The UVF gun-running of April 1914, known as Operation Lion, was an effective military operation; though many of the 100,000-strong UVF remained unarmed after it. The Ulster Volunteer Force had been formed in January 1913 and from that date, small-scale gun-running had been carried out. In fact, up until December 1913, when royal proclamations made it illegal to import military firearms into Ireland, many rifles were brought into Ulster quite openly.
Sir Edward Carson, the unionist leader, saw the UVF principally as a propaganda tool, rather than a military force, which would provide large, disciplined audiences for unionist political events and reinforce his strategy of opposing the Third Home Rule Bill in Parliament. However, pressure to arm the UVF came from some of the officers of the force. Particularly, in January 1914, General Sir William Adair, commanding the Antrim division of the UVF, met with Sir Edward Carson and James Craig.
He stated that the UVF in Co Antrim was 10,700 strong had access to just 200 rifles. Adair believed that his men were becoming bored of drill and the prompt issue of rifles was needed to revive morale. This was the context for the large-scale UVF gun-running of April 1914; a military operation masterminded and led by Major Fred Crawford, the UVF’s director of ordnance, who had served in the Boer War.
Crawford purchased 20,000 rifles and 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition in Hamburg in February 1914; later unionist propaganda would put the figure as high as 50,000 rifles, but the accounts held in the Ulster Unionist Council papers at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland suggest that the lower figure is accurate. These rifles were embarked on a Norwegian vessel, the SS Fanny, on 2 April 1914. While the German authorities may have turned a blind eye to Crawford’s activities, he received no direct help from them. Crawford provided his own account of the voyage in his book Guns for Ulster. He alleged that, while at sea, he had been ordered to return to Germany, but this order had been countermanded by Carson, who fully backed his enterprise.
While at sea, Crawford had the SS Fanny disguised and, on 20 April, her cargo was trans-shipped to the SS Clyde Valley. This ship had been involved in the coal trade in Belfast for many years and it was thought that it would draw less suspicion than the Norwegian vessel. At 8pm on Friday, 24 April, the Clyde Valley reached Belfast Lough. There, Crawford received his final orders from Carson, which were that the Clyde Valley was to make for Larne and there unload all of her cargo apart from 4,000 rifles which would later be brought to Bangor. At Larne Harbour, the Clyde Valley would be met by a small steamer, the Innismurray, to which rifles for Donaghadee would be trans-shipped.
Ashore, there was much activity, as UVF units mobilised in Belfast, central Antrim and north Down. In Belfast, there was a deception plan involving the SS Balmerino and the East Belfast Regiment, designed to occupy the attention of the police, coastguards and customs officers there.
At 8pm, the UVF took control of Larne and, at 9pm, Bangor and Donaghadee were similarly “captured”. In all of these areas the local police and coastguards were surrounded and telephone and telegraph communications were cut.
The Clyde Valley, now renamed Mountjoy II by Crawford, in commemoration of the ship which had led the relief of Derry, docked in Larne at 10.30pm. Motorcars from Co Tyrone were the first to be loaded with rifles, as they had the furthest distance to travel. By 2.30am, all of the cargo had been unloaded except for the rifles destined for Bangor.
There had been some trouble trans-shipping rifles to the Innismurray, when it transpired that its captain was a nationalist. Replaced with a volunteer crew, the Innismurray left Larne harbour at 4am. The Mountjoy arrived in Bangor at 4.25am, more than three hours later than originally planned, and was quickly unloaded, leaving at 5.40am. The occupation of Bangor and Donaghadee went on long into daylight, with the volunteers only being dismissed at 7.20am and 8.30am respectively.
One person died during the gun-running itself; a coastguard, HE Painter, who suffered a fatal heart attack in Donaghadee having rushed to summon his commander. The Royal Irish Constabulary, heavily outnumbered by the UVF, did nothing to prevent the guns being distributed.
Events at the Curragh Camp in March 1914 suggested that many British Army officers were sympathetic to the unionist cause but, in any case, British Army units in Ulster do not seem to have received any news of the gun-running until late in the morning of the April 25.
But by then, of course, it was much too late to intervene.
In response to the Curragh incident on 20 March, according to Darrell Figgis, the Howth gun-running plan was first conceived in April 1914, many Irish people believed that the British Army could not be relied on to enforce Home Rule when it was enacted, and many Irish Volunteers also felt that availability of arms would aid recruitment. At a lunch attended by Alice Stopford Green, Sir Roger Casement, Figgis and Eoin MacNeill, it was decided that Figgis would contact Michael O’Rahilly to raise funds to buy arms. He was unsuccessful and the group was dismayed to learn of the Larne gun-running of the Ulster Volunteers (UVF). Pádraig Pearse had commented that: “the only thing more ridiculous than an Ulsterman with a rifle is a Nationalist without one”.
Film footage has just been made available which shows Larne’s important role in the gun-running of April 1914, which will be available by 2017.
Photo: Sir Edward Carson attempting to ignore a suffragette, Meg Connery. Photo released under common license.
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