In May, 1918, the British Government ordered the arrests of 150 Sinn Féin members alleged to be conspiring with Germany on another uprising. It was a false accusation that would backfire badly on Britain, fuelling momentum for the Irish cause, writes Dr. Richard McElligott.


In the early morning gloom of April 12th, 1918, two fishermen stumbled across a mysterious individual stranded on Crabbe Island, a small rock off the Galway coast. Referring to himself as O’Brien, he claimed to be a survivor of a German U-Boat attack on an American ship. As the fishermen rowed home with their strange and unexpected passenger, they had little notion this errand of mercy would instigate a political crisis that ultimately helped destroy British rule in Ireland.

Once landed, O’Brien immediately attracted suspicion as no recent sinking had been reported by the Americans. When a rubber dingy, slashed with knife marks, next washed ashore, O’Brien was detained and sent to Scotland Yard for questioning.

Under interrogation he was identified as one Joseph Dowling, a former corporal in the Connaught Rangers, whose last known whereabouts was as a German POW.

He had subsequently been recruited from a German prison camp by Roger Casement for his ill-fated Irish Brigade venture prior to the 1916 Rising. The British were convinced Dowling had landed on Crabbe Island from a U-boat, mistaking it for the Irish mainland. To what exact end remains a mystery, but for them the only logical explanation was to act as some form of intermediary between the German government and radical Irish nationalists.

Continue reading in our 1918 centenary issue