Red Faced & Empty Handed

Wicklow Historical Society Journal 1993

James Scannell

The Adventures of the 'Bonahaven‘

Between 1910 and 1914 one issue more than anything else dominated Irish political life namely that of ‘Home Rule’ under which it was proposed to re-establish an Irish parliament sitting in Dublin with powers to legislate for Ireland in certain matters.

The Irish parliament which had been established in I782 was abolished by the Act of Union which came into operation on January 1st 1801; with the power for legislating for Ireland returning to Westminster. The move to abolish the Irish parliament had been prompted by the 1798 Rebellion which had been crushed with great savagery by Dublin Castle and encouraged the British prime-minister William Pitt to bring Ireland under more direct control through the enactment of an Act of Union similar to one which had united England and Scotland. Part of the package to get the Act of Union, which united Ireland with Britain through the Irish parliament, was the promise of Catholic Emancipation. While the passage of the act through the Irish parliament was a success when Pitt sought Catholic Emancipation from King George III, he refused to grant it, with the result that many Catholics turned against the Union of Britain and Ireland, while the oaths which were offensive to Catholics remained in place until 1829 when they were repealed on the election of Daniel O’Connell to parliament.

The risings of 1803, 1848 and 1867 showed Dublin Castle that there were still those Irishmen who believed that the Union should be ended by force but these attempts failed.

In the 1870’s a lawyer Isaac Butt, who had defended a number of Fenians from the 1867 Rising while not agreeing with their aims, decided that the future lay in constitutional means and he formed the ‘Home Government Association’ which evolved into the Irish Parliamentary Party. Behind the scenes Charles Stewart Parnell became the driving force and on Butt’s death in 1879 became party leader and devoted his energies to building up the party.

The early 1880’s were times of great success for Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party and in 1885 he managed to convince prime minister William Gladstone that it was in the best interest of Ireland to restore a parliament for the country which would sit in Dublin and legislate for the entire island with the exception of certain matters which would still be administered by Westminster. Gladstone moved the first ‘Home Rule’ Bill (1885) in the House of Commons but it was defeated when members of his own Liberal party voted with the Conservatives to oppose it.

In Ireland the prospect of ‘Home Rule’ created great illwill principally in Ulster where the population was predominately Protestant and Unionist and they put up great opposition to the bill supported by many British politicians one of whom Lord Randolph Churchill coined the phrase ‘Ulster is right Ulster will fight’.

The issue united the various disunited Protestant factions against what they saw would be a parliament in Dublin being influenced behind the scenes by the Catholic Church. Landowners were afraid that their estates would be broken up and redistributed to small farmers under land reform; industrialists were afraid that they would be excluded from the very profitable British and Empire markets while individual Protestants were afraid that they would lose their religious and civil liberties. 

The defeat of the bill and the return to power of the Conservatives in the general election which followed meant that there was no further progress in the matter of Home Rule and Unionist confidence in the end of Home Rule as an issue was heightened by the fall of Parnell in 1890 as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the division of that party into 2 opposing groups who remained at odds with each other for the next decade.

In 1893 Gladstone tried a second ‘Home Rule’ Bill which was passed by the House of Commons but defeated by the House of Lords under powers they had at that time to veto any legislation passed by the House of Commons which they did not approve of.

However in 1900 John Redmond was elected leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and managed to bring together the 2 opposing groups to unite the party. In 1906 the Liberals were returned to Government and enjoyed the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party as they carried out a policy of reform. By 1910 the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party was crucial for the Liberals to stay in power and for this support Redmond obtained a promise of the introduction of a ‘Home Rule’ bill for Ireland.

At this Unionists were enraged and over the next 2 years they campaigned and organised against the introduction of ‘Home Rule’ which was introduced in the House of Commons on 21/04/1914. Since the House of Lords had lost their powers of veto under parliamentary reforms enacted in 1911 under which they could now only delay legislation for a maximum of 2 years or reject a bill 3 times, there appeared no way that the enactment of this bill could be halted.

In 1913 the Ulster Unionists formed a Provisional Government which was to take power when the bill became law and had at their disposal the Ulster Volunteer Force, an armed militia, which had the task of defending Ulster and the Provisional Government when this situation arose.

There was little Nationalists could do as the Ulster Unionists had a great deal of support for their activities from many politicians in Britain who were horrified at the prospect of ending the Union. There was also a reluctance by Government to act against them.

To counter balance the U.V.F. threat, the Irish National Volunteers were formed in Dublin on November 25th 1913, backed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who were carrying on the revolutionary struggle espoused by the Fenians. The IRB infiltrated its members into this organisation without the knowledge of the central committee as it planned to use the organisation to engage in revolution against Britain when the time came.

The prospect of 2 armed groups in the country honified Dublin Castle as they saw the spectre of civil war looming, and so in December 1913 a prohibition on the importation of arms and ammunition was invoked with the result that the U.V.F. had now to move its gun-running operations underground and carry these out in secret.

The supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party did not side with the Irish National Volunteers and distanced themselves from this organisation as they did not agree with their militant outlook.

However in 1914, certain as the passage of the Home Rule Bill looked, 2 events shook the Irish Parliamentary Party supporters out of their complacency and indicated to the Irish National Volunteers that perhaps their stance was the correct one.

In March 1914 in an incident known as the ‘Curragh Mutiny’ 58 army officers made it known that they would resign their commissions rather than

lead their troops against the Provisional Government and the incident was glossed over with no action been taken against those who had taken part - ‘a misunderstanding of a War Office briefing instruction’ was the official line adopted.

A month later, the Ulster Volunteer Force successfully landed 20,000 ri?es and 3 1/2 million rounds of ammunition at Larne, Co. Antrim in a massive mobilisation exercise which passed off unhindered and undetected by the forces of officialdom who were supposed to prevent this type of operation. The arms and ammunition were distributed all over Ulster ready for use the day the Provisional Government took power.

This operation spurred the Irish National Volunteers into operation and resulted in their gun-running operations into Howth, Co. Dublin and Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow later in the year.

Now it has to be said that members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and members of the Irish Parliamentary Party were engaged in petty aims smuggling at this time which resulted in very few weapons being were sent to Ulster to arm Catholics against the expected sectarian attacks that would take place when the Provisional Government took power.

The Irish National Volunteers and members of the I.R.B. were also engaged in arms smuggling but the few arms they managed to accumulate were stored away until they were needed for the planned revolution.

As far as Dublin Castle was concerned they were convinced that there was a large degree of arms smuggling going on and all arrivals in Ireland, vessels and passengers were subjected to examination. Some arms were found in the course of these searches, convincing Dublin Castle that their stand was the correct one. All goods were subjected to scrutiny and sometimes these examinations resulted in the detection of arms. In Britain all cargoes to Ireland were the subject of surveillance as were goods in transit from the Continent to Ireland.

Thus against this background of official obsession to prevent arms and ammunition being smuggled into Ireland our tale can now unfold.

In May 1914, M/s Haskins Bros. purchased a consignment of agricultural implements in Britain and chartered the schooner ‘Rockingham’ to collect them and then deliver them to Wicklow Town. On arrival in Britain, the master of the ‘Rockingham’ found that there were more cases than he could carry, so he loaded as many of the cases as he could and sailed for Wicklow leaving some of the consignment behind having informed M/s.Haskins Bros of his actions.

On arrival in Wicklow, the ‘Rockingham’ was subjected to the usual customs examination that was in operation at that time and the cargo was then discharged.

In the meantime M/s Haskins Bros discovered that another merchant Mr. Thomas D’Arcy had purchased a consignment of coal in Liverpool and had chartered the steamboat ‘Bonahaven’ to bring it from there to Wicklow. Haskins Bros. approached Thomas D’Arcy and asked if the balance of their goods could be carried on the ‘Bonahaven’ from Liverpool and D’Arcy agreed to do this with the result that Haskin Bros. then instructed their British suppliers to send the remaining cases of agricultural implements to Liverpool for collection and shipment to Ireland via the ‘Bonahaven’.

In due course the ‘Bonahaven' docked in Liverpool and loaded the coal after which the cases of agricultural implements were taken on board. No-one noticed either through an oversight or carelessness that the number of cases taken on board was greater than the number stated on the copy invoice to Ms Haskins Bros. which was in the ship’s bag which contained all the shipping documents and this meant that strictly speaking the ship’s documents did not accurately state the full nature of the vessel’s cargo. This error went unnoticed and when the loading had been completed and all the conditions necessary for departure had been complied with, the ‘Bonahaven’ cast off, sailed down the Mersey bound for Wicklow unaware that very shortly it was going to become the focus of attention by the authorities on both sides of the Irish Sea.

After the ‘Bonahaven’ had departed from Liverpool, the port authorities became aware of the fact that the number of cases of agricultural implements loaded on this vessel exceeded the number stated in the invoice for M/s Haskins Bros. and taking the view that no Master of a vessel would allow such an error to happen, they formed the view that the extra cases were loaded deliberately for the purpose of smuggling arms into Ireland and they assumed given the nature of the goods i.e. ‘agricultural implements’ that some firearms were concealed in the cases and reached the conclusion that the vessel had to be engaged in arms smuggling.

The suspicions and views of the Liverpool port authorities were sent by coded telegram to Dublin Castle where the news was the subject of much discussion and review and in the end those in Dublin Castle came to the same conclusion as their Liverpool counterparts i.e. that the vessel was engaged in arms smuggling.

Dublin Castle also recognised the fact that if arms were being smuggled in the cases of agricultural implements, it was likely that they had been stripped down to their component parts which had then been divided amongst the crates to make detection impossible. Realising that the customs officials in Wicklow might not recognise the individual parts of firearms scattered amongst the cases of agricultural implements, it was decided to assign a special searcher, who would be able to recognise parts of firearms, to Wicklow to examine the cases when the ‘Bonahaven’ docked and this specialist was immediately dispatched to Wicklow to await the arrival of the vessel which was still in the middle of the Irish Sea unaware that it had become the focus of attention for the authorities in Britain and Ireland.

Meantime M/s. Haskins Bros. were informed that the cargo of agricultural implements could not be unloaded until the ‘Bonahaven’ had been subjected to full search on arrival and when this word got out it created a buzz around the town and her arrival was then awaited with great interest and the actions of the Customs provoked great discussion, comment and speculation.

Friday May 15th 1914 was the day on which the ‘Bohahaven’ was due to dock in Wicklow Harbour but for some reason the vessel lost time on the voyage from Liverpool and did not arrive on schedule thus adding to the speculation about her.

The ‘Bonahaven’ finally arrived late that evening but due to low water was unable to enter the harbour and anchored in Wicklow Bay until it could enter harbour on a rising tide. Having no radio or wireless, the captain was unaware of what lay in store or the great public interest that awaited his arrival. Around the town groups of people began to keep the vessel under observation waiting for the moment that she entered harbour and tied up while the Customs and their specialist waited for the opportunity to board her and carry out a most detailed search.

The ‘Bonahaven’ anchored in Wicklow Bay around 9 p.m. that Friday night and remained there until shortly before 3. a.m. the next morning when she was able to raise anchor, enter Wicklow Harbour and dock.  

At this moment in time, the Customs descended in force and the first items to be unloaded were the cases of agricultural implements which were laid out on the quayside and then opened, with the contents being carefully laid out so that every item could be examined by the specialist from Dublin. Watching this activity from a variety of vantage points were large numbers of local people waiting to see if the Customs would find anything. But after a while it became apparent that the agricultural implements were nothing more than agricultural implements and when all the cases and their contents had been examined and cleared, they were released to Ms. Haskins Bros. Next to be searched was the cargo of coal and after that the ‘Bonahaven’ from stem to stem but nothing was found and at the end of this massive search which revealed nothing, the Customs departed red-faced from the quayside, empty handed, much to the amusement of the many people who had watched the entire episode from various vantage points.

While this operation yielded nothing to the Customs, they continued searching vessels, passengers, and goods and packages as they arrived in Ireland along the East and South coasts in their obsession to halt the large flow of arms and ammunition that was ?owing into the Volunteers as perceived by the authorities on both sides of the Irish Sea.

However this perception was incorrect as the Irish National Volunteers only began planning what was later the Howth and Kilcoole gun running operations at the end of May and it was not until early July that the shipments started their journeys to Ireland. The Howth shipment arrived in daylight on Sunday July 26th while another shipment arrived a week later and was landed in Kilcoole on the night of August 1st/2nd, and moved by road to Dublin. Of the 2 operations Kilcoole is more interesting as it took place a week after the Howth landing, when the authorities were alerted to the fact that a second landing was due to take place, and was carried out undetected even though it was necessary to detain 2 policemen who encountered the operation while it was in progress and were prevented from sounding the alarm. However Kilcoole is a story for another year’s journal of this Society.

Eventually the Customs went ‘over the top’ with their searches and it was an incident in Arklow at the end of July which led to questions being asked in the House of Commons. One day in July, 2 Customs officials and 5 policemen entered Arklow railway station and searched a package from Dublin which was consigned to a local merchant. Nothing was found but the incident was reported to a Captain Donnellan, M.P., who raised the matter but received no direct answer by way of reply other than ‘the matter would be looked into’.

At the end of July 1914, the prospect of outbreak of World War 1 which had been looming all summer became a reality and very quickly as Britain prepared for war, the arms smuggling detection operations were abandoned and with the declaration of war a few days later in August 1914, arms smuggling by the Irish National Volunteers halted.

And thus ended the memorable voyage of the ‘Bonahaven’ where a simple oversight was blown up out of all proportion which resulted in officialdom being left red faced and empty handed.

James Scannell

This page was added by Student Heritage on 15/11/2019.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.