Murky waters

Image: The Aud (

by Conor O'Riordan

Conor is an American Study Abroad student from Goshen, New York. He studies History and Physics at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. As his name suggests, he is a second generation Irish-American whose grandparents all were born and raised in Ireland. His mother’s side comes from County Limerick while his father’s side comes from County Galway and Inis Mór. Despite his Irish heritage, his Study Abroad semester at UL was his first time in Ireland - or studying any Irish related courses. In American schools, Irish history is rarely covered, so he wholeheartedly enjoyed learning more about Ireland’s rich history through Dr Mullaney-Dignam's module.

How convoluted communications scuppered the Aud's gun-running mission to Ireland in 1916

Convoluted communications doomed the German arms ship known as the Aud from the start. The ship was originally an English merchant ship that the Germans had captured and refitted to look like a Norwegian freighter. It carried thousands of guns and rounds of ammunition to Ireland with the aim of delivering arms to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) for the 1916 Rising. Key figures in this operation included: John Devoy, the Irish republican fundraiser in New York; the German representatives in Washington D.C.; the Foreign Office in Berlin; and Tom Clarke of the IRB Military Council in Dublin. With so many actors in play, each with different motivations, a misstep was inevitable. It was imperative that the timing of the arrival of the Aud in Ireland was precise but this was lost in multiple miscommunications.

Devoy and the Germans, being far removed from the circumstances in Ireland, misread the situation. Due to how widespread the communication network was, and the lack of fail-safes in place, the exact date of the Aud’s arrival was still being discussed just weeks before the 1916 Rising, something which doomed the entire operation. This essay will argue that excessive secrecy and miscommunication resulting from poor planning doomed the Aud expedition. The excessive secrecy of the Military Council and the length of time it took for word to travel from Ireland to New York prevented Devoy from being up to date with the latest plans. Similarly, the Germans and Devoy compromised on a range of dates rather than an exact date. Lastly, the Irish nationalists had no way to warn the Aud to wait until Easter Sunday to arrive because the ship lacked wireless communication devices.

Historians have thoroughly researched the infamous Aud expedition. Some have even speculated on what may have occurred in the Easter Rising if the arms ship was successful. Florence O’Donoghue, the leading historian on the Irish-German relationship involving the 1916 Rising, has written on the complexity of the correspondences between the Germans and Irish, and speculated on what information notable figures such as Devoy knew of the Rising on key dates. Speculation is necessary due to the impenetrability of the subject material for despite the extensive communication network - and the paper trail left behind - there remains a large gap of knowledge. After the Rising, Devoy was the only living Irish coordinator with the Germans; the British had executed Tom Clarke and the other members of the Military Council. As O’Donoghue has noted, the only other major sources are documents generated by Karl Spindlers, the captain of the Aud, account and the letters between the Irish and the Germans the British collected in Documents relative to the Sinn Fein movement.[1] Ruan O’Donnell has taken a different approach by researching how other nations viewed the 1916 Rising.[2] With Devoy using the German embassy in Washington D.C. to communicate with Berlin, it is important to consider how forthcoming - or not - the United States government was with information it had gathered about the plot to British authorities. This essay will argue that miscommunication within the Irish ranks and between the Irish and the Germans dashed any hope for a successful operation.

The operation hinged on the arrival of the Aud which was unclear right up to its arrival on Thursday evening 20 April. The date and location of the ship were still undecided and under discussion by Devoy and the Germans as late as March so when the Germans finally did receive a definitive date for the Rising on Easter Monday, 23 March, it was too late for the Germans to make the necessary accommodations. All that was known for certain to Devoy and the Germans by the end of 1915 was that an insurrection would occur around Easter. The Military Council was too secretive in this regard as evident by witness statements. Seán O’Kelly recalled in 1952 that at no time did Clarke and McDermott, members of the Military Council, 'ever say to me that a Rising will take place on either Easter Sunday or Monday, 1916. I had to deduce that for myself.’[3] O’Kelly went on to state that they only discussed the Rising in vague references even among trusted friends. If O’Kelly, who was in Ireland at the time, was uncertain about the exact date, then how was Devoy in New York supposed to know?

However, the evidence shows that on 17 February Devoy sent a request to Berlin via the German embassy in Washinton D.C. for arms to be delivered to Limerick, Ireland, between Good Friday and Easter Saturday.[4] Devoy understood that the Rising would take place on Easter Sunday 22 April if the guns would arrive and be distributed the day before. Devoy sent this telegram after receiving word from Dublin; Tommy O’Connor, an IRB courier, left Dublin in early January and arrived on 5 February in New York to deliver a letter containing information regarding the Rising to Devoy.[5] This implies that by the beginning of the year, the Military Council had decided on Easter Sunday, 22 April 1916, for the outbreak of the Rising, not Easter Monday. There would be no other reason for Devoy to provide the Germans with an exact date if he did not consider this to be the beginning of the Rising.

With the secrecy of the Military Council in Dublin, the length of time it took to communicate between Ireland and America, and with the urgency to close out the deal with the Germans, Devoy then made a rational decision to accept Germany’s conditions of a range of possible dates for the arms shipment to arrived in Ireland. The Germans offered the range of dates first in their correspondence sent on 1 March and received on 4 March by the German embassy in Washington D.C. It stated: ‘Between 20 and 23 April, in the evening, two or three steam-trawlers could land … at the entrance of Tralee Bay.’[6] This was the Germans’ response to Devoy’s request for the arms to be delivered to Limerick between Good Friday and Easter Saturday and appears to have been the first time that a range of possible dates entered this already complex situation.

A range of dates, from a logistic standpoint, made sense to the Germans, for unlike Devoy who lacked information on local conditions in Europe, they were bombarded by information from three different sources: the German Foreign Office in Berlin who worked with Devoy through the embassy in America; Roger Casement who was still meddling in this affair; and Joseph Plunkett, who went to Germany to represent the Military Council for six months in 1915.[7] They were then well-informed and not solely reliant on Devoy’s second-hand information from Ireland; they were, for example, aware that Fenit in Co. Kerry was being considered as a possible landing site instead of Limerick. The Germans had likely dealt with a range of conflicting information from several sources to consider their best course of action. Since Easter Monday, 23 April 1916, was not evidently confirmed as the start of the Rising, the Germans likely proposed the range of dates to cover any discrepancies in their understanding of proposed action and considered the date a suggestion. Otherwise, it would be odd for the Germans to respond with a range of dates to Devoy’s telegram that provided an exact date. There may be some missing correspondences between the Germans and Devoy, but Devoy agreed to the range of dates on the 12 March by telegram through the embassy.[8] After this, Devoy sent his messengers back to Ireland to tell the good news but by the time word reached Ireland at the end of March at the earliest, it was already too late for the safe arrival of the Aud.

The reason that there was no time to change the date was due to a massive oversight about the condition of the ship, or supposed ships, and the signals to communicate with the German crew and the Irish. On 24 March, the Foreign Office in Berlin sent word to the embassy stating that there would be three trawlers and a small cargo steamer carrying 1,400 tons.[9] In the end, only one cargo ship sailed to Ireland with a façade that bewildered Karl Spindler, the German captain of the Aud, and an Irish eye witness. Karl Spindler wrote that, ’she looked much bigger than she really was because of her lofty upper-works’.[10] Mortimer O’Leary later recounted that he had assumed that the ship he saw on the evening of 20 April could not possibly be the Aud on account of its size! O’Leary was stationed in Fenit in case the arms ship arrived before Easter Sunday; the IRB could not risk a large group on the lookout, for it would draw the attention of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Nevertheless, O’Leary did not recognise the ship as the promised arms ship. He testified that ‘he thought she would be a small boat … I saw a two-masted Steamer of about 3,000 tons…she was so much larger than the size of the boat which Tadg Brosman’s description had suggested to me’.[11] This discrepancy in the size and the number of the ships showed how much miscommunication thwarted this operation.

Even worse, the nationalists on the scene did not know the signals to make contact with the Aud only a few days out from the Rising. O’Leary stated that Tadg Brosman never mentioned any signals to communicate with the Aud, so O’Leary could not use the green lights his sister witnessed as proof of the Aud’s early arrival.[12] This lack of information by Brosman highlighted the miscommunication within the Irish ranks; the people meant to bring the Aud ashore knew nothing about the proper signals to use. It is bewildering for the historian to consider that the Aud had no wireless communication devices on board - a grievous mistake by the Germans as even the Irish were under the impression that the ship had a wireless transmission device - they sent out code words to help identity the ship and its estimated date of arrival in a telegram.[13] The Irish were also to blame for, as Patrick McCartan, a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB, pointed out: ’They [Tom Clarke and the Military Council] acted on the assumption that the Germans were so through and perfect in all their arrangements … It was this false assumption that was responsible for the Aud’s arrival and no one there to meet it’.[14] With no communication device on board when the German ship left on 9 April, there was no way to contact Captain Spindler to change plans or to change the date. This shattered any hope for the ship to arrive on the now fixed date of Easter Sunday. In a futile effort to change the date, Miss Plunkett sailed to New York to warn Devoy while Count Plunkett went to mainland Europe to warn Casement.[15] But the Aud had already set sail.

The alliance between the Irish nationalists and the Germans relied on a convoluted, complex web of communication and secrecy. If people like Sean O’Kelly were not completely aware of the fixed date for the Rising, then Devoy (who relied on month-old information from couriers) would be unaware as well. The Germans attempted to be pragmatic by offering a range of dates which Devoy accepted. However, both parties being far removed from Ireland and unaware of local conditions would not have realised that it would have been impossible to monitor the coast. A large group of people would have aroused suspicion from the local police. In the end, Devoy accepted the deal on 14 March according to the embassy’s telegrams which made it impossible to change the date due to how long it took for word to reach Ireland from New York. There may have been a chance if there were wireless communication devices on board the Aud, a fact that the Irish were unaware of. If there was any hope for a successful operation, as Florence O’Donoghue has noted, the date should have been fixed by the beginning of the year. The chance for a successful rising was slim already; the lack of German guns was the final nail in the coffin.


[1] Florence O’Donoghue, ‘Plans for the 1916 Rising’ in University Review, 3 (1963), p. 4 

[2] Ruan O’Donnell, The impact of the 1916 Rising among the nations (Dublin, 2008), p. 93 

[3] Statement by Seán O’Kelly, November 1952, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21 [hereafter BMH], 1913-21, WS 1765, p. 218 ( (4 May 2017).

[4] Letter from Count Bernstorff in Washington to Berlin officials, 18 February 1916, in Documents relative to the Sinn Féin movement (London, 1921), p. 10, Trinity College Library Dublin/Samuels Collection/Box 3, ( (4 May 2017).

[5] Florence O’Donoghue, ‘The failure of the German arms landing at Easter 1916’ in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 71 (1966), p. 53.

[6] Telegram from the Foreign Office in Berlin to the German Embassy in Washington, 4 March 1916 in Documents relative to the Sinn Féin movement, p. 10.

[7] Turtle Bunbury, Easter dawn the 1916 Rising (Cork, 2015), p. 140.

[8] Wireless transmission from the German Embassy in Washington to Banker Max Moebius in Berlin, 12 March 1916 in Documents relative to the Sinn Féin movement, p. 11.

[9] Telegram from the Foreign Office in Berlin to the German Embassy in Washington, 24 March 1916 in Documents relative to the Sinn Féin movement, p. 11.

[10] Karl Spindler, The mystery of the Casement ship (Tralee, 1965), p. 35.

[11] Statement by Mortimer O’Leary, 13 March 1948, BMH, WS 107, p. 1 ( (4 May 2017)

[12] Statement by Mortimer O’Leary, BMH, WS 107, p. 2.

[13] Telegram from the German Embassy in Washington to the Foreign Office in Berlin, 21 March 1916 in Documents relative to the Sinn Féin movement, p. 11.

[14] Statement by Patrick McCartan, 15 December 1952, BMH, WS 766, p. 45 ( (4 May 2017)

[15] Florence O’Donoghue, ‘The failure of the German arms landing at Easter 1916.’ in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, p. 58.