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Cruising with a purpose is exciting and none more so than when gun-running against numerically superior opposition. Accounts of supplying the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1) and the Howth and Kilcoole gun-running (2,3&4) capture the risks and drawn out suspense of these operations. The Clyde yards had a well founded reputation for building fast blockade runners for the confederacy. Of the Howth and Kilcoole gun-runners, the well known Howth yachtsman Winkie Nixon wrote the most readable and well illustrated chapter (3).

The lovely holiday island of Cyprus was also once the scene of covert landings as the EOKA movement confronted the British colonial administration (5). In the 1950s the Chloraka coast West of Paphos was a thinly populated area, well suited to conducting subversive operations. Today at Alyki, near Chlorakas village, amongst the apartment blocks, beach sunshades and palm trees a large memorial and statue of the EOKA leader General Grivas, nom de guerre ‘Dhigenis’, commemorate his landing and a museum houses one of the gun-runners, the caique St George, mast standing. Nearby a basilica, the Chapel of St George, was built in honour of Dhigenis.

For the yachtsman visiting Cyprus, seeing the St George, masses of press photographs and other exhibits brings history to life and makes up for the scant information one has of the actual passages, beyond dates, tracks and crew names. These were secret operations on a war footing so it is not surprising little was recorded.

More than fifty years on the definitive history of these events is still emerging. Britain did not cover itself with glory, morally indefensibly trying to hold on to a strategically important possession. Many years earlier W.E. Gladstone and Winston Churchill had both expressed the view that Cyprus should be given her independence. Cyprus sided with Britain in WWII thinking that after the war it would be rewarded with independence. When it was not, many felt the only way forward was armed struggle.

Of the Greek Cypriot side, one wishes that their generally accurate accounts would use less emotive language but in the light of ruthless counter measures, the British hanging teenage fighters in Nicosia prison, it is quite understandable, especially as many of their relatives are still living. EOKA itself stood for Enosis, union of Cyprus with Greece. ‘ENOSIS’, once painted on walls all over the island, is now toned down and EOKA presented more as freedom fighters dedicated to throwing off British colonial rule. What most Greek Cypriots wanted was self determination not British rule or union with Greece.

The vulnerability of the small dispersed Turkish minority meant they were better disposed towards the colonial power. Farming the poorest land in remote areas, the Turks were observers where EOKA wished to move unseen and served as police auxiliaries. This posed a difficulty for EOKA in addition to security in its own ranks.

Operations began on 5 March 1954 at Vrexi, the first shipment of arms being landed from Greece by the motor yacht Siren. On 10 November the same boat landed General Grivas at Alyki after a difficult voyage. Autumn in the eastern Mediterranean is not always holiday weather, reminding of a late season voyage in these waters two thousand years before by Paul of Tarsus. A large merchant vessel high on a reef to the east of Dighenis’ landing is a modern day reminder of the navigational dangers of these waters.

The museum has notes from Dighenis’ diary on display. Little is recorded of his actual voyage. On 6 November there was torrential rain all morning while he waited for the boat at Rhodes. It arrived in the afternoon and refuelled, leaving Kalithea creek at 00:15hrs in relatively good weather. Then we get “9 November – Tempestuous weather, we suffered a lot. At about 22:00hrs we arrived at the designated landing place where we were met by those expecting us.” From the landing they were led to a house in Chlorakas village.

More war materials were needed and on 25 January 1955 the caique St George arrived off Rodafinia to land arms, ammunition and explosive. Unfortunately for those involved they had been betrayed. The political leader Archbishop Makarios and General Grivas had been made aware but were unable to intercept the boat. We know from his diary that General Grivas heard of the betrayal on 14 January. The British warship HMS Comet was lying in wait and crew and reception party ashore were all captured around midnight on 25/26 January.

The St George was a traditional wooden trading vessel with one hold and a single hatch. It had a small deck house and tiller steering in the open right aft. Accommodation was limited to the deckhouse and forecastle, fitted with bunks port and starboard. The deckhouse served as the galley. A photograph of the interior taken soon after her capture shows a primus stove, hurricane lamp and port and starboard navigation lamps. The hull has beautiful lines with sweeping sheer.

The boat was gaff rigged with a long bowsprit and fitted with a single cylinder petrol engine. This probably ran on paraffin (kerosene) once hot, after starting with petrol. The engine room is accessible by a ladder through the deckhouse floor and via a door in the engine room bulkhead. A two barrel manual winch on the fore deck provided the mechanical advantage for setting the large mainsail and raising the anchor. Substantial catheads facilitated anchor handling. She would probably have carried around five or ten tonnes of cargo. A small expansion box/silencer led to an exhaust pipe sticking through the deck. The exhaust note would have been a loud ‘tonk, tonk’, so on operations she probably sailed for silent approach as well as to conserve fuel.

After the EOKA campaign the motor yacht Siren continued as a pleasure boat. The St George was put up for sale by public auction by the British and on the instructions of the far sighted Archbishop Makarios, a master of public relations, was bought with a view to using it as an exhibit in a museum dedicated to the liberation struggle. There she now lies on a bed of smooth pebbles a short distance from the place of her arrest, freshly painted, a fitting memorial to those who sailed in her. The purpose built museum building is tall enough to accommodate her mast standing, adding greatly to her appearance, exemplifying how to display and preserve a wooden boat - in the dry, out of the weather.

Of the Irish runners, the Asgard had her masts sawn off just above deck level to fit into Kilmainham gaol for display. Her restoration which began in 2007 is still in progress (6 , extensive replacement of lower planks being undertaken. The Kelpie was wrecked at Portpatrick and whilst being sailed single-handed by her owner Conor O’Brien when his alarm clock failed to go off. The author is indebted to Mark McCarthy, Editor Marine Times and Brian Doyle, Fisherman, Manager of Comhar Iascaire, Howth for his letter to the Marine Times February 2008 – full text copied below for lesser known details and Scottish interest (7).


1. Running the Blockade, A Personal Narrative of Adventures, Risks and Escapes During the American Civil War, Thomas E. Taylor, 4 th edition, John Murray, London, 1912.

2. The Howth Gun-Running and the Kilcoole Gun-Running 1914, recollections and documents edited by F.X. Martin with a foreword by Eamon De Valera, Browne and Nolan Ltd, 1964.

3. Howth A Century of Sailing, published by HowthYacht Club, The Harbour, Howth, 1995, ISBN 0-9527144 0 x. Chapter 6 Asgard The Howth Gun-Running,

4. Erskine Childers, Author of The Riddle of the Sands, Jim Ring, John Murray, London, 1966, ISBN 0-7195-5687 2.

5. Public information leaflet - The Liberation Struggle of EOKA 1955-1959 and the Chloraka Coast, Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, Council of Historic Memory of the EOKA Struggle 1955-1959 P.I.O 226/2007 – 10.000 Published by the Press and Information Office and hosted on the internet.

6. Restoring Ireland’s Most Historic Boat, Marine Times Newspaper, December 2007.

7. Marine Times Newspaper, Letters, February 2008.

Dear Sir,

Asgard and Kelpie

The feature on the “Asgard” by Tom McSweeney in your December Edition was most enjoyable. It is pleasing to note that your reader, Mr Paul Shave in Edinburgh pondered and wondered the fate of the “Kelpie”. It is most certainly a very wonderful exciting story and deserves to be filmed for posterity and the history of a nation that never gave in. It would surely rank alongside that superb film “Michael Collins”.

There were four boats involved in the gunrunning to Howth and Kilcoole. They were:- “Asgard” - a 51ft. 27.5 ton gaff rigged cutter, owned by Erskine Childers and his wife Molly. The crew of the Asgard were Mary Spring Rice, Gordon Shepherd, John Dolan who hailed from Malahide, Charles Duggan and Pat McGinley both experienced fishermen and paid hands from Gola Island, Donegal.

“Kelpie” was a 26 ton ketch, built in 1871. Her crew were Conor O’Brien, Diarmuid Coffey a young barrister, Kitty O’Brien (sister) and two paid hands Tom Fitzsimons and George Cahill.

“Chotah” was a 48 ton, 60 ft. cutter owned and skippered by Sir Thomas Myles, president of the Royal College of Surgeons. She was engine powered, which allowed for keen mobility close inshore. I do not at this time have the crew names.

The “Nugget” was a 35 ft. motor fishing vessel owned by Peter ‘The Crutch’ McLoughlin and skippered by his brother, James. There were five crew, all McLoughlins bar one, who was a young lad of 16 named Michael Moore and known locally as ‘Fairy Bags’ Moore.

A week after the “Asgard” landed her complement of guns and ammunition on 26 th July 1914 at the knuckle of the East Pier, Howth Harbour, the “Nugget” steamed south to rendezvous with the “Chotah”, who had on board 600 rifles and ammunition transferred from “Kelpie” off the coast of Anglesey. Eon McNeill who was one of the volunteers’ leaders was on board the “Nugget” to supervise operations from seaward.

Erskine Childers and Conor O’Brien both served with the Royal Navy. Both came through World War 1, but in 1921, O’Brien while sailing “Kelpie” single-handed through the North Channel, set his alarm in order to awaken him after grabbing an hours sleep, but the alarm failed to go off and the “Kelpie” ran ashore on the Scottish coast and was wrecked. Conor O’Brien rowed ashore in his dinghy and stepped on the quay wall of Portpatrick. The Scots looked after him very well.

So ends the story of the “Kelpie” but the “Asgard” story continues. We must fight on to have her returned to the site of her greatest achievement, Howth, and have our government recognise the bravery of the fishermen of Howth and Donegal, who participated in the birth of our nation.

Yours sincerely,

Brian Doyle (Fisherman),
Comhar Iascaire Éirean Teoranta,
6 West Pier,
Co. Dublin.

Paul Shave

yacht Blue Spindrift

19 July 2010


Bow of the St George

Deck of St George, bow to stern, starboard side.

Two winch barrels and actuating levers

Interior of the deck house soon after the arrest

Hold looking forward

The engine looking aft through the engine room bulkhead

Engine from the deck house looking forward

Looking down on the engine from the deckhouse