Larne Gun-Running

Report from The Belfast Evening Telegraph, April 25th, 1914

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(Special to “Telegraph.”)

The night of Friday, 24th April, 1914, is a date which will find a permanent place on the page of history. On it there were enacted happenings for which Great Britain’s long and chequered story affords no parallel. However prosaically the record may be set down, it will send a thrill of amazement through every man and woman who reads the simple matter of fact account of what actually took place.

On Friday night there were landed at Larne within a few hours 40,000 rifles and nearly three and a half million rounds of ammunition. There was no rush or bustle in the doing of it. It was accomplished with celerity, yet without fuss or splutter, because it was done in pursuance of a well-formed plan, executed as perfectly as it had been preconceived. Thousands unconsciously played a part in it, though only a few hundreds were directly and immediately concerned in the actual work, or were cognisant of what was in progress. All the arms were landed at Larne Harbour, and a vast transport of hundreds of motor cars, lorries, and waggons drawn from their various centres came to the town. So exactly had this mobilisation been arranged that these hundreds of motors reached the assembly point at an identical moment. It was an amazing sight to see this huge procession of cars nearly three miles in length descending upon the town with all their headlights ablaze.

The people flocked to their doors as the seemingly endless procession filed past in the direction of the harbour.


Meanwhile strange events were happening on all the highways leading to the town. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force had been notified that they were immediately to repair to stated points to discharge such duties as might there be allotted to them. A like order had been issued to the local companies stretching from Larne away to the north, to the west and to the south. The result was that by eight o’clock, right from Belfast to Larne the whole coast road was under close patrol by strong bodies of pickets posted at intervals of a few perches. The roads leading to Glenarm, Ballyclare, Ballymena, &c, were similarly manned, and everything was in readiness for beginning operations. In Belfast itself and in all the neighbouring towns every battalion of every regiment mobilised in like fashion, and the public began to dimly suspect that something stirring was afoot, though what it really was they never imagined. Very few of the public or of the Volunteers had any idea of the actual business in hand, for that secret was well kept and confined to a few.


In the neighbourhood of Larne Harbour and throughout the streets of the town strong bodies of men wearing armlets stood in line silent as soldiers on parade, while officers moved about and conversed in low tones. At nine o’clock the throb of an approaching steamer’s engines could be heard coming up the Lough; then masthead lights were discernible, and presently the grey, gaunt outline of the “mystery ship” took definite shape. In a few minutes she was alongside the landing stage and made fast to her moorings. A. little earlier Larne had been cut off from the outside world in so far as telegraphic or telephonic communication was concerned. At the same moment of time, ingoing and outgoing vehicular traffic was brought to a standstill, and only motors whose drivers possessed a pass indicating that they were concerned in the business on hand were allowed to pass through the strong line of pickets drawn like a ring fence around Larne. Cordons blocked the road and vehicles, for which a permit could not be produced, were politely but absolutely held up, and their detention notified to the proper quarter for further instructions. It was a bewildering experience to find one’s path barred by a score of men leaping into the glare of an advancing car’s headlights, to the accompaniment of a mandatory shout of “halt.” A few short, sharp interrogations followed, and as those held up were almost invariably sympathetic, there was prompt and implicit compliance with any request made. Cars duly fiated sped through and took their places in the line that ultimately swung into the dock yard to receive their consignments, and speed off into the silence and blackness of the night.


The “mystery ship,” it was noticed bore on her bows the name “Mountjoy”—no doubt, readers of Derry’s history will draw their own parallel. As she came alongside the lines of men in waiting on shore were divided up, part being assigned to sentry duty at the gate approaches; while others were quickly aboard. No one was permitted to enter the gates upon any pretext unless engaged in the task that was being tackled. Hardly had the hatches been removed before bands of great sturdy fellows stripped to their shirts and pants plunged into the vitals of the ship to join the crew in getting her cargo ashore.

The rifles had been carefully packed, five to each case, with ammunition and bayonets to suit, and the chains sang in the runners as they shot down into the hold to reappear in a few seconds embracing weighty parcels of rifles and ammunition. Volunteer clerks checked those oft one by one with amazing rapidity, and as fast as packages were checked they were seized by strong hands and dumped into the cars—the load of one large lorry numbered 700 rifles. As each car received its complement, the driver accelerated his engine, let in his clutch, and slipped away in a cloud of smoke; while another moved into the vacant space and thus the work went on hour after hour without a pause.

Simultaneously transhipment was being carried on. The “Mountjoy” was only a few minutes berthed when another ship crept into the circle of the harbour lights and took up position alongside the floating arsenal. The cranes whirred and buzzed as they swung thousands of rifles over the side to the newcomer, which later on slipped swiftly and silently away to her appointed destination, and her position was taken up by a third, which was expeditiously loaded and despatched in the same fashion. Meantime the line of cars steadily melted down, and some were already well on their homeward journey. Such as had shorter distances to cover returned and made other trips, and so the work went on at express speed and without rest or pause. As one batch of perspiring stevedores tired a fresh batch relieved them. All “put their backs into it” in a way that well illustrated the old adage, “One Volunteer is worth three pressed men.” They toiled like galley slaves.


In the town itself hardly a single person went to sleep. The town lamps, save those at corners, are always extinguished, but on Friday night every lamp blazed until daylight, and many a hearty good wish was: shouted to cars heading for the open road. Nearly every house had its windows alight, and the women and children lined the footpaths, exchanging salutations with neighbours, and proud of the fact that husbands or brothers were lending their best aid* to complete the business of the night. The race against time prospered, and just as the first faint streaks of the coming dawn crept over the horizon the last band of tired, but well-pleased, “stevedores” came ashore, leaving the “Mountjoy” empty. Her moorings were cast off, and in ten minutes she had passed into the melting shadows. It was an amazing piece of work, perfectly executed. The frank boldness of it leaves one almost breathless. There was no vacillation or timidity about it. Every man engaged knew perfectly well what he was about. The hazards simply mattered less than nothing. The plans seemed to have been contrived so as to prevent or to checkmate interference if it had been attempted. The very boldness of the scheme contributed to its success, and everything worked out with perfect smoothness.


The authorities might as well have been in Timbuctoo in so far as knowledge or interference was concerned. The local forces, in any case, would have had no more effect in dealing with the situation than so many flies. They probably realised in the course of the night that some very big scheme was in full swing, for the whole town knew it by midnight, but it was impossible to do anything for the reasons already mentioned. The Excise officers were equally helpless. Some of them, it is stated, were in fact enjoying a performance of amateur theatricals when word was brought to them that the proclamation against the importation of arms, the enforcement of which is their business, was being violated wholesale. It is stated that some of them did make an effort to reach the harbour, but they quickly realised that they were “up against it,” and it is alleged, in obedience to a pointed, suggestion, refrained from an attempt at the utterly impossible. Police and Excisemen combined would have been at most a couple of dozen men against an army.

As the “Mountjoy” drew away from Larne Harbour her skipper and crew stood to attention, and made the welkin ring with three lusty cheers for “The King” and three more for “The Volunteers,” which were heartily responded to by those on ashore.

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