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Smuggling Weapons, Republicans and Spies across the Irish Sea and the North Channel (1912–1923): Gaelic Friends or Foes?

Trafic d’armes, de républicains et d’espions par la mer d’Irlande : amis ou ennemis gaéliques ?
Émilie Berthillot


Avec l’entrée en guerre de la Grande-Bretagne dans le premier conflit mondial, certains activistes irlandais décidèrent de mettre sur pied une nouvelle rébellion en vue d’obtenir leur indépendance et se tournèrent vers l’Allemagne afin d’importer des armes illégales en Irlande. Cet article se propose d’étudier ce trafic d’armes sur les mers d’Irlande et du Nord ainsi que certaines ruses et tromperies utilisées afin de couvrir les opérations maritimes, ceci grâce à des extraits de journaux intimes des membres d’équipages. L’étude du soutien écossais lors du soulèvement de Pâques constitue aussi le cœur de cet article. En effet, la mer d’Irlande et le canal du Nord furent les témoins de nombreuses traversées, qu’elles soient celles de cargaisons d’armes, de détonateurs, d’explosifs ou bien de sympathisants écossais eux-mêmes poursuivis par des agents britanniques en filature. Enfin, cet article vise à dépeindre le rôle de cette zone maritime et portuaire dans le soulèvement irlandais, mais il met aussi en lumière les alliances et influences réciproques entre les deux pays gaéliques voisins dans leur lutte pour l’indépendance.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 “1798: The United Irishmen rebellion: Lord Edward Fitzgerald tries to arrange a rebellion involving (...)

1After decades of riots throughout the 19th century,1 the Irish rebels fighting for Home Rule decided to foster a rebellion taking advantage of the involvement of Great Britain in the First World War. To fight against British forces, Irish activists were in desperate need of weapons whose importation was banned by the Proclamation of King George V issued on 4 December 1913 (Figgis, 2014, p. xxv). They thus turned to Germany to provide them with illegal ones. What was more, the proximity of Scotland, along with the influences and the long-shared connections between the two Gaelic countries only separated by the Irish Sea or the North Channel, had played, and were still playing, a key role at the beginning of the war:

Many aspects of Scottish and Irish cultural and political life increasingly interacted towards the turn of the century. This mainly occurred because similar battles were being fought in both nations. The land wars, home rule campaigns and Celtic revivals prompted many involved in these efforts to realise that their ends could be more effectively met through cooperation. Consequently, Scotland and Ireland often worked together to defy assimilation and express their desire for change within. (Shaw, 2016, p. 174)

2This article aims at analysing the Scottish help provided to the Irish Home Rule movement prior and during the Easter Rising, examining above all the importance of the sea in this cooperation. This paper concentrates on the period going from the preparation of the Easter Rising from 1912 onwards (the date of the creation of the UVF and the third Home Rule crisis) to the signature of the Treaty on 6 December 1921 (Ryan, 1996, pp. 121–6). From Glasgow to Kingstown (today Dún Laoghaire harbour) via Ardrossan or Belfast harbours, this work targets the Irish gun-running activity, the crossing of republicans with Scottish explosives over to Ireland and the surveillance of British agents across the seas separating Ireland and Scotland to determine if these teeming waters stood for connections or divisions. To answer this question, gun-running operations prior to the Rising and the experience of the crews on board yachts across the Irish Sea and the North Channel shall be highlighted, first. Then, the second part develops the typical tricks of professional smugglers used by Volunteers on shore for the missions at sea to be completed. The third part describes Belfast and Glasgow harbours as key places for the crossing and smuggling of Scottish explosives, but also that of republicans; the two harbours are seen as epitomozing the connections between Ireland and Scotland. Finally, the last part highlights the efficiency of the British intelligence surveillance system in which British spies, agents and detectives crossed the sea on board ferries to track down Irish and Scottish republicans on both sides of the Irish Sea.

3This paper examines two major gun-running operations both preparing the Rising: the first one in Larne (Co. Antrim, Ulster) and the second one in Howth (Co. Dublin). The aim is to show the first one definitely urges Dublin rebels to act, but also the importance of Belfast harbour (Co. Antrim) in the sea link with Glasgow harbour in Scotland.

  • 2 “While Westminster was debating the first and second Home Rule bills, in 1886 and 1893, scattered, (...)

4After several failures in shipping weapons to Belfast from Britain, in February 1914, Major Frederick Crawford decided to buy 25,000 rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunitions in Hamburg to coordinate the Ulster Volunteer Force.2 On 30 March 1914, these weapons were loaded on the SS Fanny before being transhipped into the SS Clyde Valley off Tuskar Rock (Co. Wexford). On 24 April 1914, at night, the ship entered Larne harbour. The Ulster Volunteer members quickly offloaded the cargo of the ship which was put into 700 motor vehicles and other small boats to be brought to the city and swiftly distributed. This operation was considered as a military success since weapons amplify the fire-power of the UVF but it also gave more credibility to their cause challenging Dublin Rule (Bardon, 2005, p. 444).

  • 3 “Organisation founded in 1913 in Dublin by eleven prominent nationalists including Patrick Pearse a (...)
  • 4 “The Irish organisation known as Cumann na mBan (Irishwomen’s Council), was a unique and peculiar n (...)
  • 5Na Fianna Éireann was one of the many ‘pseudo-military youth groups’ that proliferated in Europe i (...)

5Stimulated by the success of the Larne gun-running operation, some Irish Volunteers3 (Erskine Childers, Conor O’Brien, Darrell Figgis, Bulmer Hobson and Mary Spring Rice) set up the Howth gun-running operation near Dublin. They also bought 1,500 ex-German army Mauser rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition in Hamburg. On 26 July 1914, the Asgard arrived in Howth harbour with 1,000 rifles and 25,000 ammunitions on board. On 1 August, after 500 rifles and 20,000 ammunitions had been transhipped from the Kelpie to the Chotah off the Welsh coast, the crew offloaded her cargo (Figgis, 2014, pp. xxv-xxxv). On Howth pier, Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan4 members and more than 200 Fianna boys5 were waiting for the ship to dock and unload her cargo before carrying the weapons back to Dublin by foot or by motor-cars (Hay, 2008, p. 65). This operation was also a very effective one since many new recruits were then enlisting the Irish Volunteers organisation and funds were coming from all parts of Ireland and America.

6The common point between these two operations lies in the key role given to numerous ships and yachts navigating across the Irish Sea and the North Channel to transport weapons to Ireland.

“Adventures and Misadventures at Sea” (Platt, 2007)

  • 6 “Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien (1880–1952) was a son of Edward William O’Brien of Cahirmoyle, Co. L (...)
  • 7 “Mary Ellen Spring Rice was only daughter of Thomas, Second Baron Monteagle of Mount Brandon, Mount (...)

7The first part shall depict the North Channel and the Irish Sea as waters of many dangers, based on elements found in the diaries of Conor O’Brien,6 Mary Spring Rice7 or the Childers and the original eye-witness accounts of the master of the SS Clyde Valley, people living on board the Asgard, the Kelpie, or the SS Clyde Valley and smuggling weapons at sea. These extracts offer a personal vision and experience of the voyages with very precise details about the operations and show the genuine feelings of some nationalists taking a lot of risks when at sea to complete their missions.

8In the different diaries, the authors insist on the weather conditions, which could jeopardise a gun-running operation at sea. For instance, as Conor O’Brien experiences, the absence of wind, a vital element for sail boats, delayed the boat and made the crew miss an important meeting in the open sea (O’Brien, 2014, pp. 113–4). Conversely, a rough sea could also ruin an operation: the gun-running yachts having no engine; they could be destroyed or lost at sea. The violence of the sea and its impacts on the body and soul of some non professional seamen and women are well-depicted in this extract written by Mary Spring Rice:

At dinner time a good breeze sprang up, still n. w. and it blew harder and harder till by midnight it was a regular gale. It was an awful night. Erskine [the navigator] stayed on deck the whole time; the waves looked black and terrible and enormous, and though everything was reefed one wondered if we should ever get through without something giving way. For about half the night I crouched in the cockpit or the hatchway, then crawled into the cabin where Molly and I lay, half on top of one another—which seemed to make the elements less terrible, but hardly slept a wink all night. (Spring Rice, 2014, p. 93)

9In a wartime period, the concentration of warships, submarines and all types of boats and ferries around the British Isles made the waters between Ireland and Scotland very dangerous and created risky situations as developed by Mary Spring Rice in the following extract:

We beat along past Devonport, and, to my horror, got it among the fleet. They seemed to be executing some night manœuvres and were all round us with their great lights towering up […] There was one awful moment when a destroyer came very near. […] There were the coastguards in a boat close by, calling out questions ‘Last port—destination—registered tonnage–owner’s name’. Erskine, now thoroughly awake, shouted prompt answers, some of them truth and some of them fiction, and, to our immense relief, they rowed away and we breathed again. (Spring Rice, 2014, pp. 81–91)

10In both passages, Mary Spring Rice exposes her feelings of doubt and fear, but also her determination and that of her comrades, since even if she was haunted by her guilt and struggles to keep calm each time she verged arrest, their mission went on and wass completed. Her fear of being arrested may have been inspired by the efficiency of British forces and coastguards in counteracting Irish rebels by intercepting ships, an efficiency proven and shown by some prestigious captures like ‘the Aud’ carrying 20,000 German rifles and captured on 21 April 1916 on her arrival in Tralee Bay (Lusk & Maley, 2016, p. 15).

11To escape suspicion from police forces and go undetected, Darrell Figgis maintained that choosing the best means of transport was vital: “I have been told, in such a way as to believe it, that all Irish trawlers were watched and carefully searched for some time after this. Yachts escaped attention.” (Figgis, 2014, p. 44) Moreover, thanks to their different boats, the Irish rebels resorted to the tactic of transhipping. Nevertheless, the transhipment conditions in the open sea were a very tough exercice for the crew onboard, as Mrs Erskine Childers explains, all the more so as the illegal merchandise was difficult to handle and could burst out at any time, a danger amplified by the rolling of the yacht:

The captain said we must tranship at once, and the work there in the open sea. […] There was nothing for it but to unpack every bale and unroll every gun out of its straw. The six of us and about six of the tug hands worked like galley slaves until about 2 a.m. at the job. I wish you could have seen the scene. Darkness, lamps, strange faces, the swell of the sea making the boat lurch, guns, straw, everywhere, unpacking on deck and being handed down and stowed in an endless stream […]—the vaseline on the guns smeared over everything; the bunks and floors of the whole yacht aft of the foc’sle filled about 2 ft 6 high even from side to side, men sweating and panting under the weight of the 29 ammunition boxes–heavy and hard to handle. A German face peering down the hatch saying ‘they will explode if you knock them or drop them’. (Childers Mrs, 2014, p. 102)

12Darrel Figgis also depicts transhipping as a time-consuming, difficult and tricky job to perform on board boats full to the brim:

With a crew [Childers, Mrs Childers, Miss Mary Spring Rice, two Donegal fishermen, and a young friend of Childers] so large (and so various) it was a hard task to stow the cargo and leave room for passengers. There were the boxes of ammunition as well as the rifles. […] We began the work at about 8:30 and we did not finish until about 1:30, through a hot and sultry night. By the time we had finished we could not but pity the voyagers on the yacht, for there was no place to eat or to sleep except on rifles or cartridge-boxes. (Figgis, 2014, pp. 63–4)

13What is striking in the way the Irish gun-running operations at sea were led is the strong resemblance to the way smugglers acted in the 18th and 19th centuries. In his book entitled Smuggling in the British Isles, Richard Platt also insists on the importance of choosing the best type of vessels, usually small to be more maneuverable, used for smuggling operations (Platt, 2012). What was more, if professional smugglers took advantage of bad weather as a way to go undetected, contrary to Mary Spring Rice who felt sick and desperate during storms all Irish rebels faced the dangers mentioned, thus both experiences can be considered as typical ones in the teeming waters of the British Isles:

If anything, smugglers favoured bad weather, since it reduced the risk of detection, and in winter vessels sometimes arrived with the rigging festooned with and partly disabled by ice. […] There were other dangers besides the weather and the sea. As the century progressed, and preventive service developed, more and more customs cutters appeared on the scene. Small unarmed smuggling ships could do little when approached by a speeding government sloop, which by 1760 averaged around 50 tons, and had a modest complement of carriage guns. (Platt, 2012)

14After offering an inner viewpoint of the crews’ conditions when living on yachts and smuggling illegal weapons to Ireland, and of the dangers represented by the waters around the British Isles, it is now time to put the emphasis on deception tricks performed in the harbour or on the pier to secure sea operations.

Deception and manipulation of British forces

15When dealing with smuggling operations, tricks and manipulation are key elements to get rid of police forces or coastguards.

16The most simple and widespread trick in the nineteenth-century smuggling operations was painting the ship in black or renaming her (Platt, 2012), a ploy also used during the Larne gun-running operation since when approaching the coasts the SS Fanny was first renamed the Doreen and then the Naomi of Hull:

Also I was no to anchor, except at night and then only in Neutral waters. When I was well into the North Sea, and away from the British waters, I was to have the “Doreen” painted all black, funnel as well, and her boats white, and her name changed to “Naomi of Hull” and on the way up the Channel, I was to keep well to the French side. I could let her steam about 6 or 7 knots an hour as there was no hurry for her to reach the destination. I carried out all these instructions in due course. When we had finished making all these arrangements I set sail for Fishguard and arrived there at 11.30 a.m. (NLI, Ms 46,806)

  • 8 “In 1685, the Roman Catholic James II came to the throne of England. In the summer of 1688, a group (...)

17Besides, during the same operation, the SS Clyde Valley was also renamed the Mountjoy II, a clear reference to the ship breaking the floating barricade of Derry during the siege of the city in 1689.8 The influence of the nineteenth-century smuggling methods is thus clearly visible.

  • 9 “Their [Young Irelanders] romantic but unsuccessful agitations soon gave rise, seamlessly, to the F (...)

18Deception also played a key role in the Howth gun-running operation. Prior to the arrival of the Asgard in Howth, twenty IRB9 members hired small boats and pretended to be tourists while some others put on romance with girls. In fact, these members were getting ready to help the Asgard dock and keep Howth harbour under close surveillance, preparing their taxis for the transportation of guns:

About twenty members of the I.R.B. under the command of Cathal Brugha were sent to Howth early on the morning of Sunday, 26th July, with instructions to disport themselves about the harbour, hire boats and generally look as much as tourists as possible. Their business was to receive the yacht, help to moor her, and in the event of any police interference they were sufficiently numerous to deal with it. […]

It was my intention to bring the ammunition away from Howth in taxis and distribute it at several points in the city. For this purpose several members of the I.R.B. were each instructed to invite a lady friend out for the day. They were to go by taxi to Howth and order lunch at the hotel, keeping a close watch on the harbour. When they saw the yacht coming in they were to abandon both the ladies and the lunch and bring their taxis up the harbour ready to carry their appointed laods to their appointed destinations. (Hobson, 1963, pp. 32–43)

  • 10 “The ambitious Hobson, born in Belfast in 1883, had been a rising star in the Irish Republican Brot (...)

19In addition, Bulmer Hobson10 talked gossipy people into believing the information he had given them was secret and that they shouldn’t mention it to anybody, leading them to do exactly the opposite. Thanks to the manipulation of John Gore in Howth, he made sure the rumour about a fake gun-running operation in Waterford was transmitted and passed on to the British authorities, which worked, since the H.M.S Porpoise anchored in Dublin bay on a surveillance mission was driven away:

The British authorities as a precaution sent H.M.S. Porpoise, which anchored in Dublin Bay. In the last week before Childers was due to arrive, I went out and looked anxiously at the Porpoise every morning, but she showed no sign of going away. […] I went to see John Gore […] John Gore was a charming man, but he was not noted for his reticence. I told him in strict confidence that we were bringing a cargo of guns into Waterford on the following Sunday. I expected that he would be unable to refrain from giving this news in strict confidence to every client who came to see him. Whether this calculation was correct or not, it is a fact that two days later H.M.S. Porpoise steamed south. (Hobson, 1963, pp. 32–43)

20Smuggling operations at sea can thus be considered as proper military operations; not only were the voyages at sea important, but so were their full preparations on shore. As shown by these examples, the preparation and communication with inland accomplices was vital. When professional smugglers communicated at sea by pulling a trigger producing a light visible on shore (Platt, 2012), Irish activists preparing the Rising communicated thanks to telegrams to decide how to run the operations:

We spent rather a harassing morning, getting our letters and sending telegrams to Figgis at Hamburg with final directions about our rendezvous and transhipment. We must have looked quite a quaint party, Molly and Erskine and I driving around Cowes whispering to each other, sending prepaid wires, and anxiously returning to the post-office for the answers. (Spring Rice, 2014, p. 74)

21The advantage of this new type of communication in 1914 was a quicker transmission of orders for crews at sea and a better adaptation to the situation on shore depending on police or coastguards actions. During the Fanny voyage for example, new meeting points were decided by adding the word “hotel” to the real name of the place:

He was to put the word “Hotel” after the place where he wanted me to meet him, for instance, if it was “St Brides Bay” he would put “St Brides Bay Hotel, and I would know to leave out “Hotel” and go to the place mentioned. We also arranged that I should go back to the Tuskar Light to see if the “Doreen” was there and if I was successful I was to proceed back to Fishguard and send him a wire addressed to “J. W. Johnston Post Restante, Yarmouth” saying “Orders arrived Holyhead to-morrow 4 p.m. and he would know to come through to Holyhead where he would be picked up. (NLI, Ms 46,806)

22The same word-adding method was used in 1916 gun-running operations. The telegram presented in the following quotation gives the key to understand the message sent from the Nauen press service (the information contained in the message depends on the first word appearing on the telegram):

Copy of the original dating back to March 29th 1916:
Dated March, the 24
th – Received March, the 28th

Instead of three fishing vessels steamers we will send a small freight steamer of about 1400 tons. Lighters must be kept beginning with April, 8th we will probably begin own press service from Nauen everyday at midnight with the word “Finn” as a signal that the steamer had left at the proper time. Should anything occur that delays the shipment that press service will begin with the word “Brami”, if the word “Brami” is followed by a date this means that the arrival of the steamer had been delayed to the date mentioned. (NLI, Ms 17, 508/26)

23The telegrams were sent to and from harbours, places where Irish activists received new information and stayed connected with their headquarters. The use of coded telegrams and keywords to refer to a different place or time than what had been planned before the launching of the operations showed these missions could also be considered as intelligence operations.

24This brings along our third part, developing the harbours of the Irish Sea and the North Channel and more precisely those of Glasgow, Ardrossan, Belfast and Dublin, not only as radio headquarters, but also as places from or to which a lot of different illegal merchandise and wanted republicans were shipped.

The harbour: a place between sea and land

25According to Mary Spring Rice, the harbour represented a shelter for seamen since its quiet waters stood in opposition to the teeming ones in the open sea. In her diary, Holyhead harbour epitomized this function: “Holyhead, ‘harbour of refuge’, was indeed well-named, I thought, as we rounded the break-water and came-up into its calm water after choppy angry sea outside.” (Spring Rice, 2014, p. 90) But the harbour is also the place where the sea and land connect, a connection evoked by Mary Spring Rice through the image of the rope sent to men ashore to moor the yacht:

There was a group of men on the pier-head to catch the rope. Duggan was a bit late throwing the warp and we shot on past the pier-head. But the men got hold of the rope and hauled her back alongside. A quarter to one, up to time to the minute, and a long line of Volunteers were marching down the quay. […] In about half an hour the whole ship was unloaded. (Spring Rice, 2014, pp. 95–6)

This rope epitomizes the help received from the Volunteers on the quay and also her relief since her mission was completed. This image of the rope hanging between the sea and the land can also symbolize the cooperation and connection and Glasgow and Belfast and so to a further extent between Scotland and Ireland.

  • 11 “A sluagh of Na Fianna Eireann named after Willie Neilson the boy patriot of 1798, was formed in Gl (...)

26The first connection is the shipping of explosives and detonators or the transfer of weapons from Scotland. The gun-running activities and the importance of the sea in the relationship between Ireland and Scotland has recently been mentioned in The Scotsman, in an article published on Sunday, 29 June 2014, dealing with the new book by Chris Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland, depicting Irish immigrants living in Scotland in the 1910s and 1920s collecting rifles, revolvers and dynamite and smuggling them across the Irish Sea. Chris Bambery also states that a gang held up a crew of a Royal Navy gunboat being repaired at Finnieston dockyard to steal the weapons present on the ship. Finally, the book reveals that Seamus Reader, the commander of the Scottish IRA, managed to break into the chemistry department of the Glasgow University, he then manufactured explosives and sent them to Dublin (McGinty, 2014). Besides, Stephen Coyle states that after hiding the explosives on Scottish soil to evade suspicion, many tons were shipped from Glasgow to Ardrossan harbour and then to Belfast (Coyle, SRSM articles). This was the case on 1 January 1916, when Seamus Reader arrived in Belfast by boat from Glasgow with two other Fianna11 boys. They were carrying 16 revolvers, 350 rounds of ammunition, 40 feet of fuse, two hundred detonators and one stone of explosives.

  • 12 “Another aspect of the oversimplification of Irish revolutionary history is the common misconceptio (...)

27During the Anglo-Irish war,12 Michael Collins was very suspicious about Scotland, which he feared infested with British moles. Yet from 1919, he aimed at developing the link with Scottish sympathizers to ship more weapons to Ireland and sent Joe Vize to Scotland for the shipments to be more regular (Ó’Catháin, 2009). The latter managed to recruit eighteen new IRB battalions in Scotland; gun-running and smuggling operations were therefore easier to set up. For instance, the Glasgow IRA Battalion, the biggest and the most effective one in Scotland, launched a raid on a colliery magazine yielding a large quantity of high explosives later transported from Glasgow by boat to Dublin via Belfast (Ó’Catháin, 2009).

28Edinburgh battalion, or more precisely the Leith battalion, also played a key role in the reception and concealment of illegal weapons arriving from Hamburg before transferring them to Ireland. In effect, Joe Vize also used the Lanarkshire network situated in a region where the different coalmines and steel industries of Hamilton, Bothwell and Motherwell produced a lot of weapons and explosives. Scottish Fianna boys sometimes worked in ammunition factories or shipyards and helped their Irish counterpart to break into these British weapon factories in order to steal a large amount of explosives, fuses or detonators (Ó’Catháin, 2009). The Dublin national archives manuscript found in a sabotage instructions leaflet for IRA members dating back to 1916 and 1920 even reveals the composition and the instructions for use of the Nobel explosives from Glasgow (NLI, Ms 11,410).

29Finally, the harbour was not only a place to hijack ships but also to destroy enemy ones. Glasgow harbour was in fact targeted by some Fianna boys like Alec Carmichael who could, in some way, be considered as a double agent since he enlisted in the British Admiralty war work on Clydeside pretending to be a loyalist, but instead using his function to become famous for his sabotage actions on British submarines whose shipwrecks usually took place during their casting off at sea (Coyle, SRMS Articles).

30During smuggling operations on the waters between Ireland and Scotland, the harbours, epitomizing the connection between sea and shore, were not only considered as shelters but also as places from which to contact other republicans and update their mission schedule. From the enemy point of view, this was the place to be to have a look on whom or what was crossing the sea and therefore—a place to be controlled.

Police surveillance in harbours

31After spending time at sea, a stopover in a harbour was necessary for the crews to get fresh food, water or information. Therefore, the harbour represented a danger for Irish and Scottish activists since it could be riddled by police agents and government spies waiting for them to come ashore and catch them.

  • 13 “Séamus Robinson is an active Irish Republican Volunteer and is responsible for many actions like S (...)

32At the beginning of the 20th century, Séamus Robinson13 maintained that the RIC officers were very present in harbours:

According to Séamus Robinson, early IRB orders from the unfortunate Tom McDonnell had encouraged Volunteers with engineering experience to report to Dublin and he was part of the second batch that easily evaded the attentions of the RIC detectives at the ports, who they knew, and headed for Geroge Plunkett’s Larkfield home and the Kimmage Garrison, comprised of the ‘British’ contingent for the Rising. (NLI, Ms 21, 265)

This was one of the reasons why well-known Irish activists regularly followed by police agents like Conor O’Brien had no other choice but to transship their cargo at sea (Figgis, 2014, p. xxviii).

33As the telegram written by Sergeant Charles Maguire, the officer in charge of the Crime Special Branch, reveals, the shipping of propaganda newspapers like The Worker (printed in Glasgow, then sent to Belfast via Ardrossan harbour and finally brought to Dublin by train before its distribution from Amiens Street Station) was observed by British officials since newspapers stood as the vectors of revolutionary ideas from and to Scotland and Ireland (London National Archives, CO 904/161). But the message also proves that not only was the printing office of The Worker in Glasgow under their surveillance; so were the Scottish rail and maritime services (London National Archives, CO 904/161).

                                                 The Worker
              Glasgow 23.1.1915
I beg to report that so far as can be ascertained no copies of the
“The Worker” have been forwarded from here to Dublin, on last night 22nd inst.
A very careful and close watch was kept on the printing office, and the Railway and Shipping office, but no parcels containing the paper was sent from this port. It is believed that the publishers have ceased printing it.
              Charles Maguire
              Sergeant 36630
              The officer in charge, Crime Special Branch

34This establishes that British agents spied upon Scottish harbours suspected to ship illegal goods to Ireland but also upon trains and ferries. The precision of the information, like the number of parcels, their weight and addressee proves the efficiency of the British surveillance system at the time and the omnipresence of British agents on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Copies of Cipher telegrams, at 7.50 a.m. on 15.1.1914
To “Cotta Dublin”
Three parcels of
“The Worker” weighing fifty lbs each, addressed J. Nolan, Northwall Dublin, will be forwarded via Ardrossan and Belfast to Amiens St. Railway Station arriving at 11 a.m. tomorrow will be delivered if not intercepted, I did not wire “Lictorkcefast”.

To “Damp Dublin”
Three parcels of
“The Worker” weighing fifty lbs each, addressed J. Nolan, Northwall Dublin, will be forwarded via Ardrossan and Belfast to Amiens St. Railway Station arriving at 11 a.m. tomorrow will be delivered if not intercepted.

35In addition, when the Special Branch officers suspected illegal shippings from a Scottish harbour, they cooperated with their counterparts in the Irish destination harbour. In November 1917, for instance, two members of the Glasgow Fianna boys crossed from Ardrossan to Belfast with 230 two-ounce sticks of gelignite and blasting powder and were arrested on their arrival (Coyle, SRMS Articles). To watch the maritime service between Ireland and the British Isles, the Special Branch also infiltrated detectives and undercover agents on board ferries crossing from Holyhead to Kingstown (today Dún Laoghaire harbour) at the beginning of 1920:

A regular Special Branch Detective on these boats recalled stumbling across one undercover agent after he noticed how a man “changed his complete make-up on the ship, put on a false moustache, parted his hair in the middle, and changed his suit and hat and landed in Ireland a totally different citizen from that he had been when he left England”. (McMahon, 2008, p. 30)

  • 14 “The British administration in Ireland, traditionally based in Dublin Castle (henceforth referred t (...)
  • 15 “Michael Collins is frequently cited as the originator of modern urban terrorism. The British chara (...)

36These agents used the time they spent at sea not only to cross the Irish Sea but to transform themselves. Their disguise tried to fit their vision and opinion of Irishness. The way they dressed and changed their physical appearance stood as an ironical caricature of Irishness. But, their cheat didn’t last long since once in Ireland, these agents were quickly recognized and identified by IRA members, as the story of John Charles Byrnes, a.k.a. John Jameson, confirms. He crossed the Irish Sea, managed to inflitrate the IRA and even came close to Michael Collins. But after his real identity had leaked from Dublin Castle,14 he was assassinated on 2 March 1920 by a member of the Squad15 (McMahon, 2008, pp. 30–1).

  • 16 On 5 January 1916, Superintendent Owen Brien, following him and the other leaders, wrote in his rep (...)

37Besides, British agents crossed the sea to watch Irish leaders, but they also kept an eye on active Scottish republicans. The secret police files from 1915 to 1916 on the surveillance of leaders of the Easter Rising show that James Connolly was under close surveillance in Dublin.16 Connolly’s trips were all known to the British authorities as the secret police file dating back to 1 March 1916 reporting that “James Connolly arrived at Amiens Street Station from Belfast at 5-30 p.m.” proves (NLI, DMP reports, March 1916). The irony here lies in the fact that Amiens Street Station is today known as Connolly station. Belfast was also riddled with government agents spying Scottish sympathizers and the route between Belfast and Dublin was closely watched by the police and sometimes caused problems to Scottish Volunteers like John McGallogly:

John McGallogly’s experience was not untypical of the Volunteers from Scotland. Born in a bleak Lanarkshire miner’s row in 1898 and encouraged by his elder brother’s example, he joined the IRB and Volunteers in Glasgow in 1915, took part in raids for explosives and left for Belfast with his brother to avoid police follow-up operations on the Glasgow-Dublin route after the arrests of Robinson and Reader. In Belfast, they met with three of the Fianna, one of whom was also a Volunteer officer and decided to make for Dublin, even though IRB orders had encouraged the Glasgow men to wait in Belfast where they would take part in the rising in Ulster, something made clear to Reader in his discussions with Séan McDermott prior to his arrest. (MacEoin, 1980, pp. 198–201)

This quotation clearly proves that the Glasgow-Belfast-Dublin triangle was very active in the smuggling of weapons and explosives and the arrival of Scottish republicans.

38Finally, at the time of the Rising, since British officers could not picture women as fierce rebels and were less suspicious, Michael Collins used female agents in all types of dangerous jobs such as informers, spies, gun-smugglers or double agents, sometimes leading to funny and ironical situations as described in the two following stories:

Their next journey [smuggling guns] came after a “My Dearest Leslie” note from Mick on 2 March ‘for the usual place’. This mission would take Moya and Leslie to Cork Number One Brigade. They had a small consignment which they wrapped in underwear, ‘corsets and camisoles’, with other clothes, and hid in cases. They got a puncture not far from Dublin and a lorryload of Auxilairies stopped when they saw ‘the ladies in distress’. They were happy to change the wheel and send them on their way. […] On another mission some time previously, Nancy O’Brien was returning from England with a case containing guns for Mick. She got off the tram and was obviously having difficulties lifting the load. A policeman kindly offered to help her, and she ‘gladly’ agreed. Mick said: ‘That’s one way of bringing in guns.’ (Ryan, 1996, p. 81)

39The role of women in the Rising was a vital one and a great number of the rebels were female activists famous for their actions, be they Irish, like Constance Markievicz, or Scottish, like Margaret Skinnider:

The most famous of the female participants from Scotland, Skinnider was by no means the only one, yet the influence of Scottish women on the Rising—and the impact of the Rising on Scottish women—is almost entirely unexplored. There are few surviving records of the Anne Devlin branch of Cumann na mBan prior to and during 1916. Skinnider travelled over to Dublin smuggling arms with a Miss O’Neill and she references Lizzie Morrin, a dressmaker who made clothing with hidden pockets for unobstrusive smuggling of ammunition. The lack of records is compounded by some resistance to acknowledging connections with Scotland by those who were involved in the Rising. (Lusk, 2016, p. 126)

40Women could be seen as just as valuable for Irish members of the Volunteers, as the case of Margaret Skinnider demonstrates. When crossing the Irish Sea by ferry, she smuggled weapons from Glasgow to Belfast as Peter Geoghegan writes:

[…] she was smuggling weapons to Dublin, sailing for Ireland ahead of the rebellion with detonators for bombs and the wires […] under my coat. Even by the standards of Easter 1916, Skinnider was a sui generis rebel. She learned to shoot in Scotland—such was her proficiency that Fianna youth came to watch the bespectacled ‘Glasgow boy’ take aim. She began Easter week in Rathmines, in the bohemian digs of Constance Markievicz, ‘the Countess’ before proceeding to the frontline. Around 2 a.m. on the Thursday morning, Skinnider was shot three times while attempting to burn down properties on Harcourt Street. After treatment at The Royal College of Surgeons and then St Vincent’s Hospital, Skinnider was arrested amid the members of the Rising and brought to Bridewell Police Station. (Geoghegan, 2016, p. 87)

41But her famous actions turned her into a dangerous rebel known to British forces, which was why detectives and spies followed her from the Rising on. After recovering from her wounds in St Vincent’s hospital, she was allowed to go back to Scotland and stayed in Glasgow until August 1916. But even there, she was followed and watched by policemen as this statement extracted from Margaret Skinnider’s autobiographical book Doing my bit for Ireland proves:

It was in my own right name that I applied for a passport to come to this country. When it was granted to me after a long delay, I wondered if after all, the English authorities had known nothing of my activity in the Rising. But that can hardly be, for it was a Government detective who came to arrest me at the hospital in Dublin where I was recovering from wounds received during the fighting. I was not allowed to stay in prison; the surgeon in charge of the hospital insisted to the authorities at Dublin Castle that I was in no condition to be locked up in a cell. But later they might have arrested me, for I was in Dublin twice—once in August and again in November. On both occasions detectives were following me. I have heard that three days after I openly left my home in Glasgow to come to this country, inquiries were made for me of my family and friends. (Skinnider, 1917, pp. vvi)

42Travelling to and from Ireland and Scotland, Scottish republicans had to stop in harbours, a place where detectives and spies could identify them. Special Branch officers tracked them down and even enquired about their lives and activities. These police operations proved that they were aware of the existing cooperation between Irish and Scottish rebels and tried to stop it. Since detecting and intercepting smuggling yachts at sea was very difficult, police forces made the decision to watch the harbours and more precisely Belfast, Glasgow and Dublin harbours to follow the leaders and the weapons and thus to counter-act their rebellion. This helps us understand why Irish rebels had to take so many risks to be able to bring in some weapons to Ireland.


  • 17 “Soon as I gets oot at Buchanan Street ah feels it: it’s in the air. Hingin there like a smell. The (...)

43As a conclusion, we can say that from 1912 to 1923, the Irish Sea and the North Channel were definitely teeming waters in which weapons and explosives were regularly shipped and even transhipped by rebels onboard tugs and yachts. In-between Ireland and Great Britain, these waters whose harbours were riddled with spies or double agents also witnessed the crossings of Irish or Scottish republicans, sometimes followed by undercover detectives. But this article also proves that the waters only separated Ireland and Scotland geographically, since the ideologies of both countries regularly crossed the sea. In the 1880s, Scottish fishermen, inspired by their Irish counterparts, struggled for their land and spread revolutionary ideas in Skye and the Western Isles (Newby, 2007, pp. 30–51). Later, in the 1910s, Scottish republicans fought along with their Irish counterparts for Home Rule and even gave their life for the Irish cause. Yet, the Treaty in 1923 put an end to this cohesion: the two Gaelic friends went their separate ways, Scotland deciding to use legal political ways to get its independence. However, some think that the Irish and Scottish connection is still present nowadays, like Alan Bissett who even brings the two countries closer today after the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The extract he wrote in ‘Scots’ opposes Scottishness and Irishness by putting the emphasis first on typical Scottish elements (the Scots language, Irn Bru, the Lion Rampant, William Wallace as the hero of the film Braveheart), and then on Irish ones (Irish immigrants called “Paddys”, the Irish way of getting independence with risings and rebellions, the Irish flag, the Fenians and the role of James Connolly).17 Both countries seem to share the same destiny since the author insists on the division of families brought about by the question of their independence from Great Britain. On the one hand, in Irish history, this division was already present among the Irish population during the Anglo-Irish War (1919–1921) about the violent guerrilla warfare led by Michael Collins, but above all after the signature of the Treaty and the partition of Ireland, a period during which the split was so important that it led to the Civil War. On the other hand, in Scottish history, the division put forward by this extract is a political division between ‘those who voted yes and those who voted no’ (Bissett, 2016, pp. 42–8). The depth of this division as depicted by the author echoes the Irish one: “My wee lassie. That’s whit these nationalists cunts’ve done—dividing the nation. Turned family against family, neebor against neebor. Once again the destiny.” (Ibid.) Therefore, the conclusion one can draw is that getting independence from the British government turns out to be as difficult and dangerous as facing teeming waters in a storm and that maybe the key to get it lies in a strong, trustful and everlasting cooperation between two Gaelic countries putting aside their differences.

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National Library of Ireland, Dublin

About 150 Documents on Sabotage 1916-1922, Collection Count Plunkett, Ms 11, 410.

Account of Séamus Robinson, Gallaher, Franck, UCDA, McGallogly Statement, National Library of Ireland, Franck Gallaher Papers, Ms 21, 265.

A Resolution of Sympathy with the Irish nationalist from Scottish Comunn na Gàidhlig, 1918, Collection Art O’Brien Papers, Ms 8435/27.

Copy letter by Joseph McGarrity regarding procedures for communications with a steam ship embarking on the 8th April to deliver shipment [to Ireland], with codewords to indicate if the steamer will be on time or delayed, 19 March 1929, Collection Joseph McGarrity Papers, Ms 17, 508/26.

Correspondence of the working of the League in Glasgow, 1904–1916, Collection John Redmond Papers, Ms 15, 235/5.

Letters from relationship with Gaelic League in Scotland, 1919 + Letter to Michael Collins to Request Taking an Interest in the Scottish Republic, Collection Art O’Brien Papers, Ms 8433/28.

Log of the gun-running Cruise in the Asgard, July 1914, Mary Ellen Spring Rice, 1880–1924, Ms 43, 332/1-2.

Script for Radio Broadcast containing Personal Account of Mrs Alice Stopford Green’s life and Work (1919–1920), Ms 41, 672.

The Voyage of “the Fanny”: original eye-witness account of unidentified master of “the Belmarino” and The Clyde Valley, with photograph of ship, newscutting about funeral of Colonel Fred Crawford, C.B.E., and two pamphlets: Greetings from loyal Ulster and With the gun-runners of Ulster”, 1914, Ms 46, 806.

Who was behind Sinn Féin Secret Service?, Secret History by Shaw, pp. 266–74, Extracts from Magazines, Collection Erskine Childers Papers, Ms 48,093.

Digital resources

National Archives of Ireland, Chief Secretary’s Office, Crime Special Branch: Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) Movement of Extremists 29 May 1915–20 April 1916, digital resources. Available on <

Online ressources

MacLean M. A. John, 1920, Pamphlet, The Irish tragedy: Scotland’s Disgrace, 1920. Available on <>

London National Archives, Great Britain

Seizures of Leaflets, Postcards, Posters and Articles in Various Journals and other Publications, CO 904/161.



Author unknown, “A Land beyond the Sea”, Scottish and Irish Republicans in Dublin 1916, University College Dublin Archives (UCDA), McGallogly statement 1–3, p. 60.

Author unknown, 1914 (25 April), “Reports”, The Belfast Evening Telegraph. Available on <>.

Browne Shane [MA graduate of the UCD School of History specialising in Modern Irish History], 2015 (26 November), “Hobson’s choice”, The Irish Independent.

Coyle Stephen, “Na Fianna Eireann in Scotland”, SRMS Articles. Available on <>.

Dorney John, “Today in Irish History – July 26th 1914 – The Howth Gun Running”, Today in Irish Society, 1916 Special, The 1916 Rising,

Jackson Alvin, 1993, “The Larne Gun Running of 1914”, History Ireland, vol. 1, no. 1, Features. Available on <>.

Hay Marnie, 2008, “The Foundation and Development of Na Fianna Eireann 1909–1916”, Irish Historical Studies, University College Dublin (UCD), vol. XXXVI, no. 141.

Hobson Bulmer, 1963, “The Plans Succeeds”, in F. X. Martin (ed.), O.S.A., The Irish Volunteers 1913–1915, Dublin, pp. 32–43.

McGinty Stephen, 2014 (20 June), “Scottish Support for Irish Independence in 1920’s”, The Scotsman. Available on <>.

Nutt Kathleen, 2015 (24 April), “Scots Role in Ireland’s 1916 Rising Examined”, The National Scot. Available on <>.


Orange Pages, Gallant Clyde Valley lyrics. Available on <>.


Ambrose Joe, 2008, The Fenian Anthology, Cork, The Mercier Press.

Ambrose Joe, 2006, Dan Breen and the IRA, Cork, The Mercier Press.

Bardon Jonathan, 2005, A History of Ulster [2001], Belfast, Blackstaff Press Ltd, 2nd revised edition.

Bissett Alan, 2016, “A Terrible Beauty”, in K. Lusk and W. Maley (eds), Scotland and the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916, Glasgow, Bell and Bain Ltd, Luath Press Ltd, pp. 42–8.

Childers Erskine, Mr., 1995, The Riddle of the Sand: A Record of Secret Service, Penguin Books, Britain, Clays Ltd.

Childers Erskine, Mrs, 2014, “Letters from the Asgard, July 1914”, Childers Papers, in F. X. Martin (ed.), The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running: Recollections and Documents, Sallins, Merrion Press.

Coogan Tim Pat, 2005, 1916: The Easter Rising [2001], London, Orion Publishing Group Ltd [first published by Cassell and Co].

Figgis Darrell, 2014, “Recollections of the Irish War”, in F. X. Martin (ed.), The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running: Recollections and Documents, Sallins, Merrion Press, pp. 36–46.

Gallagher Brian, 2015, Friend or Foe, Which Side Are You On?, Dublin, The O’Brien Press.

Gardiner Eamonn T., 2009, Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish War: Counter Insurgency and Conflict, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Geoghegan Peter, 2016, “Margaret Skinnider and Me”, in K. Lusk and W. Maley (eds), Scotland and the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916, Glasgow, Bell and Bain Ltd, Luath Press Ltd, pp. 86–90.

Lusk Kirsty, 2016, “Short Skirts, Strong Boots and a Revolver: Scotland and the Women of 1916”, in K. Lusk and W. Maley (eds), Scotland and the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916, Glasgow, Bell and Bain Ltd, Luath Press Ltd, pp. 124–30.

MacEoin Uinseann, 1980, Survivors, Dublin, Argenta Publication.

McCarthy Cal, 2007, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution, Cork, The Collins Press.

McCoole Sinead, 2008, No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary years 1900–1923, Dublin, O’Brien Press.

McMahon Paul, 2008, British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland 1916–1945, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.

Newby Andrew G., 2007, Ireland, Radicalism and the Scottish Highlands, 1870–1912, Scottish Historical Review Monograph, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

O’Brien Conor, 2014, “Contraband of War”, in F. X. Martin (ed.), The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running: Recollections and Documents, Sallins, Merrion Press, pp. 113–4.

Ó’Catháin Máirtín Seán, 2007, Irish Republicanism in Scotland 1858–1916: Fenians in Exile, Dublin, The Irish Academic Press.

Ó’Catháin Máirtín Seán, 2009, “Michael Collins and Scotland”, in F. Fergusson and J. McConnel (eds), Ireland and Scotland in the 19th and the 20th Century, Dublin, Four Courts Press.

O’Malley Ernie, 2011, Raids and Rallies [1985], Cork, The Mercier Press [first published by Anvil Books Ltd].

O’Malley-Younger Alison, 2016, “Scotland Is My Home, but Ireland My Country: The Border Crossing of Women of 1916”, in K. Lusk and W. Maley (eds), Scotland and the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916, Glasgow, Bell and Bain Ltd, Luath Press Ltd, pp. 153–9.

Platt Richard, 2012, Smuggling in the British Isles: A History [2007], Stroud, The History Press Publishing, 2nd edition [first published by Tempus Publishing].

Ryan Meda, 1996, Michael Collins and the Women who Spied for Ireland, Cork, The Mercier Press.

Ryle Dwyer Thomas, 2005, The Squad and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins, Cork, The Mercier Press.

Shaw Michael, 2016, “Before the Rising: Home Rule and the Celtic Revival”, in K. Lusk and W. Maley (eds), Scotland and the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916, Glasgow, Bell and Bain Ltd, Luath Press Ltd, pp. 174–6.

Skinnider Margaret, 1917, Doing My Bit for Ireland, New York, The Century Co.

Spring Rice Mary, 2014, “Diary of the Asgard 1–26 July 1914”, in F. X. Martin (ed.), The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running: Recollections and Documents, Sallins, Merrion Press.

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1 “1798: The United Irishmen rebellion: Lord Edward Fitzgerald tries to arrange a rebellion involving a rural secret society network, but his efforts are undermined by informers. Brutal repression accompanies mass arrests.
1803, 23
rd July: Second United Irishmen rebellion led by Robert Emmet whose plan was to seize Dublin Castle in the hope of encouraging the country to rise up. [Emmet] is executed on 20 September.
1848: Young Ireland rebellion at Ballingary, County Tipperrary: Led by William Smith O’Brien, originally a member of O’Connell’s Repeal Movement who was radicalized by the famine, the Young Irelanders believe in an Irishness which brought Catholics and Protestants together. [Smith O’Brien] goes to Tipperary where he encourages the famine-ravaged population to rise up. This doesn’t happen. […]
1867, 11
th Feb.: An ill-conceived Fenian rising commences with an attack on Chester Castle which is undermined by an informer and called off.” (Ambrose, 2008, pp. 13–16)

2 “While Westminster was debating the first and second Home Rule bills, in 1886 and 1893, scattered, small-scale drilling by unionists took place in Ulster, on local initiative. On 13th December 1912, during the third home rule crisis, the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) decided officially to establish a paramilitary body, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). […] Already, by February 1912, 12,000 of them were drilling at 100 centres scattered throughout all nine northern counties […] to prepare for the worst—the real prospect of having physically to resist Dublin rule. By mid 1914, 90,000 men had joined the UVF. It was being led by a retired ex-Indian army general, Sir George Richardson, had motor vehicles, medical and nursing corps, and a troop of cavalry. Its members were meeting regularly for instruction and practice. […] To increase its credibility and thus its political impact, and to satisfy the demands of its virtually unarmed recruits, the UUC organized the illegal import of weapons from Germany for its use. […]” (Available on The Ulster Volunteer Force, War and Conflict, the Easter Rising, <>.)

3 “Organisation founded in 1913 in Dublin by eleven prominent nationalists including Patrick Pearse and Séan Mac Dermott. On 25 November 1913, they had their first public meeting at the Rotunda in Dublin. The movement soon spread throughout the country. The Volunteers were heavily infiltrated by the IRB but John Redmond from the Irish Parliamentary Party demanded they accept his appointments to their provisional committee, effectively placing the organization under his control. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 provoked a serious split in the organisation. Redmond urged the Volunteers to support Britain and join a proposed Irish brigade of the British army. This was opposed by the founding IRB-orientated members. A majority backed Redmond and left to form the National Volunteers; these joined the British war effort. A minority, retaining the name ‘Irish Volunteers’, were led by Eoin Mac Neill. This element brought about the 1916 Rising.” (Ambrose, 2006, p. 206)

4 “The Irish organisation known as Cumann na mBan (Irishwomen’s Council), was a unique and peculiar nationalist group in that its membership consisted entirely of women and girls. Cumann na mBan were substantial players in the Irish revolution and many male revolutionaries subsequently acknowledged that they had contributed much to the Irish Republican Army (IRA)’s war effort. […] The inaugural public meeting of Cumann na mBan occurred in Wynn’s Hotel Dublin, on Thursday 2 April 1914. […] This was a small but determined group of women with an intense desire for Irish self-determination. […] In addition to assisting in equipping and arming the Volunteers, branches were expected to ‘keep in touch with their local Volunteer battalions, appear at the parades, and identify themselves with Volunteer work in very suitable way’.” (McCarthy, 2007, pp. 1–17)

5Na Fianna Éireann was one of the many ‘pseudo-military youth groups’ that proliferated in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These organisations were not only a manifestation of the cult of discipline, training and manliness that grew out of the menace of the coming war, but also, perhaps, a reaction to the widely perceived fin-de-siècle ‘decadence’. Upon hearing about Hobson’s Belfast Fianna, Markievicz declared that a national boys’ organisation should be established in Dublin in the same spirit as the original group. […] Hobson needed Markievicz’s energy, enthusiasm, initial injection of money and, due to her gender and social position, ability to inspire the trust and confidence of the parents of the younger boys. The Fianna was the first nationalist group in Ireland to begin drilling; it went on to train members of the IRB, and its members were among the few men, other than ex-British soldiers, to possess the military training necessary to become officers when the Irish Volunteers was formed in 1913. […] Over time, the organisation became openly militant, especially after selected senior members of the Fianna were recruited into the IRB when they reached the age of seventeen.” (Hay, 2008, pp. 53–63)

6 “Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien (1880–1952) was a son of Edward William O’Brien of Cahirmoyle, Co. Limerick, and a grandson, of William Smith O’Brien of 1848 fame. He was educated at Winchester, Trinity College, Dublin, and Oxford, and was an architect by profession. He was an early member of Sinn Féin, spoke Irish fluently […] He was an outspoken Home Ruler, and became a local leader of the Irish Volunteers […] He immediately supported Mary Spring Rice’s suggestion to run guns for the Volunteers, and was one the eleven subscribers who financed the venture. His yacht, Kelpie, carried 600 rifles and ammunitions from the North Sea to the Welsh Coast […] During the 1914–1918 war he served with the Navy in the R.N.V.R. […] he was appointed an inspector of fiseries under the Second Dail, and was particularly interested in the co-operative purchase of boats by fishermen. In 1928 he married Katherine Clausen, the artist, and they made their base in Ibiza in the Balearic Islands, she died in 1936. He was the author of more than 14 books. During WW2, he volunteered for the Small Vessels’ Pool. In this service he sailed several small ships across the Atlantic from America to British ports when boats were in urgent need by the Allies. He died at Foynes on 18 April 1952.” (Mrs Erskine Childers, 2014, pp. 109–10)

7 “Mary Ellen Spring Rice was only daughter of Thomas, Second Baron Monteagle of Mount Brandon, Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co. Limerick. She was a close friend of the Chidlers’, a strong supporter of Home Rule and later of Sinn Féin. She died on 1 December 1924 in the Vale of Clwydd Sanatorium, North Wales, aged 44, after two years’ illness. When her funeral took place at Foynes on 4 December she was given a guard of honour by the local IRA, the local Gaelic League, and the Trade Unionists.” (Martin, 2014, p. 65)

8 “In 1685, the Roman Catholic James II came to the throne of England. In the summer of 1688, a group of seven English notables sent a message inviting Mary’s husband, William of Orange, to take the English throne. William sailed to England with a formidable army of 15,000 men, and landed at Torbay in November 1688. James fled to France, but then came to Ireland in March 1689, with the hope that he could regain the throne with the help of supporters in France, Ireland and Scotland. […] On 18 April [1689], James II arrived at the city […] Suspecting betrayal, the defenders opened fire, killing one of the King’s party. […] The 105 day siege had begun, but the besieging army had a shortage of artillery which would be needed for a full-scale assault on the city walls. […] At the start of June, a wooden boom had been constructed across the Foyle to prevent ships arriving to relieve the city. […] On 28 July, three merchant ships called the Mountjoy, Phoenix and Jerusalem sailed towards the boom, protected by the frigate Dartmouth. The Mountjoy hit the boom, but rebounded and ran aground. […] The Mountjoy fired its guns at approaching Jacobite troops, and the recoil helped to refloat the ship. The boom was broken, and the Phoenix and Mountjoy were able tie up at the Shipquay to unload their precious cargo of food for the starving people of the city. By the evening of the 31 July, the besiegers could be seen burning their encampments and marching off towards Lifford. The Great Siege of Derry was over and the walls remained unbreeched. It had lasted a total of 105 days with the cost of an estimated 10,000 lives lost among the defenders.” (Available on <>.)

9 “Their [Young Irelanders] romantic but unsuccessful agitations soon gave rise, seamlessly, to the Fenian Brotherhood, a covert revolutionary belief system. From the ashes of Fenianism arose the twentieth-century Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). In 1919, members of the IRB, styling themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA) started and subsequently won the Irish War of Independence.” (Ambrose, 2008, p. 8)

10 “The ambitious Hobson, born in Belfast in 1883, had been a rising star in the Irish Republican Brotherhood but with the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 […] Hobson saw the Irish Volunteers as purely a defensive force, but the radical separatists were of a different ilk, believing it should become “an instrument for insurrection”. Historian Charles Townshend has described Hobson as an “unusual kind of ‘physical-force man’, but a dedicated revolutionary for all that”. […] As a result, Hobson was not privy to the final arrangements for the Rising. However, it seems that a speech at a Cumann na mBan concert on 16 April was the catalyst that marked him down for arrest by his IRB colleagues. […] Once the Rising had commenced, the job of guarding him was of little interest to IRB men who wanted to join the fighting. […] on the evening of Easter Monday 1916, under the orders of Mac Diarmada, Hobson was eventually released. Hobson’s crucial mistake was not that he did not take part in the Rising after his release. […] Instead Hobson opted to go on the run. Upon his re-emergence, he now found that he was ostracised from his former colleagues and soon withdrew from public life.” (Browne, 2015)

11 “A sluagh of Na Fianna Eireann named after Willie Neilson the boy patriot of 1798, was formed in Glasgow in April 1910. […] Prominent among the first boys who joined were Belfast brothers Joe and Seamus Robinson, both of whom went on to become famous IRA leaders. Joe became GOC of the Scottish Brigade of the IRA, and Seamus fought alongside Sean Tracey and Dan Breen in the Soloheadbeg ambush, as commanding officer of the South Tipperrary Brigade. Headed by Joe Robinson and his lieutenant Thomas Gillespie, the vast majority of the Willie Neilson Sluagh which totalled about 50 young men, later joined the local IRB and Irish Volunteers. […] Typical Fianna activity included routine drilling, flag signalling, lectures in Irish history, Gaelic classes, concerts, and route marches in uniform through the centre of the city. […] Of the 50 to 60 young men of the Irish Volunteers who came over from Scotland to take part in the Easter Rising, most of them were or had been members of the Fianna. They started going to Dublin in January when Conscription was introduced and were given Fianna badges to present upon their arrival. They went to the Larkfield home of Count Plunkett where they joined other overseas contingents from London, Liverpool and Manchester, and be-came the Scottish Division of the Kimmage Garrison. The Garrison was known as the first standing army of the Irish Republic. From January 1916 to Easter Week, these men made ammunition, grenades, pikes, bayonets, etc, for the use of the Dublin Brigade. When they marched out from Kimmage on Easter Monday, the prophecy of Peadar Kearney ‘Some have come from a land beyond the wave’ was fulfilled. Every Volunteer was fully armed and equipped and it was these men that took over the GPO, put it in a state of defence and set up the Headquarters of the Irish Republic.” (Coyle, SRSM Articles)

12 “Another aspect of the oversimplification of Irish revolutionary history is the common misconception that is often portrayed by the Republican movement, is the popular image that it was the heinous British that inflicted such horrendous actrocities on us, the Irish. That image, whilst popular, is nonetheless fundamentally flawed. It fails to address the fact that during the period of the War of Independence (1919–1921), Ireland was as much part of the United Kingdom as was Scotland or Wales; Dublin was considered by many to be the second city of the British Isles. […] with special reference to the province of Munster, prior to the outbreak of widespread hostilities during the Anglo-Irish War, popularly known in this country as the War of Independence. Although both terms describe a common event, […] whilst the term ‘War of Independence’ can be viewed as being synonymous with Republican bias and rife with Nationalistic tendencies, […] some regard the war as being the first truly Anglo-Irish War and term it accordingly. Others still do no regard it as a war at all.” (Gardiner, 2009, pp. 2–3)

13 “Séamus Robinson is an active Irish Republican Volunteer and is responsible for many actions like Soloheadberg attack, (Co. Tipperary). With Séan Tracey and Dan Breen, they seize a cart load of gelignite and kill the armed escort of two Royal Irish constables before joining Ernie O’Malley in the attack on the police barracks at Hollyford (Co. Tipperary).” (O’Malley, 2011, pp. 16–24)

14 “The British administration in Ireland, traditionally based in Dublin Castle (henceforth referred to as the Castle administration or simply the Castle), can trace its lineage back to the time of the Norman conquest of the country […] By the late eighteenth century it had grown both in scale and structure; after surviving the failed rebellions of the United Irishmen in 1798 and Robert Emmet in 1803, it began to operate in a quasi independent manner which it managed to continue into the post Unification era. Ironically it was after the final unification of all the lands of Great Britain under a single parliament in London that the Castle administration became more firmly established in Ireland and entrenched in Irish society than it had ever been before.” (Gardiner, 2009, p. 6)

15 “Michael Collins is frequently cited as the originator of modern urban terrorism. The British characterized his Squad as ‘the murder gang’ and had they knowingly captured members of the Squad they would almost certainly have executed them. Many were stopped and even captured, but they were usually let go as they were not actually recognized as members of the Squad. They were saved by the great secrecy under which they operated, as were the spies, or moles, within the police force who worked for Collins and his intelligence organisation. The Squad made a vital contribution to the War of Independence but it did not win it. The Squad’s major role was both in helping the Irish side and provoking the forces of the Crown. […] The Squad systematically eliminated many of the most effective detectives, with the help of information provided by police spies, or moles, working within the crown’s police forces and intelligence services.” (Ryle Dwyer, 2005, p. 7)

16 On 5 January 1916, Superintendent Owen Brien, following him and the other leaders, wrote in his report that “James Connolly attended a lecture with five hundred other people under the Auspices of the Irish Womens Franchise League delivered by F. Sheefy-Skeffington in the hall 41 at Parnell Square at 8 p.m.” (NLI, DMP reports, January 1915).

17 “Soon as I gets oot at Buchanan Street ah feels it: it’s in the air. Hingin there like a smell. The city reeks ay Yes. It’s like they’ve fuckin tane ower awready, aw streamin intay George Square. Boys in Scotland tops. Auld yins wi tartan ower their shooders. Student types flyin Lion Rampants. Wifes wi Saltires oan their mugs like in that stupit Mel Gibson film. […]
Wannay them’s haudin up an Irish tricolour, the ither yin waving a flag wi the face ay some auld Fenina oan it. JAMES CONNOLLY it says oan the flag above the cunt’s face. EASTER RISING 1916 it says aneath it.” (Bissett, 2016, pp. 42–8)

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Émilie Berthillot, « Smuggling Weapons, Republicans and Spies across the Irish Sea and the North Channel (1912–1923): Gaelic Friends or Foes? », Études écossaises [En ligne], 20 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 21 février 2019. URL :

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Émilie Berthillot

Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès.
Émilie Berthillot enseigne l’anglais en lycée et est chargée de cours à l’université Jean Monnet dans les départements de droit, LEA et LLCER anglais. En septembre 2014, elle a obtenu sa thèse de doctorat intitulée Renseignement et contre-espionnage entre Dublin, Londres et Édimbourg de 1845 à 1945 de l’université Toulouse 2 – Jean Jaurès. Ses thèmes de recherche traitent de l’espionnage, des agents secrets et doubles, de l’alliance irlando-écossaise, des grandes opérations de contre-espionnage et des manipulations politiques, militaires et diplomatiques. Son article « Le Château de Dublin de 1880 à 1922 : repaire de traîtres ou d’agents doubles ? » fut publié en 2016 dans la revue Études irlandaises, vol. 41, no 1. Deux autres articles sont en cours de publication, l’un aux éditions Peter Lang, intitulé « Police Informers and Spies versus Irish Violent Agrarian Societies: A Non Violent Secret Alternative to Rebellion », l’autre aux Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté dans la collection « Caledonia » intitulé « Les prisons édimbourgeoises : témoins de la spécificité et de l’évolution du châtiment écossais à l’époque victorienne (1837-1901) ». Outre l’étude des relations entre les trois pays, son master développe aussi les différents systèmes carcéraux et propose une étude comparative du traitement des criminels en Irlande et au Royaume-Uni aux xixe et xxe siècles.
Émilie Berthillot is currently teaching English in a senior high school in France, but also in Saint-Étienne University for law students. At university, she also teaches British civilization and oral translation in English or Language Studies. In September 2014, she got her PhD entitled Renseignement et contre-espionnage entre Dublin, Londres et Édimbourg de 1845 à 1945” in Toulouse 2 – Jean Jaurès University. Her research topics deal with intelligence, secret agents, double agents infiltrated by the British government, the alliance between Scottish and Irish rebels, the biggest counter-intelligence operations and above all political, diplomatic and military manipulations. In 2016, she published an article “Le Château de Dublin : repaire de traîtres ou d’agents doubles ?” in Études irlandaises, vol. 41, no. 1. Two of her articles will shortly be issued: “Police Informers and Spies versus Irish Violent Agrarian Societies: A Non Violent Secret Alternative to Rebellion” will be published by Peter Lang Editions and “Les prisons édimbourgeoises : témoins de la spécificité et de l’évolution du châtiment écossais à l’époque victorienne (1837-1901)” by les Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté (Collection “Caledonia”). Finally, Émilie may tackle the relationships between the three nations of the British Isles, but she also analyses their different prison systems and compares the way criminals were treated and punished in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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