100 years ago exactly, a large shipment of arms landed in Ireland. It took the actions of extraordinary women to accomplish the Howth Gun Running scheme of 1914. One, Alice Stopford Green, gave a loan to have the capital for negotiations. Two more, Molly Childers and Mary Spring Rice, raised the rest of the funds to purchase the weapons. They were transported on the Childer’s family yacht – The Asgard – and two of the women sailed proudly with them. This is not to say that they did it alone but without the actions of these women, this large landing of arms destined for the hands of the Irish Volunteers may never have happened.
Many of the weapons smuggled in that day were used in the Easter Rising of 1916. Though the rising was not yet being actively planned, the Ulster Volunteers had been arming themselves and doing a bit of their own gun running. The only way that the Irish rebels could protect themselves and boost morale was to start bringing in weapons of their own. It was one of the biggest successful smuggling operations of the time and it did boost the strategies and the confidence of the Irish Volunteers.
The Germans were led to believe that the guns were destined for Mexico. Thankfully for those on board that was never the case. It’s a wonder that the boat didn’t sink under the weight of 900 Mauser rifles and the 29,000 rounds of black powder ammunition that were smuggled with them. The Asgard was a luxury yacht and the weapons took up nearly every inch of surface in the cabin, meaning that the passengers had to sleep and cook directly on or above them, unless under the stars. The crossing was one that was far different than the pleasurable sailing that the women were used to, but they did it without much complaint. To know that they were not only brought aboard for appearance but were also involved in every step of the operation is important and often shamefully ignored.
So what happened to these women after the arms landing?
Alice Stopford Green continued to support the Nationalist cause. She was an outspoken author who attempted to make Home Rule a viable option to Unionists. Her house became a hub of intellectual activity and she published a few books, including one called “The Making of Ireland and its Undoing”. She was pro-treaty in the Irish Civil War and continued to host heated debates and long conversations in her Dublin home until the day she died.
Mary Spring Rice continued to smuggle weapons and even opened her home as a safe house for the IRA in the years to come. She trained local women to become nurses to treat the wounded and used her own family boat to move soldiers and supplies across the Shannon Estuary. She was a rare breed of a lady and she used her societal connections to raise funds for the rebels. She was a lifelong Protestant who supported the Nationalist and Republican causes like few others for the rest of her days.
Molly Childers was an activist her whole life. She was a trustee of the Irish White Cross Society (which existed before the Irish Red Cross) and though she smuggled in a huge number of weapons on July 26th, 1914, she ended up joining many organizations that promoted peace, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of the world’s oldest. In 2006, Michael T. Foy, a historian, published a book called “Michael Collins’s Intelligence War: The Struggle Between The British and the IRA 1919–1921”. In it he insinuates his theory that Molly Childers was a spy for the British during the rebellion and partition. He uses circumstantial evidence to support his claims, but her family and other historians absolutely disagree. No hard evidence has yet emerged to put the question to rest.
Regardless of Molly’s espionage question, without these women in those places at those times, Irish history could be drastically different today. Here’s to you ladies. May you ever be remembered as the vital parts of this operation that you were.