Charlie McGuinness and the Freida gun run to Waterford November 1921

A Guest post by Conor Donegan.           

Two weeks ago, Dr Pat McCarthy, the foremost expert on the Irish revolutionary period (1912 – 1923) in Waterford, gave a very well attended lecture on the landing of a significant shipment of arms at Cheekpoint by the IRA, the centenary of which occurs this week. The talk, hosted by the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society, has stoked a renewed interest in the events which occurred locally during what was a turbulent and dramatic time. The arrival of the Frieda in Waterford Harbour in November 1921 was perhaps the most important and consequential moment in East Waterford’s experience of the War of Independence, apart from the Pickardstown ambush at Tramore, and yet up until now it has remained largely obscure and unknown to most local people. Though I could never hope to tell the story as eloquently or in such a detailed manner as Dr McCarthy, I hope to at least make what is a fascinating tale of heroism and adventure, more accessible and understood.

  The War of Independence officially came to an end with a ceasefire between the IRA and Crown forces on 11th July 1921, with the Anglo-Irish Treaty being signed five months later on 6th December. The ‘truce period’, as it came to be known, was a time of great uncertainty for both sides of the conflict. The peace was fragile and the fear of a sudden resumption of war was constant. The ceasefire had come as a blessing to the republicans who had been running severely short of arms and ammunition in the weeks and months beforehand. Thus, one of Michael Collins’ top priorities was the smuggling into Ireland of large quantities of such arms from abroad, even though such a scheme would violate the terms of the truce and lead to a violent backlash from the British if discovered.

            A number of failed gun-running operations ensued, including attempted shipments from Italy and New York.[i] In late 1920 Robert Briscoe was dispatched by Collins to Germany to purchase arms, which were in plentiful supply in the aftermath of the First World War. Briscoe would later serve as a Fianna Fáil TD and become the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin. Storing his purchases in a warehouse in Hamburg, Briscoe travelled to Waterford in June 1921 to consult with Pax Whelan, O/C of the Déise Brigade of the IRA, to arrange for a landing at Helvick. The visit almost ended fatally for Briscoe; on his arrival at the brigade HQ at Cappagh, he was at first mistaken for a spy and was very nearly executed, until his true purpose was revealed via interrogation.[ii] Briscoe reported that the main problem would be the transport of arms to Ireland. Originally it was proposed to ship them via submarine, but the man Michael Collins chose to be skipper, Charlie McGuinness, ridiculed the idea and instead suggested that a very ordinary-looking vessel be employed so as to avoid suspicion. Collins agreed and gave him £30,000 to buy such a boat.

Robert Briscoe. Source: https://www.revolutionaryirishamerica.com/bob-briscoe

McGuinness was perhaps one of the most exotic characters to have played a role in this whole period, his life worthy of an epic biographical film. Widely known to be an excessive drinker and also fond of exaggeration, he was a Derry-man who fought with an IRA flying column in neighbouring Donegal, and enjoyed the reputation of being a ‘daredevil sea captain’.[iii] His 1934 memoir Nomad described him as ‘an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer’, though he was also at various times a set-maker in Hollywood, a construction worker on Long Island, an author of children’s books, a jailbreaker, a bush-fighter and a Volunteer with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).[iv] He would be lost at sea in 1947, his body never recovered. Some later summarised that he had been selected by Collins to go to Germany merely ‘to get him out of the way’. Nonetheless, McGuinness was recognised as an able skipper, and as someone with quite a bit of luck. Travelling back to Hamburg with Briscoe in September, he purchased a leaky trawler called the Anita, and after several weeks of repairing her, he attempted to sail Briscoe’s purchases out of the port but was quickly detained by local police. Having discovered McGuinness’ motive, the police were bitterly disappointed at having foiled a plot against their recent British enemies, and at his subsequent trial, the renegade skipper was fined a paltry 2,000 Deutschmarks, with the German judge privately wishing him better luck next time![v]

The intriguing and mysterious Charlie McGuinness, captain of the Frieda. Source: Irish Independent, 30 August 2020

            The discovery of the Anita caused uproar in the British cabinet and at the peace talks in London, Prime Minister David Lloyd George warned Collins and Arthur Griffith that the government would take decisive action to punish any threat to the terms of the truce. Though Collins feigned ignorance, Royal Navy patrols on the southern coast were ramped up. Undeterred, McGuinness and Briscoe purchased a small tug, the Frieda, and a 3,000-ton tramp steamer called the Karl Marx. On 28 October, the Frieda towed the Karl Marx out of Hamburg under the pretense of sea trials. The steamer was cast off and sailed up and down the coast for a few days in order to draw the attention of the Royal Navy, whilst the plucky tug set a course for the south coast of Ireland. She was laden with 20,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 guns, mostly consisting of Mauser rifles and C96 pistols, more commonly known ‘Peter the Painters’.[vi] Briscoe stayed behind in Germany and sent word of the successful departure to Liam Mellows, director of purchases for the IRA. McGuinness and his crew endured rough weather throughout the entire voyage (being forced to take shelter in the Frisian Islands at one point), so much so that they ended up being several days late for their rendezvous with local Volunteers of the West Waterford IRA who had assembled at Helvick to offload the cargo. By the time the Frieda approached the west Waterford coast a heavy fog had set in, and a British cruiser sat anchored in Dungarvan Bay. Writing in the Waterford News in 1937, McGuinness explained the reason for the failure to land at Helvick:

‘Off Mine Head we opened up the light at Ballinacourty Point and edged in towards the steep promontory of Helvick. I signalled, as pre-arranged, with an electric torch, but there was no response. We cruised slowly up and down all night, flashing signals at intervals, but no welcoming flash replied. I learned afterwards that this misunderstanding originated in Dublin, where we had been given up for lost or captured. Owing to the exceptionally bad weather, we were nine days overdue, and after leaving Hamburg, had been cut off from all communication’.[vii]

Mauser C96 pistol, aka a ‘Peter the Painter’

            McGuinness made the bold decision to run for shelter in Waterford Harbour, barely making it in time before the Frieda’s coal ran out. He described the daredevil journey in Nomad:

            ‘Sunday morning. We head up for the Hook off entrance to Waterford River. Reach that point about nine o’clock. We pass Dunmore and its coastguard station, but we hoist no signals past Duncannon Fort on up to Passage. Here all vessels must signal or report, but we keep steadily on, paying no heed to signals flying there. Above Passage we ran on bank, and, after manoeuvring, manage to get Frieda off… We keep steaming on, and where the river divided in two at the island we take the old channel to port, and, out of sight in a sheltered anchorage, we let go anchor at noon’.[viii]

The Frieda had made it to the safety of King’s Channel, The Island, just downstream from Waterford City. There is some debate over the precise date on which the tug came to Waterford, with the 9th and 10th of November being the most frequently cited. However, both McGuinness is his diary and Dr Vincent White, the Sinn Féin Mayor of Waterford, in his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, claim that the landing took place on a Sunday, which would point to the 13th of November as the most credible answer.

McGuinness rowed ashore and made his way into the city in search of the local IRA. He was directed to the house of Dr White, and the two of them rowed back down the river to the vessel, White having organised Volunteers under the command of Jeremiah Cronin to offload her. Aboard the Frieda McGuinness and his German crew drank a toast to White, though the doctor himself was quite unimpressed: ‘I lifted the glass to my lips and took a draught. My breath practically stopped – I had not been in the habit of drinking schnapps. When the toast had been duly honoured, I so manipulated my glass so as to ensure that the remainder of its contents spilled on the deck’.[ix]

Dr Vincent White, the Sinn Féin Mayor of Waterford. Source: National Library of Ireland

            The precise location at which the arms were taken off the Frieda is also a topic of debate. Vincent White’s BMH Statement gives the impression that she stayed where she was and was unloaded at The Island. McGuinness’ diary states that ‘as there was not sufficient coal to raise steam (our last shovelful went into the boiler when we drifted to an anchor), we warped the Frieda alongside the little jetty at Cheekpoint’.[x] However, Andrew Doherty and Pat McCarthy have also pointed to the possibility that she was brought downriver to a point between Faithlegg and Cheekpoint known as the ‘Jetty Sleepers’ and her cargo discharged there. The area is accessible, but secluded, and motor vehicles could get there with ease. Wherever the landing actually occurred, IRA Volunteers quickly got to work passing the precious guns and ammunition along a human chain to two five-ton lorries and four motor cars. They were then transported to an arms dump at the Keating family home at Comeragh, one of the staunchest republican families in the county (Pat Keating was killed at the Burgery ambush outside Dungarvan in March 1921. His brother Thomas fought for the republican side in the Civil War and was killed by the Free State army in April 1923). Over a period of time these arms were distributed to IRA units throughout the country, mostly in the midlands and the north. Though a welcome boost at the time for the IRA, the arms from the Frieda never fired a shot against the British, as the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed less than a month later. Tragically, they would instead be used by Irishman against Irishman in the cruel Civil War which would erupt in June 1922.

King’s Channel looking east or downriver towards Faithlegg, The Island is on the left, Waterford City is upriver. The Frieda anchored here on Sunday 13th November.
The Jetty Sleepers between Faithlegg and Cheekpoint, the location favoured by Andrew and Pat McCarthy.

            As for the Frieda, she only barely avoided capture by a Royal Navy patrol as she left Waterford Harbour, making it to the safety of Boatstrand where McGuinness sold her to a Captain Jeremiah Collins of Cork. What happened to the flagship of the nascent ‘republican navy’ subsequently is a mystery. In his memoir, McGuinness stated that Captain Collins employed the vessel to ferry stores for the Royal Navy in Cork Harbour and renamed her Warrior, and then, ironically, was actually commandeered by the IRA in March 1922 and used to intercept the British admiralty tug Upnor at Ballycotton, taking her cargo of munitions. However, Eoin Neeson claims that the Warrior was a tug owned by Lloyd’s, based in Cobh, and was not a reconfigured Frieda.[xi] Perhaps this was an example of McGuinness’ renowned exaggeration in action, though one can appreciate the irony and farce of the tale had it been true! The dynamic duo of McGuinness and Briscoe organised another successful gun-running operation in Waterford in April 1922 when the schooner Hanna landed at Helvick. Her cargo would be used, at the behest of Michael Collins, to arm the IRA in the north in their campaign to kill the six-county state at birth.

            Ernie O’Malley, one of the most famed guerrilla rebels during the War of Independence, disparaged Waterford’s role in the war, saying that the county ‘had not done much’. Certainly, in comparison to more active neighbouring counties such as Cork and Tipperary, Waterford, in particular the East, appears to stand as one of the weaker counties in terms of revolutionary activity. Yet as Dr Emmet O’Connor has pointed out, Waterford was the only county to have played host to a successful IRA arms landing during the 1917-1923 period. The disaster of the Aud shipment in County Kerry on the eve of the 1916 Rising was not repeated in the Déise. Mayor White rightly described it as a ‘great adventure’ and was still recalling the brilliant escapade with pride over thirty years later: ‘As I watched the last lorry climb up the hill with its precious load, destined for the Comeragh hide-outs, I was a satisfied and happy man. The gun-running had been carried out by our men without a hitch’.[xii] One hundred years on from the landing of the Frieda, it is right to pause and remember a momentous event in Waterford’s local revolutionary history.

Monument at Ballinagoul pier, Helvick commemorating the attempted landing of the Frieda in November 1921, and the arrival of the Hanna in April 1922. Hopefully a similar physical marker can be erected at Cheekpoint in the not-too-distant future.

I’d like to thank Conor for taking the time to write this article to commemorate the Freida gun run to Waterford. Conor was a great support to Niamh Hassett and I over the past few months as we tried to piece together the various elements to this story with a view to marking the event. We were also thrilled that Michael Farrell and the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society agreed to support an application for funding to the Waterford City and County Council sub committee which in association with the Decade of Centenaries Programme of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media provided funds towards a programme of community projects to mark the Decade of Centenaries in 2021. This funding enabled the Dr Pat McCarthy lecture recently in the Woodlands Hotel. We will continue to try to flesh out this story more over the coming weeks and months. If time allows I will try to give a more detailed rationale for the choice of the Jetty Sleepers as the landing point in a subsequent blog post. Andrew Doherty


[i] O’Connor, Emmet, ‘Waterford and IRA Gun-Running, 1917-22’, Decies, No. 57, (2001), pp. 184 – 186

[ii] Ibid, p. 187

[iii] Ibid

[iv] MacSuibhne, Breandán, ‘On the extraordinary memoirs of an Old IRA gunrunner and adventurer’, Irish Independent, 30 August 2020

[v] O’Connor, Emmet, ‘Waterford and IRA Gun-Running, 1917-22’, Decies, No. 57, (2001), p. 188

[vi] McCarthy, Pat, The Irish Revolution 1912-23: Waterford, (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2015), p. 93

[vii] Waterford News, 23 April 1937

[viii] McGuinness, Charles, Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer, (Methuen, London, 1934), p. 176

[ix] White, Dr Vincent, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement No. 1764, p. 27

[x] McGuinness, Charles, Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer, (Methuen, London, 1934)

[xi] Neeson, Eoin, The Civil War 1922-23, (Poolbeg Press Ltd, Dublin, 1989), p. 98

[xii] White, Dr Vincent, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement No. 1764, p. 28

2 Replies to “Charlie McGuinness and the Freida gun run to Waterford November 1921”

  1. Another amazing story from Waterford Harbour –
    Not glorifying the tale but it would make some good film (for a limited audience)
    (I tried posting this earlier but the “Captcha” yoke threw me out)

    1. Hi Kev, its a new anti spamming feature, the spam had got out of hand I’m afraid. And yes I agree, a great movie

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