by ehistoryadmin on May 16, 2015

From socialite to gun-runner … Mary Spring-Rice and the “Asgard”

Liam Kenny

How did a titled lady with access to the highest social circles in Ireland at the turn of 19th century become a gun runner who endured storm and seasickness to smuggle rifles to Irish nationalists? The story of the Hon. Mary Spring-Rice is just one of many figures whose place in the build up to the Easter Rising has been eclipsed by an emphasis on a small number of leaders. True the seven signatories of the Proclamation at Easter 1916, and those who were executed, in the wake of the Rising deserve the greatest attention. However there were many more whose contribution to the laying of the foundation of rebellion in the years before 1916 was significant and yet who are rarely mentioned nowadays when the Rising is recalled. For example who now remembers Darrell Figgis and Bulmer Hobson? Or recalls that it was a group of English aristocrats who put up money for the first arms purchase by the volunteers?

The role of such enigmatic figures is being reintroduced into the narrative of Irish nationalism by Sallins based publisher Merrion/Irish Academic Press who are bringing out a fine republication of a book first published in 1964 which comprised papers and accounts by those involved in the “Asgard” gun running of July 1914.

The “Asgard” – the name of the yacht which landed arms at Howth – and all that revolved around it was one of the seminal and dramatic episodes in Irish nationalism. Its story was chronicled comprehensively by the historian and Augustinian friar F. X. Martin who in 1964 published “The Howth Gun-Running … Recollections and Documents.” Rather than being a conventional history book by a single author, F. X. Martin took the rewarding approach of gathering together letters, notes and accounts written by some of those involved in the planning of the operation to purchase arms in Germany for the Irish Volunteers, and the subsequent sailing adventures of the gun-running vessel the “Asgard”. Writing in the early 1960s he was also able to interview nationalist veterans who had participated in the operation and were able to give first-hand recollections to him.

The publication of the book in 1964 turned out to be fortunate in terms of the historical record of 1916 because just two years later, in 1966, there was patriotic commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Rising. However this commemoration emphasised the role played by the Irish Volunteers led by Padraig Pearse and focussed on the fundraising efforts of Irish-American activists such as John Devoy. The 1966 programme of processions, films and publications gave scant mention to those of an Anglo-Irish background who made the first organised delivery of arms to the Volunteers. And there was almost no mention that much of the planning and fundraising had not taken place in the Irish American dens of New York but in elite society circles at prestigious addresses in the Home Counties of England.  A list of subscribers identified in the book includes names such as those of Lord Ashbourne, Surrey; Lady Young, Cookham; and G. E. H. Berkeley, Hanwell Castle near Banbury. Names such as these hardly reflect a clandestine cohort of nationalist agitators and may come as a surprise to a generation reared on the assumption that it was only Irish Volunteers and their Irish-American moneybags who had anything to do with the rebellion. Which brings us back to the story of Mary Spring-Rice. The daughter of Lord Monteagle of Foynes she looked set to follow the standard path of the young lady from a big house – attending soirees and society events with a view to finding a suitable husband. And an interesting local account of her social interests in 1899 would reinforce such a perception. The “Kildare Observer” of March 1899 carried a report of a theatrical evening which took place in Castletown House. The hosts were the Lord Chief Justice and Lady O’Brien and the guest list included some of the most glittering names in the Irish aristocracy: Lady Iveagh, the Hon. Rupert and Ernest Guinness, Lord Cloncurry of Lyons House, Lady Ashbourne and Lady Fermoy as well as some of the local gentry including the Misses de Burgh (Naas) and de Robeck (Gowran Grange). Firmly planted within such elite circles is the name of the Hon. Mary Spring-Rice who fifteen years later would join Erskine Childers and his wife Molly in the dramatic dash from Hamburg to Howth in Childers’ sturdy yacht with a hold full of German rifles.

The commemoration of events which were to lead to the 1916 Rising is well under way. Already there have been commemorations of the founding of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBán in the winter of 1913. The “Asgard” gun-running will be next on the commemorative calendar. As such it is important that books such as F. X. Martin’s which give an alternative but true insight into the complex personalities involved in equipping the Irish Volunteers should be republished in attractive editions.

The original “Asgard” yacht has been brilliantly conserved and makes a striking sight in its berth at the National Museum Collins Barracks.  It is worth the trip to see this storied-vessel in all its elegant presence and with a copy of “The Howth Gun-Running” published by Merrion Press, Sallins, in hand.

Book reviewed: “The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running – Recollections & Documents”, Edited by F. X. Martin. Published by Merrion/Irish Academic Press, 8 Chapel Lane, Sallins.  Leinster Leader 22 July 2014, Looking Back, Series no: 393.

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