Were German submarines successful in landing weapons for the IRA on the North Mayo Coast during WW1?
The arrival of the first German submarines in the Irish Sea in January 1915 was followed a month later by a declaration from Imperial Germany that the seas around the whole of the British Isles were an ‘area of war’ and subject to unrestricted submarine warfare henceforth (1). Unknown to the Germans, however, the British had broken the German Navy’s SKM code, Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine, almost from the start of hostilities.Subsequently there were rumours in British Naval Intelligence circles, that German submarines were receiving supplies of fresh food, water, and fuel from Sinn Fein sympathisers in bays along the North Mayo Coast of Ireland. Perhaps referring to this, Lloyd George is quoted as saying during WW1, that “Ireland was a real peril. They were in touch with German submarines “ and that to grant independence would be “ to hand over Ireland to be made a base of the (German) submarine fleet “ (1a). That cooperation occurred between inhabitants of remote coastal areas in Ireland and German submarines was a canard that featured through the whole of WW1 and later (1b), however, possibly with a modicum of truth, as shown by different Bureau of Military History witness statements from the period.
Michael Henry, Battalion Commandant, North Mayo Brigade.
Michael Henry in his witness statement (2) described how a German submarine had made contact with some fishermen off the North Coast which led to a fuelling base being established. A landing of German arms is alleged to have followed on a beach near Rosport in North Mayo possibly about 1917, while one Foye person representing Ballycastle Volunteers was involved as well as a Rowan from Stonefields, Carrateigue. Michael Henry said, also, that fuel was carried to the townland of Carreteigue in North Mayo and anchored in containers on the sea – floor prior to transfer to a submarine, the fuel being supplied by the Walsh brothers from Belmullet who later had to flee to England having come under suspicion by the R.I.C. Their contact on the submarine was an Irish sailor called Gallagher from Belmullet who was friendly with the Walsh brothers. He stated that rifles landed from this submarine were subsequently discovered by the R.I.C. from Rosport ‘as a result of loose talk’. He himself possessed a German Parabellum pistol that came from a submarine originally, implying that contact had occurred.
Dominic Molloy, Staff Officer, Intelligence, North Mayo Brigade.
Dominic Molloy (3) describes how he and another volunteer, Phelim Colleary, were told by a boatman called Ruane, in May 1918, that a German submarine had deposited rifles in a cave on the North Mayo coast near Kilgalligan. Mr. Ruane said he was accustomed to providing fresh water, dairy produce, fowl and poitin to a submarine, whose captain he knew before the War. Dominic Molloy, Phelim Colleary and John Moran cycled to Balderrig to meet Jack Foye, a native of Balderrig who was acting on behalf of Ruane from Kilgalligan. Jack Foye agreed to bring the group in a currach to the cave where the arms were, but this was adjourned as the sea was too rough. The Volunteers sent John Moran, Battalion and Brigade Intelligence Officer North Mayo Brigade and Martin Lacken to report to Michael Collins in a college or monastery outside Dublin. Collins was somewhat sceptical of the story or so it appeared to them. While they were in Dublin, Collins did, however, send Fintan Murphy to Ballina to look into the matter, along with Richard Walsh as described below. Ultimately, Dominic Molloy paid £100 to Ruane for his information but Ruane promptly disappeared. Two years later in May 1920, 6 cases marked “Twigs” were left outside Molloy’s premises in Ballina which were found to contain 20 rifles and 8 or 9 revolvers, presumably from the Kilgalligan trove. Their dispersal is unknown.
John Moran, Battalion and Brigade Intelligence Officer, North Mayo Brigade.
John Moran corroborates the story further (4). He told how a man called Foye from Belderrig was introduced to him through Phelim Colleary in the Sinn Fein Office in Ballina sometime ‘after 1916’. Foye stated that an Irishman who had worked on a Congested District Board ship had joined the German Navy and had brought rifles ashore from a submarine at Kilgalligan and had given them to himself (Foye) and a Ruane man. Foye was reluctant to bring Moran to Kilgalligan then as there was an informer in the area but, subsequently, after a long night journey by currach with Ruane, Moran was able to view the cache. Money was handed over and it was agreed that the Bellderrig men would bring the cache around the coast to Ballina, but this did not happen, according to John Moran. When in Dublin later Moran got in touch with ‘Mick’ Collins about Foye and Ruane and met him (Collins) and Harry Boland in the Carmelite Monastery in Terenure, as described above. John Moran asked Collins for weapons for the Mayo Brigade, but none were forthcoming.
Michael Kilroy, O/C West Mayo Brigade and Richard Walsh, Brigade Adjutant, Mayo Brigade 1918-1920.
In 1919 (though possibly earlier; see Dominic Molloy’s account), Michael Kilroy was told by contacts in the area to arrange for a landing of arms from a German submarine near Portacloy in North Mayo (5), the fellows from the Portacloy area being in touch with German submarines from time to time. Kilroy stated that he was asked to take depth soundings off Kilcummin Strand in Sligo Bay, as was Patrick Hegarty, though this might have been in anticipation of an arms landing by sea. Subsequently Fintan Murphy (former Quartermaster Dublin IV Brigade 1917-1918) was asked by Michael Collins to meet with Dick Walsh (Head Centre Mayo County I.R.B. and Irish Volunteers’ organiser for Mayo) from Balla and travel to Ballina in North Mayo, along with Michael Kilroy from Newport, to look into the German submarine story. Dick Walsh introduced Fintan Murphy to a teacher named O Leary and a commercial traveller named Murray. They also met Tom Ruane who was O/C of the Ballina Company I.R.A. as well as a man called Lacken and Tom Moran who came from Belmullet and who worked as a stonemason in Ballina. Dick Walsh states that the men in Ballina were anxious to put them in contact with the men from the Blacksod coast, which was 50 miles from Ballina however, but no meeting ever came about despite Michael Kilroy waiting for a week in Carey’s of Belmullet in anticipation of going to sea in a currach with fresh supplies “and (to) get in touch” with a submarine (5a).
Dick Walsh, on investigating the matter of German submarines further, found that the rumour had started from an earlier, public anti- Conscription meeting in Ballina which Darrel Figgis, who was living in Achill at the time, addressed. He and another speaker were afterwards approached by two men in a local hotel, Ruane from Stonefield, Carrateigue and Foye from Belderrig , Ballina . Both were small farmers and fishermen and knew the North Coast well. They claimed to have been in touch with a German submarine captain who asked to be put in touch with Volunteer Headquarters. On hearing this Figgis contacted local battalion officers and put the Blacksod men in touch with them. As a result, Moran from Ballina and Foye were sent to Dublin to contact Volunteer HQ. Moran who was in his 50’s was an old I.R.B. man and on reaching Dublin sought out one of his former I.R.B. contacts, a Mr. O’Leary Curtis, instead of going directly to Volunteer Headquarters. Mr. O’Leary Curtis brought the Mayo men to Harcourt St., Head Quarters of Sinn Fein at the time. Instead of meeting Cathal Brugha as was hoped they were introduced to Alderman Tom Kelly. He in turn introduced the men to a Mr. Nunan who proceeded to interview the men (6). It was Dick Walsh’s opinion then (May 1918) that neither Collins or O’Hegarty were anxious to meet the Mayo Men formally as GHQ had no mandate or authority from the Sinn Fein Executive or the Volunteer Executive to contact the German Government through their submarine commanders, with the associated risk of bringing seriously negative propaganda down on the Volunteers.
Shortly thereafter at a meeting of the Volunteer Executive Cathal Brugha quizzed Michael Collins directly as to whether he (Collins) knew of any contacts by any Volunteers with German representatives or agents. Collins denied any awareness and was emphatically supported by Diarmuid O Hegarty. This meeting was the first time that whispers of a fictitious ‘German Plot’ began in circulation (7). Brugha was sceptical of Collins’ reply stating that his (Brugha’s) contact in Dublin Castle had told him that the British were already aware, from American Intelligence sources, as well as from their own analysis of German Naval codes, of a potential German Plot. His attitude towards Collins after this meeting of the Volunteer Executive was one of suspicion and was the start of the feud that later existed between Brugha and Collins, according to Richard Walsh.
As to whether there was truth in the rumours coming from North Mayo that German submarines were landing arms for the I.R.A. during the First World War and afterwards, no concrete proof has been found in support of the different witness statements, although there is a degree of consistency between the various accounts. Even Dr. John Madden in his verbal statement to Ernie O Malley spoke of rifles being landed (unsuccessfully) onto a fishing boat off the North Mayo Coast, while Patrick Hegarty, IRA Organiser for North Mayo and Sligo was aware of the activities of the Walsh brothers who were supposed to ‘see’ submarines. (8) Some of the witness statements and accounts may indeed refer to a single event only, as some names are duplicate, with, for example, Foye from Belderrig and Ruane from Stonefields, Carrateigue, appearing in at least three of the statements.
That German submarines were active on the North Mayo coast is confirmed by the sinking of the S.S.Tuskar by a German mine 3 nautical miles West of Eagle Rock , on 6th Sept 1917 with the loss of 10 sailors , 4 of whom were Irish . It is conceivable, also, that earlier types of German submarines were seen by local fishermen in the narrow coves and bays on the North Mayo Coast as they surfaced to allow for essential maintenance or to recharge batteries or more likely to reload torpedo tubes or mines, an exercise that could be done in safety only at night and on the surface.
The fact that Michael Collins felt it necessary to send a senior member of the Volunteer Executive to North Mayo to investigate rumours of landings of German arms indicates a degree of anxiety on his part at the potential negative consequences of anyone consorting with any German individuals at any time, and especially with the Conscription Crisis in the background and with the 1918 Election looming. After all, this was a propaganda war as well as a guerrilla war.
Dr. Myles Mac Evilly.
(1) Hayes, Karl E. (1988) ‘A History of the Royal Air Force and the United States Naval Air Service in Ireland 1913-1923’. Irish Air Letter. P 21.
(1a) Irish Defence Policy. (1927), Irish Military Archives, p5.
(1b) O’Confhaola Padhraic, 2009. The Naval Forces of the Irish State 1922-1977. PhD Thesis. University of Maynooth. Ch.2, ref .111.
(2) . Henry, Michael. BMH WS 1732.
(3). Molloy, Dominic BMH WS 1570
(4). Moran, John. BMH WS 1549
(5) . O’Malley, Ernie. (2014). Mercier Press. ‘The Men Will Talk To Me: Mayo Interviews’. Michael Kilroy. P 37.
(5a) Idem p 38.
(6) Walsh, Richard. BMH WS 400 p 42.
(7) . Denton, Danny. ‘On the Truth of the German Plot’ JGAHS. Vol 59 (2007) pp 122-133.
(8) Patrick Hegarty. BMH WS 1606.
January 2021 .