Just after midnight on the 15th of August 1915 several armed and masked men forced their way into the London and North Western Railway Depot in the North Wall district of Dublin. With the area secure they proceeded to load four large crates from one of the warehouses onto a number of motor vehicles before disappearing into the early morning darkness. Press reports over the following days claimed that the stolen boxes contained up to one hundred rifles purchased by the Irish National Volunteers (INV), the paramilitary wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) headed by John Redmond MP which had been impounded following delivery from Britain. The history-focused East Wall Project has published a recent examination of the raid and the likely individuals behind it, noting that:
“The weapons were Martini–Enfield .303 rifles and were intended for John Redmond’s National Volunteers. Since the now famous landing of rifles at Howth on the 26th July 1914 the Irish National Volunteers had legally imported regular consignments of rifles through the North Wall. Most notable was a consignment of 3,600 acquired from the Birmingham company H. Trulock Harris & Co, with bayonets and 50,000 rounds of ammunition in August that year. Those had been confiscated and the London and North Western Railway had refused to carry further weapons for the National Volunteers and it took a combination of John Redmond’s close friendship with Henry Givens Burgess, the LNWR’s manager, and political intervention at the highest level to get the railway company to transport further consignments.
Throughout 1915 regular cargoes of up to 100 rifles were imported from Charles Riggs, a London-based arms dealer without any problems other than the somewhat ham-fisted approach by the National Volunteers to obtaining import licenses.
…Laurence Kettle (a founding member of the Irish Volunteers) had a permit issued for 350 rifles which he hadn’t used, yet in order to import a consignment of 100 rifles they [the INV] had involved the Prime Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for War, the Master General of the Ordinance, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, and the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Forces in Ireland.
…(Kettle’s rifles were a special consignment of Martini- Metford.303 rifles then being made up for the National Volunteers by Webley & Richards, and Hollis, Bentley & Playfair).
However it seems the paperwork continued to be a problem with rifles often sitting for long periods of time in storage until cleared by the authorities.”
Redmond, the patrician son of former Anglo-Irish gentry in the Wexford region, was furious at the loss of the weapons from the railway yards, where the IPP suspected many employees of holding left-wing and republican views, accusing the UK authorities of facilitating the robbery through bureaucratic delay. Others within the ranks of the INV saw motives even more sinister than that. This paranoia reached fever-pitch when a similar raid was staged a few weeks later, denying the National Volunteers a further consignment of guns.
The publication of new research into the 1915 arms’ raids in Dublin is a timely reminder of the military muscle that the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party had assembled in the years leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916. Using the pre-WWI campaign for so-called “home rule” Redmond had tightened the IPP’s links with the organisation’s traditional parish enforcers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians or AOH (led by his pugnacious acolyte, Joe Devlin). By the end of 1914 the Waterford MP had successfully co-opted and then split the nationalist-republican alliance that was the original Irish Volunteers (IV) in favour of his party, leading to the formation of the breakaway Irish National Volunteers. With a private army at his disposal the “…half-emancipated slave”, to use Michael Davitt’s description, was determined that the INV would have the capacity to confront its enemies or rivals – both foreign or domestic. Indeed, far from being content with the quasi-legal purchase of weapons in Britain the duplicitous head of the IPP had personally overseen the smuggling from Europe of twenty tons of illegal weapons in July and August of 1914, all of them destined for Redmondite loyalists. Ironically the majority of these consignments were to be stored within the North Wall area of the capital.
Of course the Irish National Volunteers did go on to play some role in the revolutionary fervour of 1916. Though this was primarily as collaborators with the British Forces during the Rising when INV units in the counties of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, Galway and Clare offered their services to help quash the insurrection or any signs of popular support for it. One could also add to the history of the period the violent attacks on the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence by the remnants of the Devlin-led National Volunteers and AOH in cities like Belfast and Derry. Though these remain historical embarrassments that no one on our island nation has any desire to discuss, even several decades later.
Finally the words of the “pacifist” Redmond recounting his jamboree visit to the war-torn Western Front in the autumn of 1915.
“…we walked to a battery of two 9.2 British naval guns, enormous monsters, which were trained on a building just behind the German lines, about three miles distant. These guns have a range of over 10 miles.
I was given the privilege of firing one of these huge guns at its object. The experience was rather a trying one, and I only hope my shot went home.”
John Redmond MP, German-killer!