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The UVF's Catholic Gunrunner

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

Whilst consulting some Dublin Castle intelligence notes I came across an astonishing account of the 1914 Ulster Volunteer Force gunrunning operation that had been provided by a crew member from the SS “Clyde Valley”. Amazingly this crew member, acting as a fireman, was a Roman Catholic but perhaps less surprisingly is the fact that the Royal Irish Constabulary were very keen to speak to him about what he witnessed.

Here are some extracts from his anonymous statement to the police:

‘I am a seaman, and have been all my life. I remember Thursday 16 April 1914. On that day I heard in the usual course of my looking for work at Belfast Quays that Samuel Moss, manager of the coal firm of John Kelly Ltd, Queens Quay, Belfast, was signing on a crew for the tramp steamer “Clyde Valley”, which was then in Belfast at Albert Quay. I went to look for a job, but was told it was full. I met John Spalding who had been signed as acting Second Engineer, and he told me to be down at the boat about 10pm that night and that he knew they would be a man short as fireman. I went at the time I was told, and was taken on as fireman by the Captain, whose name was Luke… I knew the ship; she was for years used by the Wigan Iron Ore and Coal Co., and was then known as the “Ballineel.”… John Kelly bought her and changed her name to the Clyde Valley. She is a tramp steamer of about 500 tons… and has been generally used in carrying coals. When I joined her on the night of 16 April, all the hands on her were the Captain, Chief Engineer - whom I did not know - Mr Stewart was the Mate, Bob was second mate - I did not know his surname; John Spalding was acting as Second Engineer; Jack from Carrickfergus was Seaman, and George Maze and myself were Firemen. We left Albert Quay at 2:45am on 17 April and steamed to the Welsh coast - calling at a place named Llandudno and went alongside the pier, where a gentleman came aboard; I did not know him, but afterwards heard him spoken of as Major Crawford. We left immediately after taking this man aboard and went to Holyhead. On that night as I was at the wheel on deck, I saw Major Crawford use electric flashes to signal to various places along the coast from the Captain’s bridge of the Clyde Valley.

On Sunday morning we hove to near Fishguard and put Major Crawford ashore in the ship’s boat - Mr Stewart and Jack rowing him ashore. When the boat and two men returned we went away and picked up the Tuskar Light again and then dodged about the Channel till dark on Sunday 19 April, when we picked up a steamer off the Tuskar Light. This ship was smaller than the Clyde Valley and bore the name “Aneesee Lavval” but I believe from what afterwards transpired that she was the “Fanny”. The two ships went alongside each other, and the only Englishman that was aboard the other ship came aboard our boat. I at once recognised him as Captain Agnew of the Antrim Iron Ore Co’s boat the “Glendun”; I knew him for years. The remainder of the crew of the strange steamer were Swedes. After the two ships were made fast I was put at the winch and the cargo of the strange steamer was put into our ship - the winches of both boats being used to transfer the cargo. The cargo consisted of bales, each about 1 cwt (a hundredweight = approx 50kg) and I saw the contents of several of the bales and handled them. They consisted of long rifles, sword bayonets, and small cardboard packages of ammunition - there being some of each of these articles in each bale. I saw various marks on the bales - some in black and others in white. I got a couple of the rifles afterwards, but threw them overboard. The transferring of the cargo continued till daybreak on Monday 20 April, when we again came together about the same place off the Tuskar Light, and finished the transferring of the cargo when it was just breaking day on Tuesday 21 April. At this time the Captain we took from Belfast in the Clyde Valley left us and went aboard the other steamer - Captain Agnew taking command of our ship. The two steamers then parted; we went down Channel till we picked up St. Bee’s Head. We dodged about the Channel all day on Tuesday and Wednesday. During this time Captain Agnew came to me at the wheel and had a conversation, remarking how did I come to be here; was I not a R.C., and as this was a political game, was I not afraid of the others on board. I said “No” that I understood that I was the same as himself engaged at smuggling. The Captain said that if my own crowd - that is the Roman Catholics - knew anything about this that it would be serious for me. I replied I did not care or mind, that if anyone interfered with me I would use one of the sticks on board and open his skull.

At about dark on Wednesday 22 April, we were near Holyhead and went alongside the SS “Balmarino” belonging to John Kelly Ltd and took on board our ship Major Crawford and another man who acted as Engineer afterwards on our ship. Major Crawford took a large quantity of tobacco on board with him, and it was given out to the ship’s hands; I got about a lb (pound) of it. We did not delay long at Holyhead, but went down into the Channel and remained dodging up and down. At night time Major Crawford was engaged in signaling and it was taken up from the coastline. Our ship’s horn was very often blown too. This continued until about dusk on Friday 24 April, when we were hugging the northern coast of Ireland, and I saw some more extensive signaling than before, and we went out to the open sea and found ourselves steering for Larne Harbour, which we entered in time for us to go ashore and have a drink. The day before we entered Larne Harbour the name “Mountjoy” was printed on part of the “Clyde Valley’s” canvas and hung over the name of our ship. All of the bales, save forty tons, which we brought to Bangor were taken off our ship at Larne and put into the SS “Roma” the “Innishmurray” and on the pier. We left Larne about daybreak on Saturday and steamed to Bangor where I saw Samuel Kelly of John Kelly Ltd who promised to send us in his motor car to Belfast, but afterwards refused, because he said we were nasty to the Captain. Spalding, Maze and myself had made application to get ashore somewhere for a change of linen, as we had been ten days at sea without a change, but the Captain would not let us ashore anywhere till we came to Larne and then only for a drink, but promised to get us a change of clothes. As he did not do this we demanded that we should be paid off, and we were paid off - the three of us. I got £2.10s and fed on the best. We left the ship at Bangor after 6am on Saturday 25 April, whilst they were busy taking the bales out on to the pier, and knocked about Bangor till the public houses opened, got a drink, and ran to catch the 7:10am train by which I returned to Belfast.”

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