Ulster Unionists import guns at Larne
'The Fanny' which has returned to Germany after leaving a cargo of rifles in Ulster. Photo: National Library of Ireland, Ms 9469

Ulster Unionists import guns at Larne

Published: 25 April 1914

Ulster Unionists landed a huge consignment of arms and ammunition at the ports of Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor on Friday night.

More than 25,000 rifles and up to 5 million rounds of ammunition are said to have been brought in by shipments that arrived through the night.

Dr Timothy Bowman, University of Kent, considers the background to, and execution of, the gun-running by Ulster Unionists in Larne and Donaghadee in April 1914.

The cover for the gun running was a meticulous and elaborate scheme that involved the mobilisation of Ulster Volunteers all across the province, ostensibly for test purposes.

While police were busy monitoring the mobilisation, the arms were brought ashore. The town of Larne saw intensive activity from 9pm last night as all approaches were patrolled by Ulster Volunteers.

When the shipment was landed, up to 600 cars and lorries, escorted by members of the Ulster Despatch Riders’ Corps, began the work of distributing the rifles and ammunition across Ulster.

It was almost dawn before the entire shipment had been landed and distributed. A coastguard is reported to have suffered a heart-attack during the operation.

Extracts from Confidential Police Reports on the Larne-gunning operation ( L) A list of names and addresses of owners of cars used at Larne and (R) a Special Branch report on the incident. Click on images to read full documents.
(Images: CO 904/29, National Archives, UK)

The response of the government has been to send General Sir Neville Macready to take military charge of the Belfast district. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, has said that the government will take, without delay, appropriate steps to vindicate the authority of the law, and protect officers and servants of the King, as well as his Majesty’s subjects.

It is not apparent what that means. Although there are rumours that five gunboats are lying off the Antrim Coast, no movement of troops northwards has been issued.

The response of Irish nationalists to the gun running is awaited with interest.

In The Irish Worker newspaper, Jim Larkin compared the manner in which Ulster Unionists were being treated with that of the previous treatment of Irish nationalists: ‘Why were the men of ’67 proscribed, sentenced to long and torture filled years of penal servitude - banished forever from their native land for actions identical with the actions of Carson, Craig, and the Ulster Lieutenants?’

Arms are unloaded and transported from Larne to safehouses under the cover of darkness. Click on the images to view in full. (Images: Illustrated London News [London, England], 2 May 1914)

Mr. Larkin continued: ‘The Fenians were proscribed for treason, were arraigned for treason, were punished for treason. The most prominent of the English Press have declared that Carson’s speeches were treasonable; his public action with his comrades of gun running was an act of treason, as great and palpable as the gun running of the Fenians. But those were hunted like wild beasts; tortured in the prisons of England, while this English king falls on Carson’s neck and kisses him.’

He concluded: ‘How is it men like Mackey and Davitt, who were concerned in Fenian gun running, received on their heads the heavy lance of the English law, while Craig lives in clover in Craigavon, protected by men who are ready to follow Carson against all the principles of English Constitutional law? But we know the reason well. It is the reason of class privilege and commercial power. The Fenians stood for a social change; the Carsonites stand to perpetuate the tyranny of property.’

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