On 26 July 1914, a white yacht, the Asgard, arrived in Howth with a cargo of 900 rifles and 29000 rounds of ammunition smuggled from Germany. Up to a thousand Irish Volunteers and Fianna scouts were there to unload the guns, while the harbourmaster, coastguards and police were ordered away from the vicinity. The Volunteers then marched with the arms to Dublin, and the “Old Howth Guns” were used in the Easter rising of 1916. The yacht, owned and sailed by Erskine and Molly Childers, is now preserved and on display at the National Museum in Dublin. The “Howth gun-running” was a pivotal event in Ireland’s long struggle for independence, and is commemorated every year at the site where the Asgard docked.
The harbour was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with much of the stone being quarried at nearby Kilrock. In 1811, 300 of the workers rioted. A detachment of soldiers was called in by Lord Howth to quell the riot and some of the labourers were so severely maimed that they did not survive, while six of the ringleaders received lengthy jail sentences. In all, over 600 labourers were employed in the building of the harbour and to accommodate them, over 150 houses were built in Howth. A new church was built c.1814 by the labourers, and to honour their work, commemorative carvings were incorporated in the front of the building depicting the wagons used to haul stones for the harbour. The church later became the parochial hall.
On August 12th 1821, the nobility and gentry of Dublin turned out at Dun Laoghaire for the arrival of King George IV. Banners flew and bands played, and a crowd estimated at 200,000 awaited the British monarch. However, at a quarter past four, the steam packet Lightning moored instead in Howth, where a small crowd of onlookers witnessed the King, unattended by a single soldier, disembark and shake hands with several farmers and fishermen. The imprint of his footsteps were cut into the landing stone at the time and can still be seen at the end of the West Pier..
There had been previous quays at Howth and its use as a port is well documented in medieval times. In 1323 food prices had risen dramatically in England and Europe due to famine, and with supplies already scarce in Ireland as a result of the invasion of Edward the Bruce of Scotland, ten guards were appointed by the government in order to prevent ships from leaving the port without permission and to prevent the exportation of food.
Despite the occasional presence of pirates (see previous post “Howth and pirates”), Howth was considered one of the most convenient ports for traffic from England, and notable people who disembarked here included Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (father of the future king Richard III) in 1449, and Lord Mountjoy (the Lord Deputy who defeated Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell at the Battle of Kinsale) in 1600.
The most unwelcome arrival was probably in 1347, when the Black Death came to Ireland. It appeared first in Howth, where apparently it resulted from a visit by a Chinese ship. By July the epidemic had reached Dublin and then it quickly spread throughout the country, killing up to a third of the population. Similar to other European countries, the highest mortality appears to have been in the towns; and as most of the Anglo-Normans lived in towns with the native Irish spread throughout the countryside, the plague was perhaps one factor in the Gaelic resurgence of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Howth harbour, of course, has always been home to a local fishing fleet, and the industry reached its apogee in the late-nineteenth century when the herring fishing drew boats from all of Ireland, England, Wales and especially from Scotland. By 1878, almost 1000 boats congregated in Howth for the herring season. A church was built for the mainly Scottish presbyterians, the Mariners Hall on the West Pier. While the fishing industry has declined greatly, particularly since joining the EU, Howth is still a working harbour with a sizeable fishing fleet. In 1994, a memorial was erected on the harbour to all those lost at sea
Overlooked by the picturesque St Mary’s Abbey and Tower Hill, the harbour today is a major tourist attraction, with a large marina, cafes, bars, markets, promenade, and playground, and is a good place to start a “Heritage tour” of Howth