DURING one of the early sessions of Dail Eireann, after the signing of the Treaty, I approached Erskine Childers and asked him to tell me the truth about his share in the famous gunrunning exploit at Howth, July 26, 1914. He took a day to consider my request, and then sent me the following letter:
" I am afraid I shall hardly be able to do what you ask of me. I should have no control over the articles, and as the Hearst Press is, I understand, strongly Free State, it might be better if the matter was obtained from that quarter."
Not satisfied with this misstatement of fact, I sought out Childers and assured him that he would of course have " complete control over the articles " in that they would be published exactly as he wrote them . The fact that a statement from him would be welcomed by the Hearst newspapers was the best evidence that his charge of bias was unjustified.
" That may be true," Childers admitted soberly, " but the fact remains that all America is more English than England herself, and an Irish appeal in the United States is useless. Why, there is a fringe along the New England coastline where the people sing night and morning in their hearts ' God Bless the King ! ' And from the seat of your Federal Government to the distant cities of the Pacific coast there is a childish fear of England the result of propaganda sedulously spread by England's workers. None of you stops to realise it is the old story of the lion and the whale but that is exactly what America and England are. It is ludicrous this idea that England would fight America. But England's might is ever kept uppermost in the minds of the American people. And American publicists do quite as much as Englishmen to keep alive the false sentiment that alliance between the two countries is of equal, mutual advantage.
" Most of your newspapers are worse than the London Morning Post worse in their lickspittling attitude towards the British Crown and their contempt for everything and everybody not of English ancestry. Your huge trade interests are truly soulless. To make an appeal to the American people on a basis of idealism is hopeless. Your President Wilson found that out. America is the most materialistic people in the world today. Your worship of success is surely a contemptible national policy but it is America's dominant characteristic.
" Your Ambassador at the Court of St. James wears knee breeches ! Such truckling to England is disgusting. But what American is going to say that in so doing your Ambassador is not faithfully reflecting the mental attitude of a great majority of the people he represents ? What other nation sends with such eagerness so many of its nationals to be presented at the English Court each year ? Where else is so much newspaper space devoted to the ecstasies of those who have had this priceless honour conferred upon them ?
" Why, your well-read American won't even discuss the revolutionary war ! They are actually ashamed of it ! Most of the American people are pleased that American schoolbooks distort the facts of that fight that smashed British rule in America. It is a thing not to be talked about in most American circles. ' It's not done ' that most abominable of all England's abominable catch-phrases it is enough to tell present-day Americans to ensure their not doing it !
" But even in revolutionary times there was always a fifty per cent, minority against George Washington. America would never have won her independence if it had not been for the stubbornness of one man. Washington did not lead a people inspired by love of freedom he compelled an unwilling people to follow him. And today an England - loving America is ashamed it ever happened !
" This is why I do not care to address the American people on any subject whatsoever. Perhaps this explanation makes my reason plain."
I watched him shuffle away down the corridor of the National University building an undersized, emaciated, unhappy figure and wondered what sort of American woman must be his wife !
It was as a result of this interview that I persuaded Collins to do what was necessary to obtain all the facts of the gunrunning at Howth. And eventually he arranged the three-cornered conference with Sean McGarry the one man left alive in Ireland today who was closest in the confidences of the Easter Week leaders. At Collins' bidding McGarry told us the following tale :
" In the summer of 1914 there was an army of 80,000 men up in Ulster, led, armed, and drilled by Carson, and pledged to resist by force the enactment of Home Rule. This was all unlawful this open defiance of the laws of the English Parliament to which Ulster professed the limit of loyalty. But the English Government let this announcement of rebellion pass unheeded. They had let those troops prepare for war for two years and done nothing at all to stop it.
" We, in the South, looked on during these two years, and then we reached the conclusion that what Ulster could do we could do. We were not altogether unmindful of the fact that we outnumbered the Carsonites by about four to one ! So we made up our minds to arm and drill on our own account, NOT TO ATTACK ULSTER, but to be able to face the English Government with the only argument she has ever understood ! And then what happened ? Within a month the Government, which for two years had allowed the Carsonites to get in all the arms they wanted, issued an order prohibiting the importation of any arms or ammunition into Ireland !
" Naturally we both started gunrunning. Ulster had had two years' start, but she still wanted more arms and ammunition. She got them ! Perhaps the Fanny will be remembered by some the yacht that steamed right through ' watching ' British warships and landed her cargo of guns at Larne after the newspapers had told of her coming for two weeks previous ! The Fanny came in and went out and never a word from the gunboat patrols. Larne, it may be necessary to state, is in Ulster !
" Meantime, the gunboat patrols off Dublin and Wicklow, as well as the western coast, had nothing the matter with their eyesight. We knew the difference, never fear. But it had nothing to do with the fact that we had to have arms.
" It was July 26, 1914 when everybody was talking about Austria's ultimatum to Serbia that we managed to unload 2,000 rifles and a goodly supply of ammunition at Howth. A route-march had been called for that day (it was a Sunday) and about 1,200 of the Dublin Volunteers took part in it. Perhaps a dozen of us, all told, knew what was the real purpose of that nine-mile route-march !
" Word came to me the day before to get a boat and go out in the bay to meet Childers' yacht. So on that Saturday afternoon I went over to Howth with two others, and tried to bargain with boatmen for a launch. But there was a storm, and never a boat could we get. Finally, we persuaded one old fellow to take us out and have a run around the harbour to see if it was as rough as it looked ! He was on the point of casting off the lines when, unfortunately, he caught sight of a revolver sticking out of one of our pockets ! That was enough for him ! We hadn't been too convincing in our explanations for wanting to make the trip anyhow and when he guessed the truth that we intended to keep him out in the bay, once we got him away from shore, he quickly put his engine out of commission ! He wasn't wanting to be a hero in the least !
"On we went to Dun-loagharie, and again met with no success. Not a boatman would go outside in the storm, and not one of them would hear of us going alone. Up in Bray, however, Willie Cullen managed to get a boat an open motor boat and he it was who finally picked us up at Howth, after a wild night out by himself in Dublin Bay. So far as I know, Willie Cullen's name has never even been mentioned in connection with the gunrunning, but it is my opinion his bravery ought to be made known. Without him and the boat I don't know what would have happened.
" Well, we met the Childers' yacht all right, and, to our surprise, we found a woman steering it ! The woman turned out to be Mary Spring Rice daughter of the then English Ambassador in Washington !
" We showed the way in to the pier in our motor boat, after assuring Childers that the English patrol boat was not in the neighbourhood a whisper that we were going to run guns in to Wexford having sent it off on a false scent. Before we had made fast the Volunteers doing exactly what the Ulstermen had done at Larne had taken possession of the pier, advised the police and harbour officials it was best for them to remove themselves from the immediate neighbourhood advice they all decided was sound and were all ready for us. While we were unloading the rifles and several cases of ammunition another 300 of the Volunteers arrived, making our total about 1,500 men. The job finished, we started back to Dublin.
" Of course, Dublin Castle had been notified before ever we left Howth, and at Clontarf , on the outskirts of the city, we met a force of police and soldiers. Our rifles were unloaded. A parley took place. They demanded the surrender of the guns. We refused. The soldiers a company of the King's Own Scottish Borderers were ordered to charge us with fixed bayonets. Two of them in the excitement fired at us One of our men was bayoneted. Then the English commander called another parley. By this time there was only the front rank of our force anywhere in sight ! The rest of us, interested only in saving the guns had disappeared across the fields ! And so not one gun was lost !
Authentic records of the Howth gunrunning exploit have established that there was a woman aboard Childers' yacht, and that she was at the wheel when it came alongside the pier at Howth, but until now her identity has remained unknown.
" Then came the tragedy in Bachelor's Walk when the British troops, marching back to their barracks, were cursed and stoned by a crowd composed chiefly of women who had heard rumours of a massacre of the Volunteers at Clontarf. The soldiers fired without warning and killed one man, two women, and a boy. Nobody was ever punished for that, although it ought to be remembered that this was not only before we had begun to use armed force two years before, in fact but also before the world war had made killings the order of the day.
" The only other important thing about the gunrunning at Howth which I think most certainly should be emphasised is that about one week later ERSKINE CHILDERS ENLISTED IN THE BRITISH SECRET SERVICE ! "
Collins suggested to McGarry that he should continue the narrative to include what he personally new about Sir Roger Casement's activities in connection with gunrunning from Germany. It was interesting to note Collins' intense desire to acquire information on points outside his own immediate jurisdiction. He explained to me in an aside that after his arrival in Ireland in 1916 he had had little opportunity of enquiring into matters not directly concerned with his own duties.
" The one big point about the Germans that I think should be told," McGarry continued, " is that they did not let us down in 1916. Casement always felt that they did, but he admitted to me that they never actually promised to send men to help us. That was what Casement most wanted not having too much faith in us because of our inexperience as soldiers and Germany might have sent men if the war had gone her way instead of against her. I had a letter from Casement when he was ill in Munich, early in 1916, stating that he had a kind of conditional promise from Germany regarding men for Ireland. It was that if they won a decisive advantage on either the Eastern or Western front they would send us men.
" Of course, this influenced our plans to no little extent. We knew that such aid from Germany would be at best temporary. We had to arrange to be in a position to make our move coincide with the arrival of the Germans and carry through our plan of campaign while we had them with us. So it was that the rising was originally set for Easter Friday. It was Tommy O'Connor who carried the word from us to Casement."
The casual references to communications between Ireland and Germany, and McGarry's calm statement that the Germans were planning not only to make the trip to Ireland but, later, to make the return journey provoked an interjected query from me. Was passage between the two countries as easy as that ?
McGarry looked at Collins obviously seeking his advice before making answer. But Collins did not return his glance. Instead, he turned his face towards me and grinned ! It was quite as if he had put it into words. It was a foolish question !
" Anyhow," McGarry continued, " there were many things to be done. We sent a messenger to America on one of the American liners to tell our friends there that we were going to start on Good Friday. Tommy O'Connor came back from Germany and explained that the Germans were going to send in guns to Tralee but the ship would not make it in time for us to start on Good Friday the nearest they could figure the time of its arrival being between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning. This meant re- arranging everything.
" In the midst of our work of notifying commands all over the country, back came our messenger from America and reported that everything there was moving as well as could be wished, and all plans made for the Good Friday rising ! Within an hour that messenger was heading back to New York ! It was vitally necessary for him to let our friends know that the date had been altered from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. The ship on which he was making the second journey was delayed for five days in the English Channel as a result of a German submarine scare ; and that was very bad for us.
"If it is not plain enough without my saying it, I'll explain that naturally one of the most important things our messenger had to do in New York was to get word to Casement in Germany. Except on this occasion we had been able to communicate in this way without any trouble at all but this time things went wrong. Owing to the lateness of our messenger's arrival in New York, his message, wirelessed from there to Germany, found Casement gone ! He was in the submarine on his way to Tralee Bay and he did not know that we were planning to begin the rising on Easter Sunday with or without aid in the form of German soldiers !
" The disguised German merchant man that was bringing the arms to us was stopped and searched three times, but every time Captain Spinlow, her skipper, bluffed the British and was allowed to continue on his way to Tralee. But when, finally, he was actually in the bay at Tralee, he found himself surrounded by British patrol boats and there was nothing for it but scuttling the ship. This he did, and down to the bottom went 20,000 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition !
" And this happened only a few hours before Casement walked into the trap ! I have every reason to believe that Casement had become obsessed with the idea that we were being fooled. When he went to Berlin from Munich, he heard that we were planning to start the rising because we
were counting on the aid of German men. And he believed our cause was hopeless without their aid. I know this was his fixed idea. To prevent us from attempting what he thought was the impossible, he insisted on hurrying to Ireland in a submarine. The world knows the price he paid for that trip"