When carpenter Jeremiah Hennessey turned out for a routine route march at Fairview on Sunday, July 26th, 1914, he had no idea that he would be participating in an event that changed the course of Irish history and cause an irreparable breach with his father.
The Howth gun-running was a daring operation carried out in broad daylight. If the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers had inspired the formation of their nationalist counterparts, the Larne gun-running operation on the night of April 24th-25th had provided another militant precedent.
That night Jeremiah (24) described what happened in a letter to his father, Jeremiah snr, who was in charge of the Coast Guard station at Cushendall, Co Antrim, and his stepmother, Mary.
Dear mother and father,
I received your letter and was glad to see by it that you are all well as this leaves me T[hank].G[od] I expect by the time you get this note, you will have read about our gun- running. By the way, I am a member of a corps of the Volunteers, and yesterday morning we assembled for parade in the ordinary way but of course in larger numbers and marched to Howth, a 9 mile march and were drilling there when the lugger came into the pier.
The coast guards and police tried to stop us but we were armed with long batons and the sight of those was persuasion enough to keep them at a civil distance. Of course the paper exaggerated a lot more than really took place. Nevertheless, we were held up by the military, who met us with fixed bayonets and a bit of a fight took place, still we came off alright and only lost 20 rifles, a very small loss compared to the number we ran and escaped with.
An order has been issued to all volunteers in the city to remain in town for the holiday as we are expecting further trouble from the police searching for the arms, which are partly hidden and more have them in their hands. In the volunteer hall, it was great excitement, the bayonet charge, some shots were fired but the majority of the Vols had no ammunition otherwise more damage would have been done to the soldiers.
I believe they let themselves out of control in Bachelors Walk, and made a very cowardly attack on a defenceless crowd of women and children. You can see all in the papers so I will not relate any more of it now. I don’t expect I will go home next week as anticipated; in any case, it is only a short time since Whit . . .
His father replied by return, disowning him.
Your letter is to hand and I may say that I am surprised to hear that you have joined them, while I wear the clothes of a coast guard officer. If anything happened to you in that scrimmage, where would I have been as I have got to look out for myself and my wife in our old days, as I can ask no help from you . . .
As I cannot own you in them, I forbid you to come to my house again so I must say farewell son.
A man who had spent his life in the Royal Navy and Coast Guard Service, now nearing retirement, had made a difficult and unpalatable choice.
The “very cowardly attack on a defenceless crowd” his son refers to in his letter became Dublin’s forgotten Bloody Sunday.
The detachment of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers sent to support Assistant Commissioner WV Harrel of the DMP in his unsuccessful attempt to disarm the Volunteers had turned on crowds which were jeering them and opened fire, killing three outright and wounding over 50, including nine-year-old Luke Kelly, father of the Dubliners lead singer of the same name.
One of the dead was Mary Duffy, whose son Thomas Tighe was a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He attended the funeral two days later in full dress uniform, while Irish Volunteers provided a guard of honour, armed with their newly acquired Howth Mausers.
As thousands of mourners thronged the Dublin quays, Austrian gunboats were shelling Belgrade in the opening salvoes of the first World War. A few days later, Jeremiah Hennessey snr was recalled to the reserves and never met his son again. He died while refitting a ship in 1915.
No one was ever charged in relation to the gun-running or the Bachelors Walk massacre. Harrel was sacked the following day. The Borderers left for France and by October they had suffered 85 per cent casualties.
Meanwhile, the Volunteers had acquired the guns, without which the Easter Rising would not have been possible.
The Howth Gun-Running is being commemorated by a series of talks at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History (Collins Barracks) on Saturday, July 26th, from 10 am until 4.30 pm. Speakers include Padraig Yeates and while the talks are free, booking is essential: see bookings@ museum.ie. The State Commemoration Ceremonies are on Sunday, July 27th. Also at noon on Saturday, at Glendalough House, the ancestral home of Erskine Childers, Dr David Murphy of NUI Maynooth will give a lecture on the gun-running and there will be a live firing demonstration of a Mauser rifle.
Full details of the Howth gun running events from: irishvolunteers.org