Larne, Howth and the First World War

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Home Rule, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—I welcome the call, from the historians at the 16 May History Ireland ‘Hedge School’, for critical analysis of the ‘decade of centenaries’ events from 1912–22. I have been reflecting on this for some time, having been reminded of some unanswered questions when editing the 1998 UCD Press re-publication of my father Joe Johnston’s 1913 book, Civil war in Ulster?. He had been an active Home Rule supporter, from a like-minded family in a local Presbyterian community in Tyrone, and had tried to make the case that it was a business opportunity, not a Rome Rule threat.

I recollect an earlier reminiscence of his, during World War II, about how in the lead-up to the First World War the Germans had been taken by surprise by British entry in response to their attack on France via Belgium. They had expected them to be preoccupied with the civil war threat in Ireland. I have recently been exploring this, reading scholarly works about First World War origins, Sir Henry Wilson, Home Rule, Asquith, Carson, Crawford, Balfour, Redmond, Childers, etc., and have attempted to put together the makings of an analysis of the significance of the Larne and Howth gunrunnings, which deceived the Germans and incidentally introduced the gun into Home Rule politics.

Childers had written a book supportive of Home Rule in 1911, and in the context when visiting the North had picked up only minor hints, which he discounted, of what subsequently led to the Covenant threat, the UVF and Larne. His motivation in the July 1914 Howth episode was to arm Redmond’s Volunteers in support of the First World War. In the following week he was in Westminster observing the 3 August declaration of war by a cheering all-party Commons, including Carson and Redmond, the latter two being associated with recent importation of arms from Germany.

There are many unanswered questions here, and strong hints that both Larne and Howth were somehow related to the imperial strategic planning process, with Sir Henry Wilson playing a part. He certainly had a role in arming the UVF, and he explicitly in his memoirs regarded Irish Home Rule, if it developed on the Canadian model, as being a threat to the Empire.

I have drafted some material exploring the implications of the foregoing, but it seems not yet at a level of scholarship fit to publish. I suggest, however, that by the time the actual centenaries of the Larne and Howth gunrunnings come along, related seminars should have some innovative critical analysis of their implications. I am therefore inviting critical historians to contact me at with a view to assessing my draft material, and if necessary doing further research with a view to publication.—Yours etc.,

Dublin 6


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