The Howth Gun-Running
The Howth Gun-Running


An account of one of the first revolutionary acts of the 1916 Rising, the Howth gun-running in Dublin, and the subsequent Bachelor’s Walk massacre, also in Dublin, 99 years ago this week.


On Sunday the 26th of July 1914 four Battalions of the Dublin Volunteers assembled in Father Mathew Park Fairview. Between 3000 and 4000 men formed up under their company commanders and an officer in uniform on horseback. Various companies marched from the park, first was the cyclist corps then signalling corps then the various companies including a small detachment of Fianna Scouts with an Ambulance Cart. Almost all of the march was unaware of their destination or the purpose of the march. As the march proceeded towards their destination they were joined by several more Volunteer companies including those from Lusk, Skerries and Donabate, the Lusk Corps, numbering about 150, were accompanied by the Very Reverend Thomas Byrne Parish Priest of Lusk. As the march progressed along their route they passed through the little village of Raheny where a small group of onlookers including a rather puzzled R.I.C. Sergeant.

The march progressed through Sutton and Baldoyle before reaching their destination at Howth about 1pm. The head of the march came to a halt at the Tram terminus at the entrance to the East Pier. Suddenly a sheer went up and a company of Volunteer was seen running to the head of the pier while the rest of the companies, acting on orders from their respective commanders, sealed off the rest of the harbour preventing anyone other than Volunteers gaining access to the landing stage.

A small group distracted any onlookers with a drill display while what was described as a nicely-shaped pleasure yacht entered the harbour and docked along-side a group of Volunteers. There were several descriptions of how the guns were unloaded from the yacht but all agreed that it was done with considerable speed and in what appeared to be minutes all the Volunteers present were holding a rifle, some were seen with two or three. Several motorcars appeared from nowhere and the remainder of the Rifles and Ammunition were whisked away.

In a brisk cold wind and pouring rain the Volunteers regrouped and started their march back to Dublin, as they formed up onlookers began to realise that the thousands of unarmed men that had arrived where now leaving shouldering a rifle. Many onlookers cheered and several disrupted the column of marching men to congratulate individual Volunteers. The echoes of the Volunteers singing of Nationalist songs could be heard long after they had departed. Father Byrne, who had entered a tramcar, addressed a few words of congratulations as the Volunteered departed.

As the Volunteers marched back to Dublin they met with two or three detachments of police who were reported to have cheered and joined the March. Several companies of Volunteers branched off the main March to return to their various homes and the March continued peacefully until they main March reached the Howth Road, several soldiers of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) were seen getting off a tram, a company of policemen had formed up on the pavement while the KOSB formed up across the road with fixed bayonets blocking the progress of the March.

At this stage Mr Harrel, Assistant Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police approached the head of the column of Volunteers and asked who was in charge. Darrell Figgis who was in charge of the Volunteers came forward and Mr Harrel requested that the Volunteers surrender their arms. This request was refused, Mr Figgis pointing out that as the Ulster Volunteers had been parading fully armed for three weeks the March was not breaking any law. Figgis offered to surrender to police if the March was allowed to disperse. Mr Harrel replied “I mean to have those guns,” after some argument Harrel ordered his men to disarm the Volunteers, as Figgis turned to re-join the Volunteers he was struck on the back of the head with a truncheon. The Volunteers resisted the police and as the police were vastly outnumbered the Volunteers overpowered them. A bayonet charge by the soldiers was then ordered. The Volunteers had no ammunition but some of the Volunteer officers had revolvers which they fired into the air. In the ensuing melee two of the soldiers were injured but as the soldiers were vastly outnumbered they were forced to retreat in what was described as a very disorderly fashion. After the soldiers hard retreated Figgis and Harrel went to a private garden to discuss the situation, unknown to Harrel Figgis had given the order that the Volunteers should form a solid line across the road, while the front line stood firm those are the rear were instructed to slip away quietly with their rifles.

During the time Figgis managed to hold Harrel in conversation the vast majority of the Volunteers had managed to disappear with their rifles. The commanding officer of the KOSB had requested permission to fire on the Volunteers but Harrel had refused to allow him to do this. The DMP men present refused to act against the Volunteers and were taken away by the military. The military did manage to capture 19 of the rifles.


One of the Volunteers on the March to Howth gave this account of events. “Yesterday’s gun-running was absolutely unexpected by the rank and file of the Volunteers who took part. When we were ordered to assemble for a route march on Sunday, the 12th inst., we were put under the pledge of secrecy as to the mobilisation, and on the morning, none of us, save the commanding officers, knew where the battalions would be taken.

The word was whispered that guns were to be distributed to us, and when the North Dublin Companies were marched to Baldoyle, and the South to Pigeon House Fort and returned without arms, disappointment was expressed. When, therefore, we set out under sealed orders yesterday there was practically no expectation that anything extraordinary was afoot. I am informed that even the company commanders had no knowledge of what would happen, and received orders from headquarters as to where the regiment was to march only at the last moment. Several leading members of the Provisional Committee were noticed to be present.

A little before 9.30 in the morning the men began to assemble at Fairview Park. The men of the two Northern Battalions were astonished to see company after company of the southern men march in. All the company and half company commanders were in uniform - the grey and green uniforms, which were only distributed on Saturday night.


Almost all the men, who numbered about 3,000, were equipped with bandoliers and all carried haversacks containing the day’s rations ordered. The boys of the Fianna Eireann arrived, bringing an ambulance cart, and all dressed up in their picturesque Irish Boy Scout’s dress. A company of cyclists headed the regiment which marched forth about 10 o’clock. It extended over nearly half-a-mile, and made a brave sight that was watched by many interested eyes.

We proceeded from Fairview up the Howth road. At Raheny a large contingent of Dublin County men joined us, carrying a green flag bearing the emblem of a gold harp proper. When we arrived at the sea a terrific storm overtook us which drenched us to the skin, but this failed entirely to dishearten the men.”

The Volunteer went on to describe the return journey. “To avoid and sort of collision with the Police and Military the Volunteers, instead of continuing down the Howth Road, swung to the right into Charlemont Road. To check the movement the soldiers moved along to the Malahide Road, and lined up across. The majority of the Volunteers at once proceeded to find safe hiding places for the rifles in the vicinity. The soldiers barred the way, and then, unfortunately, the order to fire was given, with the result that several men were seriously injured.

One Volunteer was badly bayoneted in the stomach, and a local doctor was requisitioned. The excitement was intense for about twenty minutes. Very few of the rifles were taken, and for hours afterwards private motor cars and taxi-cabs were conveying the guns and ammunition from their temporary places of concealment to the city. A corps of cycling scouts kept their eyes open, and the rifles were all got away by 7 o’clock.”


A Volunteer who was involved in the clash with the K.O.S.B. gave an account of what happened. The account was given to a court of inquiry and the Volunteers was identified only as Mr S. Volunteer Mr M J Judge was seriously injured by a bayonet when the K.O.S.B. and Police confronted the Volunteers on The corner of the Howth Road and Malahide Road. Mr S told the inquiry “when the K.S.O.B. charged the Volunteers held their ground and prepared to defend themselves, we had only empty rifles they had fixed bayonets and loaded rifles. Our determination was to hold onto out rifles at all costs, and to that, trapped as we were between fully armed military who seemed only too ready to butcher us , and the force of police, we had to use our empty guns as clubs to ward off the deadly attack of the soldiers.

“Mr Judge was attacked fiercely and fought like a Trojan fending off the attack of blows and stabs aimed at him. Then suddenly one of the Borderers got an opening and made a furious lunge. The thrust caught him on the left arm but such was the thrust that the bayonet pierced his left arm and penetrated right through to his chest. It was discovered Mr Judge was oozing blood, although wounded another Borderer made another attempt at Mr Judge, Mr S managed to fend off the various attack with his rifle which had the barrel broken by the varicosity of the blow.” Mr Judge was taken to the Mater Hospital where he is recovering from his wounds.


Fianna Eireann Boy Scouts, commanded by Padraig O’Riain and Eamonn Martin, accompanied the Volunteers on the March, all Fianna members over 15 were ordered to attend the March. Several eye-witnesses gave accounts of the actions of the Fianna. One witness told the inquiry ‘When the first attack was made by the soldiers the scouts showed up manfully. I saw one of the older scouts engage a Scottish Borderer who was armed with fixed bayonet. With a stroke of his rifle the scout brought the soldier to the ground and then coolly took possession of the soldier’s gun.’ One scout was wounded above the left ear, blood flowing profusely down his face. One of the commanders of the scouts mounted a wall and opened fire with an automatic pistol on the Scottish Borderers. In the melee several rifles were taken from the soldiers and when the order was given to the Volunteers at the rear to get away with their rifles the scouts, in addition to getting safely away with a large quantity of ammunition which was loaded on their ambulance cart, took the captured rifles with them.’ Another witness told newspaper journalists ‘The scouts were even pluckier than some of the Volunteers, every one of them held on to his rifle as he would hold his own life.’


Although the Howth gunrunning is the most well-known there were other landings of guns and ammunition by the Irish Volunteers around the country. After the successful landing at Howth rumour of other landing also spread throughout the country and police and the Royal Navy were kept busy monitoring the coast and investigating reports of landings.

Although Royal Navy War Ships were present in Lough Swilly a large quantity of rifles was brought into the peninsula of Inishowen and distributed to different Irish Volunteer centres.

In Buncrana and the villages of Clonmany, Malin, Carndonagh and Moville despite a heave presents of police and Royal Navy rifles and ammunition from Howth were distributed to the local Irish Volunteer units.

A large quantity of arms and ammunition was landed at Callisoe Bay a short distance round the eastward point of the Waterford coast. The cargo was quickly moved inland by motor car and cyclists, the police did investigate the incident but were unable to locate any of the cargo.

It was reported that that a cargo of arms and ammunition were landed at Rush County Dublin and taken by motor car to the North of Ireland. Although police and Royal Navy searched the area including boarding and searching boats in the area no traces of the arms or ammunition were found.

Another rumour of the landing of 1000 Mauser rifles at Limerick was not generally credited.

A consignment of about 300 rifles which had been in safe keeping on the Tralee coast were delivered to the local Volunteers drill hall at about 1pm. A fusillade of shots was discharged when the motor cars containing the rifles were unloaded.

It was reported that 8000 rifles and ammunition were landed by the Volunteers at Rathcoursey on the Ballinacurra River County Cork.

Small arms ammunition to the extent of 50,000 rounds destined for Ireland was seized in Birmingham.

Up to 100 Police Coast Guard and Revenue Officers created a great deal of excitement around Dalkey and Kingstown when rumour spread of another attempted landing of arms and ammunition spread. Although it turned out to be a hoax several yachts were boarded and searched.

Another rumour of gun-running was reported at Waterford. A suspicious looking craft was seen by the Coastguard, it was thought to be awaiting nightfall to come ashore. Police constables on bicycles travelled to Tramore and being informed the vessel went in the Dunmore direction they patrolled the coast and the banks of the Suir. During the night a cruiser and three destroyers from Queenstown arrived off Tramore and began patrolling the coast. Members of the Irish Volunteers were on the quays on Saturday night and early Sunday morning, they were monitored by large numbers of Police. A large force of military and police were stationed on the island in the river near Waterford during the night. The island is the property of Mr Gerald Purcell Fitzgerald who recently expressed his support for the Irish Volunteers.


At about 6.30pm the KOSB were returning to Barracks at Royal Barracks now Collins Barracks when they were met by a hostile crowd as the soldiers marched along Bachelors Walk. At the inquiry into the shooting the senior officer gave evidence that he, Major Haig, at about 6.15 returned to Barracks and was told that a portion of his men had been called out to assist the civil authority. He got into uniform and proceeded in the direction of Clontarf. He met up with the rear of the column of his men at Talbot Street, Major Coke was in charge and the column consisted of about 150 men with 8 officers. He received a report of what had happened, there was a very large crowd and many of his men had been knocked about, he ordered all rear guards to be recalled and the column to proceed in force to Barracks by way of Sackville Street then along the Quays to Royal Barracks. As the column proceeded along their chosen route they were followed by the hostile crowd who continued to hurl stones at them, the numbers in the crowd grew as every side street they passed appeared to hold more rioters who joined the body of the mob perusing them.

Major Haig told the inquiry “The crowd was composed of roughs - men and a few what people might call boys up to 18 years of age. The men were up to 30 or 40 years of age, and one or two women. They were throwing a constant shower of stones of all sizes. He endeavoured to get on as quickly as he could. The crowd were pursuing them and gaining on them, the crowd were about 15 yards behind their rear flank. When the Column had got to within 100 yards of the metal bridge (Ha’penny Bridge) the crowd were right up behind the Column. He (Major Haig) was hit four or five times with stones, four times about the head and face and once with a rather large stone on the elbow.”

As the attack intensified Major Haig gave the order at Liffey Street that enough men to align themselves across the street to cover its width, the intention being that this line should halt the progress of the perusing crowd and allow the rest of the Column to proceed to Royal Barracks. Between 20 and 30 men were used to block the street, the men formed two lines, some kneeling. Major Haig stated to the inquiry that he felt his men would not get safely back to barracks if he did not threaten the crowd with more than bayonets. At this stage about 30 or 40 rioters joined the attack from Liffey Street and the crowd on Bachelors Walk numbered between 500 and 600.

The soldiers blocking the street fired on the crowd. They had been lined up across the street and Major Haig attempted to address the crowd, Major Haig claimed he raised his sword to attract the attention of the crowd before he attempted to speak but as he lowered his sword the soldiers interpreted this as the order to fire. The Military claimed a total of 31 shots were fired. Four people died as a result of injuries received and many more were injured. The four fatalities were:

Patrick Quinn of 1 Gardiner’s Lane aged 46 and employed as a Coal Porter, married with six children ranging in age from nine to nineteen. Death was caused by a bullet wound to the leg severing the femoral artery.

James Brennan of 7 Lower Buckingham Street aged 17 employed as a messenger, death caused by a bullet wound to the leg severing the femoral artery the wound was described as a clean cut puncture wound in front of and to the inner side of the right thigh about five inches above the knee, he died an hour after admission to Jervis Street Hospital.

Mrs Mary Duffy 20 of Lower Liffey Street Dublin aged 50, her son from her first marriage Thomas Tight was serving in the 5th Battalion The Royal Dublin Fusiliers A nephew of Mrs Duffy is also in the Dublin Fusiliers. Mary Duffy was admitted to Jervis Street Hospital on the evening of the 26th, she was dead on arrival. Death was due to a bullet wound, the bullet passed through her body severing one internal artery, death was due to shock following haemorrhage.

Sylvester Pidgeon died on the 24th of September 1914 from wounds received, he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on the 28th of September. He was employed as a printer and was married with 5 children ranging in age from 3 months to 11 years old.

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