M.L.'s in the Service of the Irish Free State

Many thanks to Gary Acheson for compiling the following information from his formidable library.

In January 1922, following the War of Independence and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State came into being. Among the first actions taken was the creation of some force to establish a government presence in coastal waters. In the absence of a duly constituted Customs force, smuggling - especially of arms - could be expected. In May of that year it was decided to purchase four naval 80 foot motor launches, each to be armed with a twelve-pounder gun and equipped with a 'continuous wave wireless set with a range of 50 miles'. As Daire Brunicardi notes in The Sea Hound: The Story of an Irish Ship "This decision is interesting. It marks the first decision of a modern Irish Government with regard to some form of maritime defence force, and it was taken before the demands of the Civil War required it."

The purchase of four motor launches was confirmed on May 11, 1922 through an English Agent - Messrs Goad & Proctor - at a cost of £1,100 each [considerably more than would ultimately be asked when being sold directly to the public - JLC]. At this point, the vessels were renumbered by the Irish authorities as ML's 1 - 4. The original Royal Navy numbering of these ML's has yet to be determined. The vessels were inspected at Southampton by Lieut-Commander Cooper, RNR. Arrangement were made for the MLs to be delivered from Southampton to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) by Lieut-Commander Blay, RNR, and crews.

Upon boarding the vessels, the 12 pounder guns and wireless sets expected were found not to be fitted. Instead 3 pounders - probably those installed during the War - were fitted as armament. As a result the insurance premium to be paid by the Irish was lowered to £90 per vessel. The flotilla left Southampton on 18 July, 1922, in fair weather. Within 24 hours, the weather had deteriorated to a partial gale. While rounding Land's End ML 2 struck something in the seaway and began taking on water, contaminating her fuel supply. After repeated attempts by ML 4 to maintain a tow and by the crews to keep up with the flooding and repair the fuel situation, ML 2 was abandoned to her fate. ML 4, herself damaged in the events, carried both crews to harbour at Bideford. ML 3 put in at Illfracombe. Only ML 1 made the passage directly to Dublin where she was immediately put on the ways at the Port and Docks Board slip in Alexandra Basin in need of immediate attention. Later, while still at Bideford, ML 4 suffered an engine room fire at the quayside in which the whole after end of the ship was heavily damaged. Fortunately her hull and engines were intact and she was repaired and restored to service.

Their arrival in Irish waters came just after the outbreak of the Civil War. The moves to establish the authority of the Dublin Government in the South and West utilised the ML's to move small forces through those areas following the flanking movement of Government troops into Munster by several larger vessels.

Eventually, the three remaining ML's were incorporated into the Marine Investigation Department of the new Irish Army. They appear to have been based in Haulbowline in Cork Harbour (the naval base near Cobh - formerly Queenstown), as well as Fenit, Galway and Killybegs. Their area of operations extended to all Western and Southern waters.

They are several notes that the crews of the ML's at this time were made up of Aran Islanders - men certainly familiar with conditions on the West coast. A crew typically consisted of Captain, Mate, 1st and 2nd engineers, two gunners, a cook and one seaman. [Essentially the same complement as a Royal Navy ML in which the Mate would be a Sub-Lieutenant, and the gunners, cook and seaman would be rated as deckhands or leading deckhands. -JLC] The discipline of an established Navy appears to have been missing. Their organization seems to have given them elements of Army and Navy, civilian and military.There was one famous incident where the Marine Superintendant boarded ML 4, sans sentry, unbeknownst to the crew. The Mate was dismissed as a result.

By early 1924, with the Civil War winding down and the Army establishment being greatly reduced, the Marine Investigation Department was disbanded. The ML's were incorporated, on paper, into the nascent Coastal and Marine Service, but in reality were mothballed in Haulbowline. The creation of a true Naval Service was blocked by drastic economies as well as the specific prohibition on a "Navy" contained in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. By mid 1924, the ML's and other vessels had been disposed of to various buyers.

Sources used in compiling this account:
Daire Brunicardi The Sea Hound: The Story of an Irish Ship Collins Press, 2001
Tom MacGinty The Irish Navy: A Story of Courage and Tenacity The Kerryman, 1995
A History of the Irish Naval Service Naval Base, Haulbowline, 1989