Dividing Ireland, 1912-1914

John Stocks Powell describes how conflict between Nationalists and Unionists was still unhealed when the First World War began.

On July 26th, 1914, the Asgard approached Howth Harbour north of Dublin with its cargo of nine hundred antiquated rifles for the Irish Volunteers. Bought in Germany and ferried across by, among others, Erskine Childers, the rifles had an importance more symbolic than practical. Childers had already become known to the public as the author of a mystery novel The Riddle of the Sands and for his conversion to Irish nationalism.

Logical and determined when set upon a course, he planned to do at Howth what the Ulster Volunteer Force had done at Larne in the previous April. At Larne the gun-running had passed off successfully, but at Howth the authorities took a sterner view. A telephone call to Mr. H. V. Harrell, Assistant Commissioner to the Dublin Metropolitan Police, brought out not only the police, but two companies of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

The Irish Volunteers received the rifles at Howth, but in marching back to Dublin they were confronted by police and soldiers. When Harrell ordered the police to seize the arms, ‘illegally imported’, they hesitated. Some showed sympathy for the Volunteers, but a few walked forward and a fracas ensued during which time most of the Volunteers melted away into the surrounding properties, carrying their rifles with them.

News spread about the confrontation, especially about the presence of soldiers. A small crowd developed, and jeered at them as, thwarted in their task of seizing the arms, they marched into Dublin. The crowd followed the soldiers; brickbats as well as insults were thrown. As the soldiers arrived at Bachelor’s Walk on the Liffey Quays, Major Haig ordered his rearguard to block the road. Bayonets were fixed.

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