Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 7 April 2022
Journeys to a Free State: The Capture of the Upnor
The turbulence behind the Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty sides took a darker turn when across February, March and April 1922, the IRA, particularly Anti-Treaty elements, began to seize sizable amounts of weapons from evacuating British forces.
On 29 March 1922, the Upnor, which was a British arms ship, was captured by members of the Cobh IRA company. It was departing Cork Harbour with its second load of arms, which amounted to 400 rifles, 40 machines guns, hundreds of thousands of rounds of .303 ammunition and numerous crates of high explosive. A plan was devised to capture the ship. Michael Burke, Officer in Command of Cobh IRA wrote an account of the raid on the ship.
In March 1922, Michael was in Cork attending a parade in honour of the late Tomás MacCurtain when he was informed that the Brigade Officer in Command, Seán Hegarty, wanted to see him before he returned to Cobh. He met him and the Brigade Staff (Cork No I Brigade) when he was told that a British War Department vessel, named Upnor, was landing warlike stores in Haulbowline for delivery at Woolwich Arsenal. Michael was told to make arrangements for her capture at sea. After her capture she was to be taken to Ballycotton where she would be unloaded. The Brigade would arrange for the unloading and transport of the cargo.
Michael was also advised to contact one of his men in Haulbowline who would let him know when the Upnor was putting to sea. He was then to phone the All-For-Ireland Club, Emmet Place, Cork where the Brigade Staff were standing by. He outlines in his account; “Returning to Cobh, I detailed a man to get in touch with our representative in Haulbowline and inform him that he was to send me word when the Upnor was ready to leave, whilst towing a barge. I then organised a crew to man the boat which was to proceed after the Upnor. Several of the men I recruited were not members of the IRA”.
A week or so elapsed and then word was sent that on 29 March the Upnor was sailing at 11am that day. She was known to carry hundreds of rifles, machine guns and many hundred boxes of ammunition, Verey lights and suchlike war stores. Michael got in touch with Brigade HQ immediately and soon a car came from Cork with about fifteen Cork IRA men, amongst whom were Mick Murphy, Tom Crofts and ‘Sando’ Donovan, all Brigade Officers. Mick Murphy carried a Lewis gun.
With the Cork men was a sea captain named Collins who was to take over the captaincy of the Upnor when she was captured. He was not an IRA man. Arrangements previously made to commandeer a boat to follow the Upnor to sea did not materialise but luckily the tugboat Warrior had berthed at Deepwater Quay, Cobh that day about noon.
Michael and his crew boarded her and found the captain had gone ashore. Putting his own crew aboard they went in search of the captain. He describes: “We could not put to sea until we located him; if we put to sea and he returned to the quay to find his boat missing he would report the fact to the Admiralty and the alarm would be given”. Michael describes that they searched hotels and shipping offices in the town and eventually found him in the very last office we tried. They took him prisoner and placed him under an armed guard in the Rob Roy Hotel.
The time was now gone 2pm and the Upnor had at least two hours or more of a start on them. Michael and his crew gave chase. He describes: “We got aboard the Warrior with Captain Collins in charge of her and made for the open sea. Our lads worked so hard on the engines that the original crew, who were aboard, were afraid the boilers would burst and they offered to do the job themselves. We agreed to this”.
Leaving Cobh Harbour Michael told Captain Collins to strike a course for Waterford. He had no idea of what was afoot and did as he was told. When they got outside the harbour there was no sign of the Upnor so he asked the Captain to alter course for Portsmouth. He did this. They sailed on the Portsmouth course for several hours and just as dusk was falling, they sighted the Upnor and her escort of two armed trawlers.
The trawlers were about two miles from the Upnor and in front of the Upnor. She was making slow speed as she was towing a barge. Michael describes that they closed in on her; “One of our lads shouted to her captain to stop, saying we had an important message for the captain at the same time waving an official looking envelope. She stopped. We lowered a boat and a few of us went aboard her. We produced our guns and held up the captain and any of the crew in sight. Mick Murphy ordered the captain, at the point of a Lewis gun, to leave the bridge”.
Meanwhile the Warrior had pulled alongside the Upnor and a further party of lads came aboard the latter. Darkness had now fallen. They were from thirty to forty miles off the Irish coast and the British trawler escort had gone ahead oblivious of the fact that the Upnor with its precious cargo had changed hands. The journey to Ballycotton was uneventful. Michael details: “We tied up at the pier at about 4am on 30 March 1922 and the task of unloading commenced. There were upwards of one hundred lorries of all kinds and the same number of men, all from the Cork Brigade, waiting to unload and take away the cargo and it was not until about 6pm that the last lorry left the pier”.
Just as they were preparing to leave Ballycotton on the last lorry a grey shape loomed up at sea. It was the British man-of-war searching for the missing Upnor. Apparently the Upnor’s escorts tried to make contact with her and failing to do so informed the British naval authorities that something was amiss.
1145a. Picture of Upnor, Cork Harbour, c.1922 (picture: Cork City Library).