Holyhead – part of the journey to Irish independence
Irish History

Holyhead – part of the journey to Irish independence

CATHERINE DUIGAN & GARETH HUWS explore the role of Holyhead in the pursuit of Irish independence.

Holyhead has always been a critical travel connection between Britain and Ireland. From packet boats to mail boats, millions of Irish people have travelled through this Welsh port. During the period from the Act of Union to the formation of the Irish Free State, it was used as a meeting place where chance encounters sometimes proved significant. It was also part of critical journeys on the way to Irish independence

— In July 1914, a secret gun-running expedition was developed to supply Irish nationalists. Erskine Childers, his wife Molly, and a small crew sailed the yacht Asgard from Conwy in north Wales to a rendezvous point off the Belgian coast. There they loaded over 1000 Mauser rifles and ammunition under very cramped conditions sailed back towards Ireland.

A severe storm forced them to shelter in Holyhead. Questions from the coastguard were successfully deflected and the vessel was not searched. The Asgard crew went ashore, bought a newspaper, had tea in a hotel, and Erskine Childers took the opportunity to have his hair cut. Eventually they successfully delivered their cargo to Howth and the essential arms for the 1916 Easter Rising were in place.

— Countess Constance Markievicz – revolutionary, socialist, suffrage campaigner – also had links to Holyhead, partly arising from her protests against the possibility of conscription in Ireland during World War I. Consequently, she was arrested for a second time in 1918 and jailed in Holloway Prison. She was the only woman in a party of 46 Sinn Féin prisoners transported on a Royal Navy vessel.

The men were marched off to a transit camp on the outskirts of the town. However, the countess, accompanied by her dog (Poppet), received preferential treatment in the custody of Deputy Chief Constable Protheroe. Following an agreement not to try to abscond, he invited her and her dog to spend the evening with him and his family in their apartment on the upper floor of the police station.

The next morning, he walked with her through Holyhead to the railway station where standards were maintained, and she was placed in a first-class compartment for the journey - paying six shillings for Poppet’s ticket. Holyhead was one place where this Irish freedom fighter met with some courtesy and respect.

— Funerals were highly political events, especially when they required the repatriation of the bodies from Britain to Ireland, usually via Holyhead.When John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, died suddenly in London his solemn state funeral included the ceremonial transfer of his coffin from the train at Holyhead on to a specially constructed catafalque on the SS Leinster. A very different situation arose when nationalist Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison. To minimise political protest in Ireland, his coffin was forcefully taken from his family by police at Holyhead and placed in the hold of The Rathmore, a chartered vessel, which conveyed it directly to Cork.

— Following Ireland’s War of Independence, the treaty negotiations between the Irish delegates and the British Government generated many journeys between Dublin and London, using the mail-boat across the Irish Sea and the Irish Mail train between Holyhead and Euston.

The journeys gave the Irish delegates time to discuss, plan, and debate developments but must have caused considerable personal exhaustion. They also required a financial budget.In his application for travel expenses Michael Collins stated – “At the moment I have about £3 in my pocket.It would be serious if I could not give a porter a tip at Holyhead.”

By December 1922, the treaty and constitution were in place, triggering perhaps the most intriguing meeting in Holyhead. Ireland was to be not only a ‘Free State’ but also a dominion of the British Empire, with a Governor General. On Monday, December 4, President-elect W.T. Cosgrave, along with two fellow government ministers Richard Mulcahy and Joseph McGrath, hurried out of Leinster House, Dublin, and made their way to the mail-boat at Dun Laoghaire. They sailed to Holyhead and awaited the arrival of the night Irish Mail train from London and its passenger, Tim Healy, the new Governor-General, who was scheduled to take his oath of office on the 6th of December.

The four men met in Healy’s compartment on the train. The conversation between Healy, Cosgrave and Mulcahy continued on board the mail-boat as she made the return journey to Ireland. McGrath stayed on the train and travelled on to London. We can only surmise why three Cabinet members of the Free State Government, targets of anti-Treaty factions, would risk their lives to surprise the Governor General who was on his way to Dublin anyway. Fledgling international diplomacy by the Irish State started in Holyhead.

—  In the same month the Dublin-Holyhead link was the principal route used to evacuate the remaining British troops from the south of Ireland. The Manchester Guardian reported that nine special trains met the British Troops who travelled on four steamers to Holyhead. Over a five-day period, the daily totals of arrivals were 300 officers, 5,000 men, 500 horses, 400 vehicles, and over 800 tons of baggage.

During the critical decade, 1912-23, in Irish history, it is evident that a small Welsh port had an important, but perhaps not fully recognised, essential role. After acting as a gateway to Irish independence, Holyhead remains a town between the land and the sea; a border town between Wales and Ireland; and a meeting place of its peoples. The stories we share are part of a richer and deeper heritage.