Carson's gun runner and the Mountjoy II

ON March 14, 1914, an order reached Ireland's largest military encampment at the Curragh, County Kildare.

The directive came from the British Government and was meant to compel the camp commander, Sir Arthur Paget, to order soldiers northwards to Ulster.

The troops were to stand against Ulster Volunteers who had promised armed insurrection should the government pass the The Third Home Rule Bill which would hand a great deal of autonomy to a Dublin based parliament thereby in the estimation of Unionists demeaning their attachment to Britain and leaving Protestant religion and culture open to attack from a nationalist majority.

Curragh mutiny

Sir Arthur Paget perhaps misinterpreted the orders for precautionary deployment as a direct command to march against Ulstermen. Either way, acting on his own initiative he gave the officers in his command the choice of resignation rather than fighting against the Ulster Volunteers. Out of the 70 officers stationed at the Curragh, many of whom were Irish unionists, 57 tendered their resignations, or to accept dismissal rather than physically enforce what was to become the Home Rule Act of 1914.

The 'Curragh Mutiny' as it became known, was a pivotal episode in this period of Irish history. Although, the debacle is slightly misnamed as the men were not technically guilty of mutiny as they had at that point not refused to carry out a direct order.

What was perhaps unknown by the soldiers however was that one of their former comrades, Major Fred Crawford had for many months before this point, been smuggling huge amounts of weapons and ammunition into Ulster in preparation to rebel against Home Rule and any state apparatus that may attempt to enforce it.

Major Hugh Frederick Crawford was already in his 50s and in ill health when he embarked upon his gun smuggling escapades for the Ulster Volunteer Force, of which he was a founding member. Born in 1861, he was an ex-military man who had travelled the world and served in South Africa from were he had returned to oppose Home Rule in Ulster. By 1912 the then Liberal Government had tabled the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland. Fearing the abandonment by the British Government of Protestants, particularly in Ulster, figures such as Edward Carson, James Craig and Crawford forced the UVF in 1912.

Ulster Volunteer Force

The formation of the UVF was underpinned in 1912 by the signing of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in which the many thousands of signatories pledged to resist any attempt to abandon the Province into an all-Ireland scenario. Such was the fervour involved that some of those who signed their name in support of the document used their own blood to mark their mark. Amongst these was Major Fred Crawford.

It is known that in 1913 as Director of Ordnance of the HQ staff of the UVF Crawford had already succeeded in procuring three million rounds of .303 ammunition and 500 rifles from Manchester alone. He had also purchased guns from Birmingham in that period and had succeeded in smuggling in six massive machine guns bought for a price of 300 each from the Vickers Company of London. The weapons included Martini Enfield rifles, Lee Metford Rifles, Vetterlis and BSA .22 weapons all accompanied by the requisite bayonets.

German weapons

But, in April 1914, Crawford made his most audacious gun running coup. In tandem with Benny Spiro, an arms dealer from Hamburg, Crawford landed 30,000 rifles, with ammunition and bayonets at Larne and Donaghadee. Crawford had travelled to Hamburg where he met Spiro and actually test fired a machine gun on a German Army firing range unknown to the German military.

In the interim period in the south of Ireland the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) had been formed in response to the UVF and was also in the process of arming itself. Civil war in Ireland was looming fast. It was of course the intervention of WWI and the ensuing global slaughter that prevented Home Rule from being introduced, with the UVF becoming the 36th Ulster Division, the IVF becoming the Irish Division and eventually spilling their blood together on the battlefields of France.

Crawford and the Apprentice Boys

Londonderry's direct links with Crawford stem from his membership of the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Letters shown to the Sentinel by local historian Trevor Temple, however reveal a personal insight into Crawford's inspiration in risking charges of treason by bringing the guns into Ulster.

The late Bob Harte

The documents were in the possession of Trevor's grandfather, renowned Fountain man Bob Harte. The opening of the Thiepval Gallery in the Fountain in 2008 was in fact dedicated to Bob Harte. The gallery created a detailed social history of the area in the 20th century and displays many artefacts collected by Bob Harte himself.

The letters written to the ABOD by Crawford between 1934 and 1941 show that Crawford was a member of the Murray Club of the organisation and mostly centre on requests about the price of his 'dues' for the renewal of his membership. Another addressed to Brother Harte was written on New Year's Eve 1934 and apologises in advance for his absence at the forthcoming meeting of the ABOD in January 1935.

Resignation tendered

Six years later, in 1941, a letter dated May 1, by Major Crawford to the ABOD reveals the physical ailments of a man now approaching 80. Written on paper embossed with his address - Cloneen, Malone Road, Belfast Ulster, it reads: "It is with much regret that I hand in my resignation from 'Murray Club' A.B.O.D.

"If I live till next August I will be 80 years of age, and latterly my sight is getting very short and I can't see in half lights.

"This being the case it is not likely I shall be in Derry again; If you let me know what dues I owe I will forward you a cheque for same.

"With all good wishes to your Worshipful Officers and Brethren.

Yours faithfully,

H F Crawford.

However, by June 10, 1941 the last letter in the collection shows that Major Crawford had been offered honorary lifetime membership by the Apprentice Boys.

In this letter Major Crawford reveals how the Siege of Derry was an inspiration to him whilst he was transporting UVF guns into Ulster.

The letter states: "Dear Bro McIntyre, Thank the President, office bearers and members of the Murray Club on the great honour they are prepared to confirm upon me, I shall be only too glad to accept it and become an honorary member, I have always admired the splendid history of 'Derry City' and I am never tired of reading about the Siege. On my official visits each evening after my inspections were finished I would walk round the walls and tried to realize all that great siege stood for.

"It not only saved Derry, but all Ireland from papish domination.

"The guns were brought into Larne on the steamer collier 'Clyde Valley' but when I had the guns transferred to her I named her Mountjoy No. II and obliterated the name 'Clyde Valley' and painted 'Mountjoy' on her two bows and stern and that is how she arrived in Larne.

"I thought, the original Mountjoy saved Derry and as the second one was to save 'Ulster' I would call her Mountjoy also - this name was painted in 12" large letters.

"Some day in the future if I am in Derry after the war I would like to tell my brethren of the 'Murray Club' some of my experiences of that eventful voyage, I might say that it was owing to the magnificent organisation of getting them safely landed that made the whole undertaking a success and only for it my effort would have been an utter failure, to you all I owe and more to those who carried out the safe landing than you do to me.

"I shall only be too glad to withdraw my resignation when you have offered me such a great honour.

Yours fraternally and very sincerely,

Fred H Crawford.'

Casting a new light on history

Fountain man and historian Trevor Temple spoke to the Sentinel about the significance of the letters: "This casts a new light on a very significant episode of history.

Mountjoy II

"Everyone talks about the Clyde Valley being the boat that carried the guns but here is the man himself confirming that he obliterated that name and called it the Mountjoy II. This reveals a lot about the Protestant psyche and the siege tradition in that Crawford could see comparisons in what he did and what the Siege of Derry stood for.

"These letters are important also because there will be greater interest in these things as the centenary of the Solemn League and Covenant comes about in 2012."

Whilst Crawford's letters to Londonderry were found, as said, amongst the possession of his grandfather Bob Harte, Trevor Temple revealed a further connection.

Londonderry UVF

Bob Harte's father William, was a member of the original UVF and actually took part in the Larne gun running episode. An obituary in the Londonderry Sentinel of August 17, 1946 lamented the loss of William Harte of 57 Foyle Road "a well-known and valued worker on behalf of the Unionist cause in the city.

"(The) Deceased who was in his early eighties spent more than forty years in the service of the Londonderry Gaslight Company and was previously employed at Brown's Foundry. He was a member of Foyle Defenders L.O.L No. 1495 for about 50 years and was also a Past Master, a member and Past Master of Maiden City Royal Black Preceptory and a member of the Royal Arch Purple. He was treasurer of the Murray Club of Apprentice Boys which he joined in 1888.

Excellent shot

"The late Mr Harte was also a keen marksman and an excellent shot with a rifle. He was a member of the old Ulster Volunteer Force and took an active part in the gun running episodes.

"In early days he was an enthusiastic oarsman and acted as a stroke for the old Foyle Rowing Club.

"He is survived by his wife, four sons - Messrs William Harte, Robert Harte, John Harte and Herbert Harte - and four daughters - Mrs W Temple, Mrs J Browne, Mrs S Mills and Mrs L Jarvis with all of whom there will be sincere sympathy in their bereavement."

Willam's great grandson Trevor Temple told the Sentinel: "I remember my granny talking about the night the gun running happened. She said all the men disappeared and no one knew where they had gone."

It later became clear where the men had gone. As the 'Mountjoy II' approached Ulster an order had been issued to the UVF Motor Corps. It read:".....your car should arrive at Larne in the night of Friday-Saturday 24th-25th instant at 1am punctually but not before that hour for a very secret and important duty."