Thinker, traitor, soldier, spy?

An Irishman’s Diary about the Howth gunrunning

Guns being landed at Howth in 1914. The figure on the far right is Erskine Childers. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

Guns being landed at Howth in 1914. The figure on the far right is Erskine Childers. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland


One hundred years ago on Saturday last Erskine Childers sailed his expensive gun-laden yacht Asgard towards the east pier at Howth. Unburdened of his cargo he immediately sailed back to Holyhead and was at Westminster to hear the foreign secretary, Edward Grey’s, famous speech beckoning a world war in which Childers would receive the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for his work in naval intelligence.

His friend Gordon Shephard – who had taken an earlier part in the gun-running, was waiting at the pier in Howth. Shephard would become the youngest brigadier general in the British army before he died in 1918. Few, if any, around him on the day would have known that he was a serving British officer; certainly none that a few years earlier he had been arrested for taking photographsof the harbour at Emden in Germany and only avoided causing an international incident when his boat-hand, sensing something was up, sailed his yacht full of intelligence on German coastal installations into Dutch waters.

It has sometimes been speculated, in part because of Shephard’s involvement, that Childers was a British agentand he encountered difficulties with this possibility during his lifetime. The argument against is the clear progression in his life story from outspoken critic of British imperialism during the Boer war to intransigent Irish republican, who would pay the ultimate price. By the time of the gun-running he had published several bookson Home Rule and abandoned a promising career in the civil service to fight for a Liberal seat to secure it.

To Childers, helping to arm the volunteers and remaining a loyal subject of the crown were complementary activities. We tend to think of the landing of guns as an act of hostility towards the British government, perhaps here subconsciously guided by the fact that some of the guns and ammunition saw action in 1916.

They were rather intended as a symbol of equality in the context of the unhindered arming of Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force in opposition to the prospect of home rule by the will of parliament. The historian GM Trevelyn was a friend of Childers and in a letter that demonstrates both Childers’s openness about his activities and the reason for his involvement wrote: “so you worked better than you knew when you smuggled those rifles. Without that Redmond would be on no equality with Carson at this crisis, and his offers to England of help would have been impossible for him to make at least so effectively. You have not lived in vain.”

The killing of three bystanders – one a 50-year-old woman – at Bachelor’s Walk by British soldiers on the same day was arguably more significant than the landing itself because it added to a hardening of public opinion that would crystalise following the Rising into a momentum for independence by force. It is this seismic shift in outlook and attitude that makes it difficult to imagine the Ireland of 1914.

The Volunteers were then controlled by respected moderates who sought independence, but not at any price. To these individuals the guns were a means of upholding the democratic process. Following the outbreak of war they negotiatedfor the direct supply of arms from the war office in London.

It was in these circumstances that admiralty intelligence contacted the headquarters of the Volunteers seeking to get a message to Childers when war did break out and he was back in Dublin.Though this strange event has often been used to impugn him, it might prove better than anything that he wasn’t an agent.

Though there would have been strong opposition in Dublin Castle, it is even possible that some members of the British cabinet were not opposed to the importation of arms in small numbers. Winston Churchill was first lord of the admiralty and at the time a fierce public opponent of Carson and the UVF. Each week Childers would dine with his close friend Eddie Marsh, who was Churchill’s private secretary (and godfather to his daughter, Sarah, born in 1914).

The Childers papers held in Trinity College, Dublin contain a note in the hand of Erskine’s wife, Molly, a fascinating activist who also took part in the gun-running and later worked with the volunteers. The note reveals that on his return to London Erskine had been congratulated by government ministers for “his feat” at Howth.

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