Sunday, April 22, 2012

Howth Gunrunners’ 1914 Route ‘No Walk In the Park’

  • Part 1: Hitting the Road
  • Getting the Guns
  • Easter Monday's Battle Arrays
  • Howth Gunrunners' 1914 Route
  • Tracing Robert's Howth trek: Google Maps
  • 1,700 Take On the British Empire
  • Heritage Partner Mercier Press: irish Publisher Irish Story
  • Heritage Partner: Know Thy Place ... Discover the Archaeology of Your Ancestors  

  • Photos and Text By Robert A. Mosher

    Irish Volunteers at Howth, 1916
    Source: Irish Volunteers Commemorative
    Howth, County Dublin -- How do you get to Howth? Practice, practice, practice.

    Today the subject is marching, as we attempt to find and follow the route taken by the Volunteers as they marched from Dublin to Howth to relieve Erskine Childers of the rifles and ammunition. I don’t know how many of you have ever marched, versus walking, but I was introduced to the “joys” of marching at a relatively young age as a Boy Scout back in the early 1960s. Almost all of our adult leaders were veterans of World War II or Korea, so whenever they didn’t know what to do with a bunch of teenage boys, they marched us around a drill field, around a gymnasium, or outdoors over a trail in a national or state park.

    Later on, I got my own turn at learning to march courtesy of Uncle Sam when I joined a National Guard unit rather than be drafted, and went through training at Fort Knox, where we learned to march on a drill field and across country. More recently I’ve marched as a re-enactor with Company B of the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade and with the living historians of the West Cork Flying Column.

    From their formation in 1913, marching and drilling were a mainstay of the Irish Volunteers (who reportedly used the British Army’s 1911 drill manual sold by the same Eason’s book store that still stands next to the GPO). However, the leaders of the Volunteer movement knew that drilling alone would not sustain the interest of their Volunteers nor would it win them the independence for Ireland that was their goal. A handful of the Irish Volunteers (and more of the much-smaller Irish Citizen Army) were able to drill with actual rifles or shotguns, but the leaders of Volunteer units across Ireland all reported unanimously on the boosted morale when a unit acquired (by whatever means) even 1 or 2 military rifles. Thus, as we already know, a small group decided to buy rifles for the Irish Volunteers, and soon rifles and ammunition were on their way to the small harbor at Howth.

    Connolly Station, then Amiens Street Staton, on Amiens
    Street, along which the Volunteers marched to Howth.
    A recurring challenge in the study of history is that its participants are often too busy making history to record for posterity all of the details that interest us decades or centuries later. Thus, since no one apparently wrote down for us a step-by-step, turn-by-turn guide for the march to Howth, I have to make some assumptions in choosing my route. The exhibit in the Dublin City Hall offers me confirmation, though, of my solution when it describes how over the centuries, the city’s fathers decided not to impose a “modern” grid plan of streets upon the city but instead accepted the city as it was.

    In its natural state, a city is rather organic – its streets are its skeleton, the buildings along them its flesh, and its people become its lifeblood – and being a fluid its people will take the path of least resistance as they go about their daily lives. As a result, and with the expected exceptions where the City Fathers deemed it necessary to punch wide boulevards through the city’s heart, Dublin still has much of its historic shape and structure and even Google Maps could quickly present a plausible route HERE. Google calculated that this route was 15.1 kilometers long and could be covered in just over 3 hours, not counting breaks.

    The Gathering of the Volunteers

    Which brings us to another omission in the records and accounts left to us; I have been unable as yet to find any discussion of the Volunteers’ march routine for this July day in 1914. My plan, based upon experience and the practice of the U.S. Army in this period, will be to first march for one hour, pause for 15 minutes, and then resume the march with a 10-minute pause every hour. This allows for the body to relax and recover from that initial burst of activity and then ease into a new routine. For the soldier, or volunteer, it also allows for the adjustment of equipment and the shifting of any burdens that were either ill-packed or stowed or incorrectly fitted before starting out.

    A block of buildings at Amiens and Lower Buckingham
    Streets that would have witnessed the Volunteers on the way

    to Howth.
    However, despite my planning, the end result was that I didn’t make this planned walk – though I did get to Howth -- and mostly over the planned route. This was due to a combination of fatigue and in turn poor map-reading. As a youngster, I grew to be very good at reading maps because of my interest in history, geography, and my early involvement in war gaming, but among the skills the U.S. Army endeavored to teach me was how to read maps – the Army way – and it’s been all downhill from there. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I like to actually walk battlefields. The map and the battle become much more real and understandable to me when I can take the map’s hills and valleys, roads and trails, etc., and fit them to a human scale. I also forgot to include in my planning the time and distance I needed to cover between my lodging, at the Harding Hotel, near Christchurch Cathedral, and the starting point of the march at Liberty Hall (not to mention the repeated halts for photography!).

    The original marching Volunteers were gathered, organized, and led on July 26, 1914, by Bulmer Hobson, Secretary of the Volunteers Provisional Council and of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Supreme Council.  Since their founding, the Volunteers had openly marched and drilled (with wooden batons and hurleys) in and around Dublin, soon accustoming the British, the general public, and even the Volunteers themselves to formed bodies of sometimes uniformed men moving about the city and surrounding countryside. As a further part of the plan, in early June 1914 the Volunteers began regular Sunday marches to further neutralize any possible alarms on Sunday, July 16. It is also possible that possible observers of the march to Howth were further calmed by the repeated activities of the Irish Citizen Army at the Croydon park property in Clontarf owned by its parent ITGWU, which had become a regularly used drill- and training field.

    Hobson called out more than 800 volunteers from the Dublin Brigade to assemble at Liberty Hall on July 26 for a training march, without telling them about the planned landing of the guns and ammunition and numerous Volunteers reportedly did not even realize that Howth was their destination that morning. Hobson must have been concerned both about security, but almost equally eager to avoid the impact on morale of a no-show by Childers, Asgard, and the rifles (although the British clearly knew of some plan to smuggle in arms but were uncertain of the details).  Joining the column as it neared Father Mathew Park would be a detachment of the Na Fianna Éireann, led by Sean Heuston, pulling their trek cart loaded with 200 specially made oak batons (modified pick handles with leather straps). The Fianna armed with the batons would be available as a picket or security line against anyone interfering with the Volunteers’ offloading of the rifles and ammo, while the cart would also be useful in carrying away some of the rifles and ammunition. Also in the column were bicyclists from the Volunteers signal company.

    Encounter with bomb squad

    The Royal Canal lockhouse at North Strand Road with 
    Croke Park in the distance.
    My march began well at Liberty Hall and continued so along Amiens Street and the North Strand. I was interested to see many buildings along the way that even when renovated could be seen clearly to have witnessed the passage of the Volunteers themselves. I soon passed Connolly Station (then—Amiens Station) and then crossed the Royal Canal, where the lock and lockkeepers house still stand – though clearly there’s been little need to open the lock in recent years. Where the road (now the Annesley Bridge Road) crosses the Tolka River, I was surprised to find two Great Herons fishing in the river in an otherwise very urban landscape. The one nearest my position on the road bridge ignored me and was clearly concerned about some vagrant gulls who decided that the Heron was poaching and dive-bombed  him several times (with success), but they soon tired of the game and went on their way while the Heron stood his midstream “ground.”

    Sadly, it was soon after this that my map-reading skills and the unfortunate absence of street signs and other directional clues, combined to set my feet astray.  Although the Malahide Road was taking me approximately on the desired bearing, it was a case of the minimal error at the launch point was becoming larger and larger farther along my path, and I realized that I was too long on that road for my course to be correct. Fortunately, my determination to get to Howth overcame my normal reluctance to ask directions.
    I spotted a roadside shop that said “Newsagent” across the storefront and inside and found Michael and his mechanic sorting through a pile of bicycles in need of repair. When I explained that I was looking for the road to Howth, Michael politely refrained from laughing, but acknowledged that I wasn’t going to get there the way I was currently bound nor without some help, which he offered. As soon as the bicycles were sorted out, Michael gave me a lift in his work van back along Gracefield Road and on to the true “Howth Road.” Of course, the subject arose of why I wanted to go to Howth, accompanied by the advice that I should instead of walking take the 31 bus that runs regularly between Dublin and Howth.

    Michael heard out my explanation that I wanted to repeat the march made by the original Volunteers in 1914. This called to his mind the story of Roger Casement “who went to the Germans” and we talked for a while as he drove, about Casement, the Congo, the Irish troops who served there in the 1960s --interrupted only by a small convoy of Garda and Army vehicles entering the road ahead of us and driving away in the same direction in which we were headed. He explained that there had been a spate of pipe bombings and attempted pipe bombings between rival gangs over drugs and territory and that the Army bomb squad was often called upon to assist the Garda in these situations. I remained silent as I noted yet one more story that doesn’t seem to reach the U.S. about things happening around the world. 

    #31 bus to the rescue

    Confirmati​on of the right road, and of the 
     distance yet to be covered.
    Soon we were on the true Howth Road and Michael dropped me at a bus stop just in case I changed my mind, and we wished each other well as he turned his van around to return to his bicycles. I paused to consider my options, as it was later in the day than I had planned to be at this point along my way. But my resolve soon stiffened and I resumed my march to the sea -- and Howth.

    However, it wasn’t much further along when I discovered the second of the two old stone-and-cast-iron mile markers that counted off the distance between Dublin and Howth. And as I read it to find that I was still closer to Dublin than I was to Howth, my resolve melted away. I walked a bit farther along the road to find myself a bus shelter/stop in Raheny and the electronic signs told me that a 31 bus would be along in less than 15 minutes. I counted out my fare and held it in my pocket in anticipation.  The bus arrived as promised and as I rode along calculating the distance and how much time it would have taken me to walk, I was glad that I had given in and taken Michael’s advice -- so if by some chance you or one of your friends happens to read this blog -- Michael, you were right all along!

    With such mechanical assistance, I soon found myself deposited at the harbor in Howth, only about 15-20 minutes behind schedule – instead of an hour to two. Michael had told me (and a marker on the Howth main street confirmed) that I wanted the East Pier and I set off toward it. In 1914, Howth had only recently conceded its role as the welcoming port for arriving British troops to Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) and might have been considered a suitably sleepy port in which to engage in a little gunrunning. Today it is a rather more active fishing port and tourist destination (although even in 1914 it was popular with visitors from Dublin).  

    View along the East Pier at Howth looking out to sea.
    Here the Volunteers unloaded the rifles and
    ammunition and reformed for the march back to Dublin.
    As I walked along the East Pier, I mentally pictured Asgar passing through the harbor's narrow mouth, the
    sound of signals exchanged by bugle between the Fianna scouts and the main column of Volunteers along the town’s main street, and the movement of the Volunteers to the pier. As the Volunteers began unloading the rifles and ammunitions, the customs officers in Howth telephoned the Dublin Metropolitan Police and reported the landing. Although not indicated in any source I had found, I noted an older building on the opposite pier that could well have been a customs house in 1914. Its position would have required any customs officer desiring to intervene to either cross the harbor by boat or walk the long way around along his pier, the shore road, and then out again along the East Pier. With some 800 Volunteers plus cudgel-armed Fianna, perhaps we can’t fault their decision to simply notify the police in Dublin.

    Unearthing a new story of Easter Week

    With my ‘march’ thus completed, I satisfied myself by taking in the other sites of Howth. The view from the Martello Tower above the town was worth the climb, even if there hadn’t been a very entertaining Museum of Vintage Radio – that day hosting the local short wave or “Ham” radio club. The proprietor, Pat Herbert, and I had great fun talking about Marconi, Tesla, Lee de Forrest, and Russia’s Aleksandr Popov (whose hut radio shack I had seen on the island Kaliningrad outside St. Petersburg).  

    The Little Shop of Books in Howth whose owner talked of her 
    granny's involvemen​t in 1916, the IRA, and the Civil War.

    The National Transport Museum, an apparently all-volunteer operation, offers a great collection of Dublin’s evolving buses and commercial vehicles, as well as several of the Irish Army’s eclectic collection of rather rare armored cars and its trucks. On my way back to the harbor and the DART station, I am glad to find time to visit The Little Shop of Books, marking its first anniversary. A doubly glad pause in my day, as I find several books of interest, but also because the owner tells me about her grandmother, a staunch republican in the years after that Easter Monday when the Rising found her as a 16-year-old maid in the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street, though it was emphasized that much of her participation through the Independence War and the Civil War consisted of pushing carts onto the rural roadways to block the movement of British or Free State forces.
    Although Dublin Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Wiliam Vesey Harrel did assemble his mixed force of DMP and elements of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) to attempt to block the movement of the Volunteers and, more importantly, the guns into Dublin, I’m more interested in the Volunteers’ movements. Their response to Harrel’s force was to scatter and make their way individually or in small groups back to Dublin, stashing the rifles away in caches or hiding places along the way, as necessary. Since the road sign near the harbor in Howth pointing the way to Dublin suggests Dublin is more than eight miles away, I decide that I’m going to follow their example and make my own way, as well, back to Dublin – via DART. After all, this reenactment of history can be tiring! WG

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