Countdown to 2016 : Larne Gunrunning

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Volume 22

‘Bravo, Ulster! Unloading the guns at Donaghadee’—one of several propaganda postcards produced after the event.

‘Bravo, Ulster! Unloading the guns at Donaghadee’—one of several propaganda postcards produced after the event.

In anticipation of the possibility of Home Rule, Edward Carson and James Craig founded the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in early 1913. Their intention was that unionists in the north would prevent the enactment of Home Rule. In March 1914 the third Home Rule Bill was introduced into the House of Commons. Because of the recent adoption of the 1911 Parliament Act the House of Lords could no longer save Ulster’s unionists from Home Rule. By April 1914 the unionists, led by Carson and Craig, were desperate. Soon, the need for arms led the UVF to procure rifles and ammunition in Germany.

The gunrunning was planned and accomplished under the command of Major Fred Crawford. Crawford had built up contacts with a German, Bruno Spiro. The business committee of the UVF approved Crawford’s plan to buy 20,000 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition from Spiro. Crawford arranged for a steamer to bring the weapons to Ulster, with a mid-voyage transfer to another vessel for even greater security. He planned for the arms to be purchased and to be transferred at sea, for a diversion in Belfast Lough, and for the landed arms to be transported overland to their hiding places.

On 30 March 1914, while the weapons and ammunition were being loaded onto the SS Fanny on the Baltic island of Langeland, Danish customs officials seized the papers of the ship. They suspected that the cargo might contain weapons to arm militants in Iceland who were seeking independence from Denmark; the Fanny managed to escape into a gale, however, and sailed outside of Danish waters. In a further bid to evade the authorities and mask the intentions of the UVF, Major Crawford purchased the SS Clydevalley in Glasgow. On 19–20 April off Tuskar Rock the entire cache of weapons and ammunition was transferred from the Fanny onto the Clydevalley. While approaching the port of Larne, the name of the Clydevalley was changed to the SS Mountjoy II.

On 24 April 1914, the UVF had a decoy ship, the SS Balmerino, sail into Belfast Lough so that the authorities would investigate it for smuggling. The hoax involved a truck waiting at the docks as if for an incoming load. The captain of the Balmerino ensured that his ship’s approach was as suspicious as poss-ible. Once docked, the captain set about stalling the authorities for as long as he could with excuses, which further convinced the authorities that they had intercepted the real cargo. Eventually the authorities searched the ship’s contents and discovered that its papers were in order and that it was only carrying coal.

On a cold, wet night the UVF took control of Larne, and column after column of vehicles approached the port. By the time the Clydevalley/Mountjoy II pulled into the harbour, the headlights of 500 motor vehicles lit Larne port. At Larne two local ships were loaded with guns for Belfast and Donaghadee, and soon the Clydevalley was heading for Bangor on the Down coast, where a further consignment of guns and ammunition was unloaded.

The operation was an unqualified success. But in the end the Larne gunrunning was more of a political coup than a military feat for the unionist leaders. The UVF remained inadequately armed, as the weapons shipment contained three different types of weapons along with a lack of proper ammunition for any of them. And the fact that the local police made no attempt to stop the landing or to seize the arms increased Irish nationalist suspicions that the authorities were acquiescent towards unionist militants in Ulster.

The Larne gunrunning returned the gun to the forefront of Irish politics.

Joseph E.A. Connell is the author of Dublin in rebellion: a directory, 1913–1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006).

One of the Italian Vetterli-Vitali MI888 rifles imported. (NMI)

One of the Italian Vetterli-Vitali MI888 rifles imported. (NMI)


Further reading

A. Jackson, ‘Larne Gun Running, 1914’, History Ireland 1 (1) (Spring 1993).

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