Ballymena 1914 - Praise God and pass the smuggled rifles

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An army without weapons was not an army at all - and the Unionists of Ulster were well aware of the need to equip their volunteers.

And it fell to an adventurer by the name of Fred Crawford to enter into the shadowy world of arms dealing in a bid to buy guns for the UVF. His quest had led him to Hamburg, where the Jewish arms dealer Benny Spiro had procured rifles, bayonets and rounds of ammunition for his Ulster Clients.

A ship was hired which would land most of the ilicit material at Larne, with the rest being unloaded at the County Down ports of Bangor and Donaghadee.

On the night of April 24, motorised transport from all over the north of Ireland would arrive into these ports oin order to carry away an estimated 25,000 guns with matching bayonets and a large supply of bullets.

The commander of the UVF’s County Antrim Division, Sir William Adair, was in overall charge of the landing and initial distribution of weapons. The UVF in the vicinity of Larne would be key players in this task. The primary task for the 1st N.A.R (drawn from the Ballymena area) was to ensure that enough motor vehicles were available to drive to Larne and pick up their own consignment of guns.

Among those contributing to the ‘motor pool’ was the Reverend O.W Clarke who owned a four-seat ‘Model T’ Ford with an engine capacity of 20 horsepower. He was more than happy to send the vehicle to Larne, to be loaded up with guns before returning to the rectory of the St. Saviour’s Church in Connor.

There the illegal cargo would be hidden away from police, before distrubution to the local U.V.F many of them members of Clarke’s own congregation.

Philip Orr, author ‘New Perspectives’ recounts: “Instructions were sent out to all who donated their vehicles, to provide not just a driver but also an extra man to help with loading and unloading the guns and to assist with potential breakdowns en route.

In all, 1000 rifles had been allocated for the two battalions of the North Antrim regiment. This stash was organised in the shape of 200 bundles of five guns each, within which were bayonets for the guns and 100 rounds of ammunition for each weapon. Each bundle of rifles was known to be 105 lbs in weight. 100 bundles were allocated to 1st N.A.R.

“Under cover of darkness, on April 24, the vital exercise began. Although most junior U.V.F men had no idea what its purpose was, a mass-mobilisation took place and hundreds of local volunteers stood guard at street corners and road junctions leaving both police and nationalists with little chance of successfully intercepting the gun-running.”

In all, fourteen vehicles set out across the Antrim Hills and descended towards Larne, where the ‘Clyde Valley’ had docked. The Reverend Clarke’s car was the first local vehicle to join the long queue which waited by the dock with headlights blazing.

After a quick rendezvous with the men who were handing out the smuggled weapons, the little 20 hp Ford headed back through the darkness towards Connor, carrying rifles, bayonets and bullets. According to one set of recollections by a woman whose grandfather was acquainted with Clarke, the guns were stowed away in the cellars of the rectory, still clad in the bags in which they had been wrapped in Germany.

The next vehicles to rendezvous at the harbour were the two cars owned by the Wilson Family of Raceview. Ten bundles were loaded and then the vehicles turned and headed for home.

After that, two cars belonging to the Patrick family collected their load and headed towards Glarryford.

Then two cars belonging to the Young family pulled into Larne, one loading up with guns for Galgorm and the other heading for Moorfields, to the east of Ballymena.

Another vehicle arrived to take the guns to Galgorm and then two more cars lined up, bound for the ‘big house’ known as Oranmore.

Two other cars collected five bundles each to convey to Drumard and Hugomount, which were homes belonging to the Caruth family.

Five more bundles then went by car to Moorfields.

The final and biggest feat of transport by 1st N.A.R on the night of the gun-running was the packaging of 25 bundles into a large lorry belonging to Kane’s Foundry in Ballymena.

The lorry headed off across the Antrim hills, also destined for Moorfields, which had been designated as a ‘pick-up point’ for U.V.F who were tasked with safe storage of the weapons and their subsequent distribution.

Given the much greater strength of the U.V.F it would have been well-nigh impossible for the R.I.C to arrest more than a handful of volunteers or impound more than a few of the thousands of weapons which arrived into County Antrim but although the majority of police officers were Catholics and felt no love for the Unionist project, there is some evidence that senior officers in County Antrim with a Protestant affiliation were not only quite willing to tolerate but also to assist the gun running.

Head Constable John McKenna now based in Larne, would later report that the District Inspector in the town was ‘walking about the harbour that night, smoking’ and, much more controversially, that the ‘County Inspector’s motor car was there, actually conveying arms to their destination.”