for one of the real guns and a shining bayonet.

At Springhill, County Londonderry, the Lenox-Conynghams were instrumental in getting the guns to their area. Just a few days previously Sir Edward Carson had visited them, sitting down to a dinner party around a damask tablecloth portraying the Siege of Derry, with a small wreath of laurels at Sir Edward's place. Mina Lenox-Conyngham was proud to be at Carson's side as he walked in the gardens but she records that he told her: "I see terrible times ahead–bitter fighting-rivers of blood!". Unflinching and defiant in his public utterances, Carson on occasion expressed in private conversation grave doubts about the consequences of his actions. With political passions running high, it seemed likely there would be a clash with the UVF on one side, and the government forces and the Irish Volunteers on the other. On the Friday of "Operation Lion", orders came by despatch rider for the Lenox-Conynghams to mobilise their men that night. In the dawn of the next day the squadron of cars pulled into the motor-yard with their newly landed rifles. The women of the house had been up all night preparing food and now a hot meal was ready for drivers and their helpers who had motored the fifty miles from Larne. The guns that had been landed were mainly German Mauser and Austrian Mannlicher rifles and the majority went to Belfast, Antrim and Down, with some to Londonderry and Tyrone.

There were also several thousand Vetterli rifles of Italian make which were distributed in Armagh, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Derry. These Italian guns were to gain a certain unpopularity before long, because they were stamped "annunciata", which was interpreted by some as meaning blessed by the Pope. However with or without a papal blessing, the Volunteers were soon drilling openly with their new guns. Although the UVF had been cooperating with England's enemies, many Unionists in Britain, particularly the Union Defence League and others promoting the British Covenant, were impressed by the gun-running operation. Lord Roberts, the Ulsterman who had led the retreat from Kabul to Kandahar in Afghanistan, and had been in command in the Boer War, had refused Carson's offer to head the UVF only on the grounds of his advanced age. On hearing of the landings of arms he is reputed to have said to Carson; "Magnificent! Magnificent! Nothing could have been better done, it was a piece of organisation that any army in Europe might be proud of."

The success of the episode was seen by fundamentalist Protestants as a sign of "God's hand" guiding the Ulster Volunteers. Men such as Crawford, the organiser of the gun-running, believed strongly in the rightness of their cause: "I felt my responsibilities very heavily, but I believed that our cause was just and I believed in God Almighty. We were going to defend our faith and liberty."

It was with the sense of religious fervour that the men of the UVF were to enter the British Army as the 36th Ulster Division and endure the gun and shell fire of the Battle of the Somme, convinced that God was on their side. Again the Ulster loyalist emphasised the righteousness of their cause. Even before the Clyde Valley steamed into Larne, "The Northern Whig" declared; "There is a strong feeling in Belfast to-day, notwithstanding Mr Churchill's ferocity, Mr Lloyd George's vulgar bluster, and Mr Devlin's impotent boasting, that the worst of the battle is over, and that the cause of Ulster has been justified in the eyes of England, of Europe, and of the World,."


ources/further reading

* Fisk, Robert "In time of War: Ireland, Ulster, and the price of neutrality 1939 - 1945" (Gill & Macmillan) 1983 ISBN 0-7171-2411-8
* Stewart, A.T.Q. "The Ulster Crisis" (Faber)1967 SBN 571 09438 4

External links

* [ History of the 1912 UVF]
* [ History of the YCV]
* [ CAIN - University of Ulster Conflict Archive]
* [ Last of the Iron Boats (A short history of the SS Clyde valley)]

See also

*Ulster Volunteer Force
*Young Citizens Volunteers
*Royal Irish Rifles
*36th Ulster Division

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