One of the great purposes of this book, all eight hundred and ninety six pages of its slightly smaller than breeze block size, is to fall, with all its ponderous weight, upon the poorly sourced, idiosyncratic 64 page pamphlet of John de Courcy Ireland’s The Sea and the Easter Rising. It does so with a satisfying crunch, effectively replacing that thin and emaciated tome and henceforward becoming, at a stroke, the primary source for the story and, more importantly, for the documents, relating to the steamship AUD’s audacious attempt, on behalf of Imperial Germany, to slip through the British naval blockade and deliver to the Irish Republican Brotherhood on the eve of the Easter Rising, over 20,000 guns, several million rounds of ammunition and a number of large clockwork bombs.
The story is told here in meticulous, even lavish detail. Indeed the detail is rather overdone, for the author has vacuumed up, like some demented Dysonian professor, virtually ever single fact that exists about the Casement arms to Ireland story. He claims that the book covers only 10% of the material he has thus collected, but it feels like, looks like and sometimes reads like not a single fact so gathered has been discarded and that they are all, and I mean all, collected together, here in the 896 page breezeblock.
It is presented as a story of heroes, in particular the heroic German crew of the tramp steamer AUD, all hand picked regular sailors of the Imperial German Navy, who disguised as Norwegian merchant men set out on their great and dangerous adventure to smuggle arms to the Irish. It traces in sometimes fascinating and often tedious detail, the early lives of the German crew, their years of imprisonment by the British and even their post war careers. The core of the AUD’s story, how it avoided the Royal Navy blockade of the Atlantic and Irish Seas, is enriched by a quite brilliant study of the log books and signal traffic of all the British ships involved, including the hapless RNS Setter whose poorly trained crew actually boarded the AUD, searched her for contraband and failed to spot the guns and ammunition or the fact that the crew were German and not Norwegian, even drank whisky with the Captain and left reporting the ship as being no threat and that it should be allowed to proceed.
Treated as equal heroes, but with slightly less reverence are the crew of the German U boat, U19, that brought the leading rebel Sir Roger Casement to Banna Strand in the same secret arms-to-Ireland operation. The Capt. of that U boat, Capt Weisbach, had only the year before, been the torpedo officer, the trigger man, on U boat U20 when it had sank the Lusitania. But as recorded here, in minute detail, he was received as a hero in Ireland during the 1966 50th anniversary celebrations of the Rising, while most of the rest of the world still considered the Lusitania episode as an atrocity of war. In fact it is clear from the book that he was received as a hero in Cobh, no doubt at Casement Square Cobh, named after his brave and martyred 1916 passenger. It had previously been known as Scott Square and had been used in 1915, to lay out the hundreds of civilian bodies of the good Captain Weisbach’s Lusitania victims.
The attempt to land Casement and the arms was in the end a complete failure. Casement came ashore from his German submarine to be arrested with his shoes still wet from the sea. Within four months he was to be hanged for High Treason. The disguised AUD, with its deadly cargo, after a frustrating and extremely dangerous wait for a Republican pilot boat in Tralee Bay, was intercepted by the Royal Navy and escorted to Queenstown (now Cobh) where the crew changed into German Imperial Navy Uniform, hoisted the Reichkriegsflagge and scuttled the ship and were taken as prisoners of war.
There has always been, in Ireland, an often bitter dispute as to why the operation failed and this book, better than any argument ever yet put forward, effectively absolves the German crews, the Kerry Republicans, the Dublin IRB or even the local IRB men from any blame whatsoever and suggests with conviction and evidence that the primary blame lay with Clan na Gael’s John Devoy in America. This book will not end that debate. Such debates simply do not end in Ireland. But it will and does provide, for the first time, the raw material with which to pick your way through it and from which you can, if you wish, reach your own conclusion. I for one accept the authors view.
There is such a wealth of minute detail in this book. Too much in fact. At 896 pages it is far too long. Max Caufield wrote the entire story of the Easter Rising in 456 pages; De Valera’s very substantial biography by Coogan only made 800 pages and Professor Hart’s weighty study of Michael Collins comes in at a mere 485 pages. There is a slight failure here to sort the wheat from the chaff. Yet it by its weight, both physical and intellectual, it will establish itself as an important text on the History of the Rising.
Most historians, in their obsession with gathering information on their chosen subjects, have slight anorak tendencies. They are in abundant display in this heavy and massive tome. Indeed, most people who read such books, including me, share to a lesser degree, the same anorak tendencies. Here, my favourite anorak story, is the information that the mother of the German Capt of the AUD was the great-granddaughter of the famous family of perfume makers “Eau de Cologne” (4711). It is not entirely clear how much this adds to an understanding of the AUD’s gunrunning adventure. It is quite possible that it could lead to “Eau de Cologne” becoming the favourite Eau de Toilette of Republican Activists throughout Ireland. Maybe not. But no one will seriously question the substantial achievement of the author in completing such a comprehensive study of the thrilling story of the AUD, and nor will they question that the book, for all its faults, makes an equally substantial contribution to the history of the sea and the Easter Rising.
Check out the CONTENTS page for more bits and pieces