The ‘IRA Pirates’: The capture of the British ship Upnor



An account of the daring capture of the British ship Upnor 100 years ago this week, from the papers of Michael Burke, O/C Cobh IRA.


I desire to place on record details of the capture at sea of the British ship Upnor in which Cobh men played a prominent part.

The date of the event was 29th March 1922. Early in March 1922, I was in Cork attending a parade in honour of the late Tomás MacCurtain when I was informed that the Brigade O/C, Seán Hegarty, wanted to see me before I returned to Cobh. I met him and the Brigade Staff (Cork No I Brigade) when I was told that a British War Department vessel, named Upnor, was landing warlike stores in Haulbowline for delivery at Woolwich Arsenal and that I was to make arrangements for her capture at sea. After her capture she was to be taken to Ballycotton where she would be unloaded. The Brigade would arrange for the unloading and transport of the cargo.

I was also advised to contact one of our men in Haulbowline who would let me know when the Upnor was putting to sea. I was then to phone the All-For-Ireland Club, Emmet Place, Cork where the Brigade Staff were standing by. Returning to Cobh, I detailed a man to get in touch with our representative in Haulbowline and inform him that he was to send me word when the Upnor was ready to leave. I then organised a crew to man the boat which was to proceed after the Upnor.

Several of the men I recruited were not members of the IRA.

I did of course inform them what was on. A week or so elapsed and then my friend in Haulbowline sent me word, on March 29, 1922 that the Upnor was sailing at 11am that day. She carried hundreds of rifles, machine guns and many hundred boxes of ammunition, Verey lights and suchlike war stores. I got in touch with Brigade HQ immediately and soon a car came from Cork with about fifteen Cork IRA men, amongst whom were Mick Murphy, Tom Crofts and ‘Sando’ Donovan, all Brigade Officers. Mick Murphy carried a Lewis gun.

With the Cork men was a sea captain named Collins who was to take over the captaincy of the Upnor when she was captured. He was not an IRA man. Arrangements previously made to commandeer a boat to follow the Upnor to sea did not materialise but luckily the tugboat Warrior had berthed at Deepwater Quay, Cobh that day about noon.

We boarded her and found the captain had gone ashore. Putting our own crew aboard we went in search of the captain. We could not put to sea until we located him; if we put to sea and he returned to the quay to find his boat missing he would report the fact to the Admiralty and the alarm would be given.

We searched hotels and shipping offices in the town and eventually found him in the very last office we tried.. We took him prisoner and placed him under an armed guard in the Rob Roy Hotel. Lloyds shipping agent, Horne, was with the captain when we found him. Horne was a Protestant and a Unionist and saw us take the captain prisoner.

Mick Murphy asked me what would we do with this fellow. I said “If he gives his word of honour not to discuss what he has seen he is at liberty to go”. Horne shook hands with us and gave his word (which he loyally kept) so we let him go.

The time was now gone 2pm and the Upnor had at least two hours or more of a start on us. We got aboard the Warrior with Captain Collins in charge of her and made for the open sea. Our lads worked so hard on the engines that the original crew, who were aboard, were afraid the boilers would burst and they offered to do the job themselves. We agreed to this. Leaving Cobh Harbour I told Captain Collins to strike a course for Waterford. He had no idea of what was afoot and did as he was told. When we got outside the harbour there was no sign of the Upnor so I asked the Captain to alter course for Portsmouth. He did this.

We sailed on the Portsmouth course for several hours and just as dusk was falling we sighted the Upnor and her escort of two armed trawlers. The latter were about two miles from the Upnor and in front of her. She was making slow speed as she was towing a barge. We closed in on her and one of our lads shouted to her captain to stop saying we had an important message for the captain at the same time waving an official looking envelope. She stopped. We lowered a boat and a few of us went aboard her. We produced our guns and held up the captain and any of the crew in sight. Mick Murphy ordered the captain, at the point of a Lewis gun, to leave the bridge.

The man was thunderstruck. He said, “This is piracy on the high seas, do you realise what this means?” Murphy replied, “We are taking over now” and ordered the skipper below decks. Seeing we meant business, the captain complied. Meanwhile the Warrior had pulled alongside the Upnor and a further party of our lads came aboard the latter. We put our own crew in charge of her with John Duhig, a seaman of long standing and an IRA man, as skipper. Captain Collins was instructed to set a course slowly for Ballycotton. The Upnor, with John Duhig in charge, followed.

Darkness had now fallen. We were from thirty to forty miles off the Irish coast and the British trawler escort had gone ahead oblivious of the fact that the Upnor with its precious cargo had changed hands. The journey to Ballycotton was uneventful. We tied up at the pier at about 4am on March 30, 1922 and the task of unloading commenced. There were upwards of one hundred lorries of all kinds and the same number of men, all from the Cork Brigade, waiting to unload and take away the cargo and it was not until about 6pm that the last lorry left the pier.

The cargo comprised Lewis and Maxim machine-guns and spare parts, grenades and rifle grenade throwers, guncotton and boxes of ammunition. The quantity may be judged from the time taken to unload and the transport required to remove the cargo. Just as I was preparing to leave Ballycotton on the last lorry a grey shape loomed up at sea. It was the British man-of-war searching for the missing Upnor. Apparently the Upnor’s escort tried to make contact with her and failing to do so informed the British naval authorities that something was amiss.

Returning to Cobh I went to bed and a few hours afterwards was called and told the Admiral wanted to speak to the O/C Cobh IRA. I spoke on the phone to him. He said he would like to see me. With Volunteer Denis Duggan I called on the Admiral who told me what had happened to the Upnor. I said I knew nothing about it and added that I would take up the matter immediately with headquarters. He seemed pleased with the interview, so much for British intelligence. We were disappointed with the contents of the barge towed by the Upnor. It contained only an assortment of office furniture, which of course was quite useless to us.

[The following is a report by the British Crown Forces of the same raid]

“The Upnor was intercepted by IRA pirates as it steamed out of Cobh on the 29th March and its cargo — which included 266 cases of rifles and machine gun parts, 1,440 cases of smallbore ammunition, 222 cases of 4-inch and 12-pounder cartridges, 1,300 cases of shells, 750 cases of fuses and fireworks and 600 cases of small arms (partly empty) — was loaded on 60 lorries by 200 men, at Ballycotton, Co Cork during the night. The Upnor’s armoury was not of the highest quality, but its seizure reinforced the IRA in the South and almost certainly contributed to the more intensive use of mines in the war.”

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