By David Gahan
With events commemorating the Easter Rising expected to reach a high point in Dublin this weekend, aspects and events surrounding the Rising are rightly being looked at from various angles. The story of the Aud, its captain, crew and cargo of arms is one such aspect of the 1916 narrative and a chance discovery of some text from a talk given by Karl Spindler, captain of the Aud added some new insights to this story.
The story of the Aud is often overshadowed by the landing of Roger Casement from a German U-boat, on the Kerry coast on the same day and his subsequent arrest, imprisonment and execution in August 1916. The background to this is the efforts of Clan na Gael in America and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland to secure an arms shipment from Germany to help stage an insurrection in 1916. John Devoy, a Clan na Gael leader had numerous meetings with members of the German Consulate in New York, including Franz von Papen, to help facilitate this operation. Casement was already in Germany to further this and pursue his plan of raising an Irish Brigade from Irish prisoners of war, though Devoy was sceptical of this and wary of some of Casements plans. Robert Monteith was also sent by the Clan to Germany. In early March Devoy received word that a ship with 20,000 rifles and ammunition would arrive in Tralee Bay on the morning of 20 April, Holy Thursday. But on 14 April Devoy received a hand delivered message from Ireland that the arms must not be landed before Easter Sunday night. This spelt disaster for the operation as the Aud which had no wireless on board, was already on its way to Ireland to rendezvous on the agreed date.
Karl Spindler relates how he was tasked with choosing twenty-one men for an expedition of which he did not know the plans; was given command of a ship, the Libau and that arms were loaded onto it in Lübeck. Here they realised this was not a normal wartime operation when they changed from German uniforms into common dungarees. The ship was provided with official papers and ‘became’ a Norwegian vessel, the Aud. The efforts to disguise the ship were meticulous, the crew were ordered not to shave and to walk about with their hands in their pockets while in the view of other ships. Norwegian newspapers and books were provided, pictures of girls and letters were put up all over the ship, in cupboards etc. The crew could not speak Norwegian but were to speak in low-German if encountered by the British in an attempt to disguise their nationality. Spindler even bought a dog in Lübeck to have on board, ‘every sailor knows that every tramp steamer has a dog’ and he was to be visible if enemy ships were passing.
Through skilful navigation and planning Spindler managed to steer the Aud through four British blockades. At four o’ clock in the afternoon, 20 April, they reached their rendezvous point, Innistooskert Island in the middle of Tralee Bay. They waited until noon on Good Friday for some signal from the shore which was not forthcoming, then with a British patrol boat approaching them they left the bay but later that evening were surrounded by British ships and instructed to proceed to Cobh. The next morning as the Aud entered Cobh, the crew raised the German Ensign and scuttled the ship.
Though part of the German planning was precise, to send a ship without a wireless and the make-up of the cargo, fifteen-year-old Russian rifles that had been captured on the Eastern Front, raises some doubt over their commitment to the expedition.
Casement had been put ashore on Good Friday, but weak from sickness and the exertions of rowing to dry land was left at McKennas Fort, Banna Strand while his comrade Monteith sought aid. Casement was captured some hours later; Monteith remained on the run for eight months before a passage was secured returning him to America.
These events happened in Kerry and off the South-West coast on Good Friday/Easter Saturday, one hundred years ago.
David Gahan is a final year Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, Maynooth University.