In the Irish nationalist folksong, Me Old Howth Gun the singer praises a rifle that was smuggled into the port of Howth near Dublin past British customs prior to the 1916 Easter Rising with “you proved a friend indeed when you made the bullet speed” (“Me Old Howth Gun.” There Is Sorrow in My Heart / Me Old Howth Gun, https://www.musicanet.org/robokopp/eire/howthgun.htm.) The smuggling of guns into Ireland prior to the Easter Rising and during the War of Independence was crucial to the success of the Irish Nationalists in the South and the Unionists in the North. “Gun running” remains intricately linked in the popular imagination of the IRA both during the Irish War of Independence and in the Troubles having provided the plot for novels, television series, and movies. Yet, as W.H. Kautt correctly identifies in Arming the Irish Revolution: Gunrunning and Arms Smuggling, 1911-1922, the supply of weapons to Ireland from 1911-1922 is largely unstudied and the key figures unknown. This is surprising, as Kautt reveals that the Irish Republican Army (IRA)’s arms acquisition program is an engaging story with interesting figures worthy of retelling and in-depth exploration. Furthermore, “gun-running” remained a key part of the IRA’s post-independence campaigns and continues to be romanticized.
Although the Decade of Centenaries commemorating the century of Ireland’s independence and partition has largely focused on Ireland and the United Kingdom, Kautt begins Arming the Irish Revolution by placing the Irish Revolution into the wider European historical context. This is extremely helpful as it provides a better understanding of the ideological influences on both sides of the conflict as well as possible sources of weapons. It is only with this background information that one can understand how so many weapons could be acquired so easily: Europe was literally awash with weapons. Kautt’s Arming the Irish Revolution is an engaging operational history. He focuses on the planning and execution of major logistical operations. Kautt devotes chapters to the functioning of the Irish Volunteers’ Quartermaster’s Corp, the arms centres which were created to produce armaments, the foreign arms trade; and concludes with a description of how these logistical operations continued during the truce and into the Irish Civil War. That the IRA had a well-developed and functioning armaments procurement system is conclusively demonstrated by Kautt.
Kautt’s detailed accounts of smuggling and explosive manufacturing are riveting and detail a complex ever-changing military operation. The previously unstudied manufacturing of weapons is particularly interesting, and Kautt’s detailed explanation of how civilian industries were used to support the Irish campaign for independence is a valuable new addition to the historiography. It also provides further evidence of the vast support required by the nationalists in the War of Independence. Kautt’s evidence demonstrates how difficult it was for the British authorities to stem the flow of munitions and explosives, a problem that would bedevil anti-IRA operations in the Troubles half a century later. This problem was because Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom precluded standard military practices being undertaken for fear of further alienating the Irish whom the British hoped would remain in the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, Kautt demonstrates that the IRA was a learning organization. An insurgent must learn and adapt to counter measures adopted by the counter insurgency forces. The IRA’s ability to change and adapt its logistical system was crucial to its eventual success. Every time the British developed a new method to intercept or disrupt the flow of arms, the IRA developed a new tactic for obtaining weapons which ensured that the war became ever larger and IRA logistics more complex. The IRA’s procurement and production of weapons continually evolved throughout the conflict. This allows Kautt to conclusively demonstrate that the IRA was not forced to accept the treaty because it lacked weapons as has been commonly argued. The IRA was not a defeated force and used the ceasefire prior to the reaching of the Anglo-Irish Treaty to rearm and reequip. This is a valuable addition to the historical debate that will force historians to reconsider the reasons for Irish acceptance of the treaty ending the war and granting the Irish Free State Dominion status while Northern Ireland remained separate.
The general and the academic reader will enjoy Arming the Irish Revolution with its detailed biographical sketches of the individuals involved. These provide a human face to an aspect of war that is often anonymous. The biographies are crucial as gun running was dependent on the persons involved, who were not professionals, but volunteers serving a movement, a trend that continued throughout the troubles. Indeed, the arming of the Irish Revolution was personality-driven and in this the logistics of the IRA resembles many elements of the Irish Revolution. These individuals having been brought out of obscurity provide us with a deeper and better understanding of how the IRA functioned. Future historians will be able to use Arming the Irish Revolution to explore how the logistics efforts intersected with other aspects of the Irish Revolution and subsequent Civil War.
Kautt’s penultimate chapter “Assessment of Republican Arms-Procurement Campaigns, 1918-1921” is unquestionably the best chapter in Arming the Irish Revolution. Kautt lays out his criteria for assessing the gun-running and gunrunners and shows how they succeeded and failed at the tactical and operational levels. This methodological approach will be useful to historians exploring other revolutions and insurgencies as it establishes a formula that can be used to evaluate the success of other logistical efforts. The statistical charts included elevate Arming the Irish Revolution from good to great. They allow the reader to step back and gain a deeper understanding of the scale of the IRA’s logistical effort and why the British were unable, given London’s unwillingness to treat Ireland as a war situation, to stem the tide.
Despite the impressive research that supports Arming the Irish Revolution—there are almost 100 pages of notes—and the engaging stories that support Kautt’s argument, Arming the Irish Revolution is not perfect. Each chapter is extremely insightful, but the chapters abruptly end and do not naturally lead into the subsequent chapter. An individual chapter could easily be assigned as a course reading, but the general reader may be jarred by this approach. As an operational history Arming the Irish Revolution is excellent, but a reader not well versed in Irish history may at times be unable to place events into the wider Irish and British historical context. Indeed, how the various units Kautt discusses fit into the wider IRA is sometimes not entirely clear. A reader without a solid background in the War of Independence may be confused. Nevertheless, Arming the Irish Revolution is an excellent book that will be consulted by historians for years to come. It has greatly enhanced our knowledge of the war and IRA operations while also placing the war and the IRA in a global context.