Sunday, 4 May 2014
The forgotten surgeon who
masterminded the Kilcoole
gunrunning 100 years ago
This summer sees the centenary of the Howth and Kilcoole gunrunnings, only days before the outbreak of World War I. The Howth gunrunning continues to be remembered in history, and the key figures involved were members of the Church of Ireland. But why is the Kilcoole gunrunning largely forgotten, and why do we seldom hear about the key figure involved, Sir Thomas Myles (1857-1937)?
Myles was a prominent Irish surgeon and an active member of the Church of Ireland, but his name has been written out of many accounts of those events in 1914.
The Myles family were prominent merchants in Limerick City and the surrounding area since the mid-17th century, and they are remembered to this day in street names such as Myles Street and James Street.
The future Sir Thomas Myles was born in Limerick on 20 April 1857, probably in Catherine Street, and was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, on 27 May. His youngest brother, the Very Revd Edward Albert Myles (1865-1951), was Rector of Tullylish, Co Down, and Dean of Dromore.
Thomas Myles was a promising sportsman from an early age. In 1873, he played in the first rugby match ever played in Limerick. The following year, he was on the winning rowing crew at Castleconnell. Local legend says he was the first to swim Kilkee Bay, Co Clare, giving his name to ‘Myles’ Creek.’
He entered Trinity College Dublin in 1873 with his brother John Thomas ‘Jack’ Myles (1855-1934). As a medical student, he was a prominent member of the Dublin University Boat Club. His brother Jack was capped for Ireland against England in the first Irish rugby international match in 1875, and played in the first Munster team against Leinster at College Park in 1877.
Home Rule supporter
As a student, Thomas Myles became a supporter of Home Rule, a term coined by the Revd Joseph Allen Galbraith (1818-1890), a Church of Ireland priest and a Senior Fellow and Bursar of TCD. Myles was one of the early members of Protestant Home Rule Party formed by Galbraith in the early 1870s.
After graduating in medicine in 1881, he became the resident surgeon in Dr Steevens’ Hospital. One of his early calls in 1882 was to attend to the victims of the Phoenix Park murders, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his Under-Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke. He was one of six doctors who performed the post mortems in the present US Ambassador’s Residence.
He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (FRCSI) in 1885, and until 1890 he was resident surgeon at Jervis Street Hospital. Meanwhile, he took part in the inaugural meeting of the Dublin branch of the Irish Protestant Home Rule Association in 1886. He continued to be a consistent supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell.
On 21 April 1888, in Saint Peter’s Church, Dublin, he married Frances Elizabeth (Fanny) Ayres, daughter of Canon George Ayres (1813-1881), Vicar of Kilbride, Blessington, and Prebendary of Mulhuddart in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.
That same year he was received the degree MD at TCD in 1888, and in 1889 he became the first Professor of Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He was still only 32, and was then a surgeon in the Richmond Hospital.
In 1900, he became President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. With this came the freedom of his native Limerick in 1900 and a knighthood in King Edward VII’s coronation honours list in 1902.
As Sir Thomas Myles, he remained an active campaigner for Home Rule, but he was not involved in the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in the Rotunda in Dublin on 25 November 1913. However, as an enthusiastic yachtsman and the owner the wall-known Chotah, he soon became intimately involved the political events that were unfolding.
In April 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force landed 24,000 German riﬂes and three million rounds of ammunition, mostly at Larne. Myles and his yacht were quickly recruited by James Creed Meredith (1875-1942) to help smuggle German guns for the Irish Volunteers. Within weeks, Erskine Childers landed 900 rifles from the Asgard at Howth, north of Dublin, on 26 July 1914 and Myles landed 600 rifles from the Chotah at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, a week later, on the night of 1 and 2 August.
The main participants in the gunrunnings to Howth and Kilcoole were active members of the Church of Ireland. The gunrunnings were first plotted by that first met in the London home of the historian Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929), daughter of Archdeacon Edward Adderley Stopford of Meath, Rector of Kells. The other committee members included Sir Roger Casement, Molly Childers, and the first cousins Conor O’Brien and Mary Spring-Rice (1880-1924), grand-daughter of Samuel Butcher, Bishop of Meath.
Meredith, who recruited Myles to the plot, later became President of the Supreme Court. A younger brother, the Ven Ralph Creed Meredith (1887-1970), was Archdeacon of Waitotara (1925-1932) in New Zealand, Vicar of Windsor, Berkshire (1940-1958), and a chaplain to both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. (In later life, Judge Meredith became a pacifist and a Quaker.)
Robert Erskine Childers (1872-1920), skipper of the Asgard, was a grandson of Canon Charles Childers, a member of well-known English clerical family who intermarried with Barton family of Glendalough House, Co Wicklow. Childers is also remembered because his son, Erskine Childers, became President of Ireland, and the name of the Asgard continued to be used for sail-training vessels.
Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien (1880-1952) from Limerick, skipper of the Kelpie, was a grandson of William Smith O’Brien, leader of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848. Conor O’Brien was also a nephew of the Very Revd John Gwynn (1827-1917), Dean of Raphoe and Regius Professor of Divinity in Trinity College Dublin, and of the Very Revd Lucius Henry O’Brien (1842-1913), Dean of Limerick; his cousins included the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn, closely identified with founding of the Irish Citizens’ Army in 1913, and the late Mercy Simms, wife of the late Archbishop George Simms.
Howth and Kilcoole landings
The gunrunning was masterminded by Erskine Childers, who initially decided to use his 28-ton yacht Asgard, which was laid up in Wales, to smuggle arms and ammunition into Ireland. Childers and Spring-Rice also decided to use O’Brien’s yacht, the Kelpie, and Meredith approached Myles to use the Chotah.
In Hamburg, Childers and Darrell Figgis (1882-1925) bought 1,500 second-hand German rifles and ammunition for £1,500. They were moved to O’Brien’s yacht, the Kelpie, and later transferred off the Welsh coast to the Chotah skippered by Sir Thomas Myles and the Asgard, navigated by Erskine and Molly Childers, and with Mary Spring-Rice on board.
Back in Ireland, there were so many rumours that the authorities were confused. This confusion was compounded by a late change of plans for the Kelpie and the Chotah.
On Sunday 26 July 1914, the Asgard landed its consignment in Howth, where it was met by a group that included Countess Markievicz, Bulmer Hobson and Darrell Figgis. No soldiers were present, for all eyes were on the Kelpie which was expected to land in Dalkey. Instead, it arrived off Bray Head that morning, but was empty. Two days later, on 28 July 1914, Austria invaded Serbia and World War I began. All available coastguards were withdrawn from Ireland, leaving behind a skeleton force to patrol the coastline.
The coast was now clear for Myles and the Chotah, still at anchor off Wales and waiting to sail for Kilcoole. They set sail on Saturday 1 August 1914, as a Volunteer force arrived at the Holy Faith Convent in Kilcoole. As darkness fell, a convoy of vehicles was brought down to the beach from the convent, commanded by Seán Fitzgibbon and Seán T O Ceallaigh, a future President of Ireland.
The Chotah came in as near as possible to the beach, small boats went out to meet it, and rifles and ammunition were ferried ashore. These activities at Kilcoole unnoticed mainly because the police were distracted by a fireworks display to the south in Wicklow.
However, Constable Dalton and Constable Webb from Greystones RIC Station were patrolling the railway line between Greystones and Kilcoole. They spotted the Chotah and an exchange of light signals, but when they headed to Kilcoole Railway Station to contact the RIC Station in Greystones, they were surrounded and taken to Kilcoole by a group of armed men.
By 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, the operation was complete and the Chotah sailed again. The last act of the landing party as they left Kilcoole was to release the two captive constables.
After the landings
No action was ever taken against Childers, O’Brien, Myles or anyone else involved in the landings. But what happened to Sir Thomas Myles after Kilcoole?
Like so many other Irish doctors and medical students, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, becoming a consultant surgeon with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. On 21 November 1914, he was appointed an Honorary Surgeon in Ireland to King George V. He was on duty in Dublin during the Easter Rising in 1916, and attended James O’Brien of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who was shot dead at Dublin Castle on Easter Monday. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath on 1 January 1917.
After the war, Sir Thomas adopted the newest practices in surgery, particularly Listerian antiseptic methods. His obituary in The Irish Times noted that he continued to practice professionally until he was in his mid-70s. He died in the Richmond Hospital, Dublin, on 14 July 1937, and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin.
He has been described as “a great yachtsman, with several beautiful craft under his command.” His later yachts included a 70-ton ketch, the Sheila, and the Harbinger, said to be the “finest of her class afloat.” For probate purposes, the Sheila was worth more than his home at 32 Leeson Park.
Myles the surgeon is commemorated in his native city by the annual Sir Thomas Myles Lecture at the University of Limerick. However, the Kilcoole gunrunning remains one of the lesser known incidents in modern Irish history. While Erskine Childers, skipper of the Asgard, and Conor O’Brien, skipper of the Kelpie, are still remembered, Sir Thomas Myles is largely forgotten.
Today, a stone marker at the railway lines at Kilcoole beside at the beach is a reminder of those events 100 years ago. Sir Thomas Myles is commemorated in the inscription on this simple monument. But he has been written out of history, perhaps because he found a different way to display his loyalty for his country in 1914-1918.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photograph were first published in May 2014 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).