Illuminations: Captain Robert Monteith, The Forgotten Man
By: J. Michael Finn
Historical characters are sometimes placed on a shelf, and occasionally they have to be brought down and dusted off. One such character is Captain Robert Monteith.
Robert Monteith was born in the village of Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow, Ireland on March 1, 1879. His parents were Joseph Monteith and Mary Dillon, together they had nine children.
Robert joined the British Army in January 1895 when he was just 16. He gave his age as 18. In October 1896 he was assigned to the Royal Horse Artillery in India. He served three years in India on the North-West frontier where he was awarded the India Medal. From India, Monteith was sent to South Africa in January 1900, to participate in the Boer War.
His military record in South Africa was significant, as he received battle clasps on his South Africa Medal for Tugela Heights in February 1900; the Relief of Ladysmith in March 1900; the Battle of Bergendal in August 1900; and Laing’s Nek in June 1901.
When the Boer War ended, Monteith returned to Dublin in April 1903. He served in the Army Reserves in Dublin until he was discharged in January 1911. He obtained a civil service job working at the Ordinance Depot in Dublin. While in Dublin he met Mollie McEvoy, a widow with three children. Monteith married Molly in the autumn of 1909.
In August 1913, a general strike was called in Dublin by the Irish Transport and General Workers Union(ITGWU). Deaths and injuries resulted when the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary used excessive force against the strikers.
Monteith witnessed the savagery as the police ruthlessly attacked strikers and innocent bystanders. As a bystander, he was injured when an officer’s baton struck him and knocked him to the ground. In a similar incident, his 14-year-old daughter Florence returned home with a blood soaked head after being clubbed by a policeman. Monteith decided that he needed to get involved with the movement to end British rule in Ireland.
Monteith met with Tom Clarke, who was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Clarke recognized his potential as a former British soldier and suggested that Monteith join the newly formed Irish Volunteers. His abilities were quickly utilized as Monteith was elected Captain of “A” Company, 1st Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. He was recognized as having a particular aptitude for training men.
Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Monteith was approached by the British Army and asked to re-enlist. He refused on the basis that he would not betray the men he had been working with in the Volunteers. On November 12, 1914, the day following his meeting with the British Army, Monteith arrived at his job at the Ordnance Depot to discover he had been fired without explanation. Twelve hours later, he was served with a deportation order from Dublin in accordance with the Defense of the Realm Act.
Monteith’s written response to the British deportation order was, “I have done nothing which is illegal or contrary to your laws but in future I will; and for every shilling you have paid me a month I will make the British government pay sovereigns a day. Now you see how England can make rebels.” On Tom Clarke’s advice, Monteith relocated to Limerick and picked up on his role as captain and drill instructor for the Volunteers there.
By 1915, planning by the IRB for a rebellion against British rule had begun. Sir Roger Casement was sent to Germany to seek German assistance. There was a plan to recruit and outfit a brigade of Irish prisoners of war to serve as an attack force to assist in the rebellion.
Monteith was asked to undertake a secret mission to go to Berlin to assist Casement in training the brigade. Monteith was secretly smuggled out of Ireland to the United States. Once in the US, John Devoy assisted in sending him to Germany to join Casement.
The plan to recruit Irish POWs did not work out well. Monteith had a handful of volunteers, enough to form the Berlin Irish Brigade. He was able to recruit additional men, but the German government had difficulty in feeding and supplying the small force. This lack of German support caused them to abandon the brigade idea.
In March 1916, a communication was received from the IRB stating that the Rising would begin on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916. The dispatch also requested a shipment of arms to be delivered to the County Kerry coast on Easter Sunday.
Monteith took charge of planning the operation with the Germans. Their suggestion for transport was a cargo ship that had been disguised as a Norwegian trader ship called the Aud. The amount of arms offered was 20,000. Monteith argued that such a number was insufficient, but his argument proved futile.
The plan was for Monteith, Casement and Sergeant Daniel Bailey to travel to Ireland via submarine. The preparations were made and on April 11, 1916 they embarked on their journey aboard the submarine U-20. Mechanical problems forced them to transfer to the smaller U-19. The Audalso left Germany for Ireland. Unfortunately, unknown to the German navy, the British had broken the German military code and they were already waiting for their arrival.
The submarine arrived early off the southwest coast of County Kerry on Good Friday, and was supposed to rendezvous with the Aud. There was no sign or signal that anyone on shore was prepared for their arrival.
British destroyers were following the Aud. Monteith, Casement and Bailey were left with no choice but to go ashore in a small boat. Their attempt to land safely proved difficult as the Atlantic was rough and their boat capsized. After an hour of arduous work, they managed to reach the shores of Banna Strand near Tralee.
The Audwas chased by a British destroyer to Cork Harbor, where it was scuttled by the German Captain. The U-19 returned to Germany.
On the beach, their mission continued to unravel. The new plan was to hide Casement in a secure location and for Monteith and Bailey to locate the commandant of the Tralee Volunteers. A local farmer had notified the RIC of the landing and Casement was arrested near the beach.
Monteith and Baily arrived in Tralee only to learn of Casement’s arrest. Bailey was soon captured. Monteith was able to avoid capture. With Casement captured, Monteith on the run and the German arms at the bottom of Cork harbor, the mission was over.
Monteith spent the next number of months in hiding in various locations throughout Ireland before escaping back to his family in New York in December 1916. In the 1920s he worked for Irish freedom, speaking often in Ohio and recruiting for the Friends of Irish Freedom. He then purchased a farm in Detroit, Michigan where he worked for the Ford Motor Company.
Monteith retired and in 1947 returned to Ireland, where he and Mollie lived for six years before returning to the US. Robert Monteith passed away on February 18, 1956. He is buried in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Detroit. His life story has been immortalized through his book Casement’s Last Adventures (1953), where he documents the tales of his time as an Irish Volunteer.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.