When the Armistice was announced in November 1918, bringing an end to World War I, it raised hope for a lasting peace across Europe. It wasn’t as simple as that, however once a United States Navy cargo vessel sailed into Dublin to collect army stories left by a US Expeditionary force.
The vessel had been commissioned during the final months of the war. Its stopover in Ireland was to be just a mundane job for the Marines on board. Unbeknownst to them, revolution was in the air.
USS Defiance docked in Dublin towards the end of November 1918. It was heavily guarded by US Marines. A handful of dockers had secured permits to board the vessel in order to load the stores on board but the authorities were not aware that the dockers were connected to Liberty Hall. So when they spied a cache of weapons in the hold of the ship, they promptly informed Captain Christopher ‘Kit’ Poole of the Irish Citizen Army.
Captain Poole came from a family drenched in the Republican tradition. He and his brothers fought during Easter Week 1916. Another of his brothers had been hanged as a Fenian decades earlier in Richmond Barracks. Captain Poole did not miss a beat and decided to procure these Navy weapons.
1918 was the year in which the foundations of the War of Independence were laid. Those imprisoned after Easter 1916 had been released, the conscription crisis resulted in a resurgence of Sinn Fein and events such as Gaelic Sunday galvanised Gaels across the land.
Morale was high among Republicans, the fighting spirit had been reconstructed and new leaders were now in place. All that was needed were the weapons to fight. For the Irish Citizen Army in Dublin, they knew where arms were within reach of Liberty Hall on board USS Defiance. The only thing was to get them.
The Citizen Army’s arms expert Seamus McGowan masqueraded as a docker and successfully gained a permit to work on the US Navy cargo ship with other dockers. On quayside, Captain Poole conducted the relay team of dockers, while inside the hold of the vessel McGowan was busy breaking cases full of rifles and ammunition.
Over an eight hour period and right under the noses of the authorities 56 revolvers, 2,000 rounds of ammunition and canvas bandoliers of 5,000 rounds of ammunition were successfully, yet painstakingly transferred from the ship to the docks. There they were stored in the tin huts which served as toilets along the quayside.
Not content with that great haul of arms, Captain Poole arranged the purchase of more weapons through a member of the ship’s crew who, remained nameless, but was apparently of Irish stock and friendly to the cause of national freedom. With this unnamed Irish American, Captain Poole agreed to buy 24 service pistols issued to crew members.
Under the cover of darkness Captain Poole rowed a boat near the hull of the big brooding vessel. On board, the crew member he had befriended lowered a canvas bag of pistols and also some Springfield rifles. Captain Poole rowed ashore with his haul but, the large rifles were too cumbersome to safely get away. They were too long, too heavy, and Captain Poole almost went under the waters of the River Liffey with the haul.
The Citizen Army Captain and his men on quayside tried in vain to unscrew the butts off the rifles to make them smaller and easier to transfer away quickly but, their actions proved fruitless. They had to leave them there as day was breaking and the rebels were all too aware of drawing attention to themselves.
Apart from the loss of the awkward Springfield rifles, the Citizen Army under Captain Poole successfully got the arms away and scattered them in various safe houses across the city and in the country. The captain of USS Defiance found out about the brazen raid when he saw broken cases in the hold of his ship and all of the arms and ammunition missing. The infuriated Navy captain contacted Dublin Castle and all of the dockers were rounded up and marched to a shed on quayside. Inside the shed each docker was questioned and searched but each docker remained steadfast and never gave up the game.
This little known event proved to have an impact in the War of Independence which followed just months later. The arms from the US Navy cargo vessel were used to fight the Black and Tans and I suppose you could say the US Navy played a small part in Ireland’s fight for freedom.