Bayonet collecting in Ireland

In the years preceding the First World War 1914-1918, the most important issue facing Ireland and its people was that of Home Rule. The island of Ireland had been ruled by Britain  for 700 years, and had faced numerous rebellions from armed Irishmen which cost countless lives.

By the year 1912, there were two clearly opposing armed forces in Ireland – the Ulster Volunteers (UVF) and the Irish Volunteers (IV), both of whom were actively procuring arms and munitions for use in the civil war which was facing them.

The UVF boasted 80,000 men while their opposition the IV accounted for 100,000.

The task of arming these large group of volunteers was mammoth.

Both sides , over a period of years, had imported small caches of arms and ammunition from Great Britain hidden on person, in suitcases and in motor vehicles.rifles.jpg (46846 bytes)

Then on 25th April 1914, the most audacious importation of arms occurred under the cover of darkness at Larne in County Antrim closely followed at Donaghadee in County Down , organised by Major Fred Crawford of the UVF. 30,000 rifles along with 5 million rounds of ammunition were off loaded from the SS  Clydevalley. The consignment, purchased on the arms market from dealer Benny Spiro of the Waffen Munition Und Militar-Effekten in Hamburg (who also sold weapons to the IV) comprised the following rifles -

15,000 M1904 Mannlicher

5,000   M1888 Gew

10,000 Italian Vetterli-Vitali  M1870 / 87

All these weapons were supplied with bayonets – Italian M1871 sword, Austrian M1904 knife, French  Mle1874 Gras converted for both the Gew88 and the Vetterli.

 It was generally though at the time that the rifles imported by the UVF  and the IV were antiquated and ineffectual against the modern rifles of the British Army, but it should be pointed out that the M1904 Mannlicher rifle was newly made under contract by Steyr in Austria, and was supplied with the M1904 knife bayonet of a type previously supplied to Rumania with their M1893 rifles.

 Surprisingly this arms importation was not illegal as the British Parliamentary legislation in this matter had expired. Other favourite rifles of the UVF were the Martini Henry artillery carbine, useful for its length and ease of concealment, accompanied by its P1979 sword bayonet with sawback. Martini-Enfield . 303 with accompanying P1888 knife bayonet, and Lee Metford carbines  were also in evidence. 


The most historically significant arms importation by the Irish Volunteers was at Howth near Dublin on 26th July  1914 when the vessel ‘Asgard’ landed 900 M1871 Mauser rifles and another vessel Kelpie landed 600 more on the Wicklow coast.

The Irish Volunteers were also very active in importing arms. They managed to bribe serving British soldiers to part with their Lee Enfields, smuggled in Italian Vetterlis hidden in slabs of marble from Liverpool, Mausers brought back as souvenirs from the Boer War, Martini carbines and shotguns for which they home made their own bayonets at the Railway Yard at Inchicore in Dublin. Also mentioned in reports of the time were . 22 bore Winchester rifles.            

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James Connolly, most prominent of the Leaders of the 1916 Rising in Dublin and executed by the British, was quoted in saying;

 “ We are true Internationalists as we have effected the union between French bayonets and German rifles in our fight for Ireland”.



Another important chapter in arms importation during this period saw the attempted landing by the vessel ‘Aud’ on 21st April 1916 on the Kerry coast  of 20,000 Mosin Nagant rifles, 1 million rounds of ammunition and 10 machine guns.These munitions were supplied by the German Government, but due to British naval interception, the vessel was scuttled by her captain and all the cargo lost of the south  coast of Ireland near Cork



Interestingly accompanying this consignment, was the plan’s architect Irish Nationalist Roger Casement who travelled by U Boat, U-19, whose captain was Lieutenant Weisbach, the U-Boat captain who sank the Lusitania. Casement was also captured at this time after landing on the shore and was later hanged by the British for his efforts.

So concerned were the British at this consignment's arrival,  that they sent divers down to the wreck on the seabed, where they detonated explosives to scatter the arms for fear of them being brought up by insurgents. One of these Russian rifles along with two socket bayonets and their German zinc tubular scabbards are on display in the Imperial War Museum in London.

One interesting postscript to the UVF rifles – during WW1 and afterwards, many of the imported rifles were stored in Belfast under guard until in the 1920’s, supplies were sold off in London and a batch of Vetterlis was purchased by Ethiopia in 1941 and were used to restore Emperor Haile Selassie to power.

Some of the Veterli rifles were also used by the British Home Guard during WW2.

 The fate of those weapons held by the Irish Volunteers laid largely in the hands of the British Army who seized many after armed confrontations and ambushes during the Easter Rising of 1916, and the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921.