Ban imposed on arms imports to Ireland
A sketch from the satirical magazine, Punch. Sir Edward Carson instructs Customs Officer Birrell to search John Redmond: "That's just the sort of bag he'd have a couple of howitzers concealed in." Photo: Punch, 17 December 1913

Ban imposed on arms imports to Ireland

MacNeill declares the right of every nationalist ‘to bear arms’

Published: 6 December 1913

A Royal Proclamation was last night published in The London Gazette prohibiting, under the provisions of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876, the importation of arms and ammunition into Ireland.

This significant new development comes less than a fortnight since the formation of the nationalist Irish Volunteers and following months of mass demonstrations by the unionist Ulster Volunteer Force. 

Over the past months, Ulster unionists have held a series of mass rallies aroud the province, including this one at Banbridge. (Image: Illustrated London News [London, England], 27 September 1913)

There have been contrasting reactions to the prohibition across the country. For most part, the Ulster unionists seem unfazed. Along with signalling an acceptance on the Government’s part that their willingness to take up arms in opposition to Home Rule was no mere bluff, there is also a sense that the ban comes too late to thwart their ability to mount an effective resistance. There is an apparent belief within Unionism not only that they are already sufficiently well-armed, but that the prohibition will prove impractical to implement. For even when the free importation of arms of recent months is ended, secret gun-running is likely to take its place.

The reaction of the men behind the newly established Irish Volunteer movement has been far less relaxed. For them, the measure is at once repressive and objectionable. Interviewed by The Irish Independent, Professor Eoin MacNeill, a member of the new body’s Provisional Committee, described the proclamation as ‘a very strange’ and ‘very curious one at this time.’

Professor MacNeill defended the right of Irishmen of all political views to bear arms, adding that no grouping in Ireland had called for a law of this kind to be introduced. ‘We take it for granted that the application of special law of this kind to Ireland has the opposition of Nationalist opinion now as in all former times. Irish Nationalists cannot change their tune in order to allow an English Government to deal with the Orangemen, and we have quite sufficient confidence in our fellow countrymen to bear arms at any time... We are against the suggested proclamation regarding bearing arms for Ulster. We say that every Irishman has the right to bear arms.’

Click for full documents

Left: The monthly report of the Inspector General states that while the importation of military arms and ammunition had been 'checked' by the Proclamation, an estimated 3,000 rifles and 300,000 rounds of ammunition had been 'sent out of Belfast as soon as possible' after its introduction. (Image: National Archives UK, CO 904/91)

Right: The arming of Ulster Volunteers had been ongoing for months before the ban on the import of arms and ammunition was introduced. This Police report details the importation distribution of arms in the City of Belfast during October and November 1913. (Image: National Archives UK, CO 904/28)

MacNeill’s views were echoed by Mr. Laurence J. Kettle, a fellow member of the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers, who claimed that the movement had already enrolled 5,000 members. Notwithstanding the prohibition, this body of men had declared their intention to practice rifle shooting. Among those who were said to be supporting the movement were Colonel Moore from Mayo, who previously served with the Connaught Rangers in South Africa; Sir Roger Casement; Mr F.J. Bigger from Belfast; Countess Plunkett, Professor Merriman and J.J. Walsh from Cork, Professor Thomas McDonagh and ‘practically all the Gaelic clubs in Ireland’.

Assertions of broad-based nationalist support are not necessarily grounded in reality, however. A more complex picture has emerged from an Irish Independent investigation into the Volunteer movement’s prospects outside of Dublin.

In a survey of 46 provincial centres, the newspaper found that there was general support for the movement in 26, with 12 locations opposed to it and the remaining 13 either apathetic or prepared to await further developments. The response was strongest in Leinster and Connaught and, perhaps tellingly, weakest in Ulster where it was considered a further threat to the local peace. In many of the Munster centres surveyed, meanwhile, the present circumstances were not considered sufficient to justify any action.

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