Erskine Childers was an amazing man. I don’t use that word lightly.
He was born in Mayfair in 1870, educated at Haileybury and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became chairman of the debating society and editor of the Cambridge Review, the university magazine. His father, an oriental scholar, died of tuberculosis when he was six; and his mother, who was from an Anglo-Irish landowning family, of the same disease when he was 11. After her death he would go to the family home in Glendalough in Ireland to stay during school holidays.
He was a keen sportsman, in particular a rugby player, but sustained a sciatic injury, so he took up sailing. He taught himself in the Thames estuary, in 1895 he crossed the channel alone, and in 1897 made the first of many voyages to the Baltic, along the German coast and around the Frisian Islands (where the name, Frisby, comes from by the way). These trips along the German coastline would become the inspiration for his book, The Riddle Of The Sands, which was published in 1903. Widely regarded as the first spy thriller, it has since become one of The Observer’s Hundred Greatest Books Of All Time, not only motivating politicians such as Churchill – who later said the book was the reason they installed naval bases in Rosyth, Invergordon and Scapa Flow – but also inspiring authors such as John Buchan (The 39 Steps) and Le Carré . The Riddle Of The Sands predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness. (The authorities should have listened). It still reads well today.
Motivated by his expectation of war with Germany, Childers wrote two books on cavalry warfare, both strongly critical of what he saw as outmoded British tactics. Given the disasters which befell the cavalries of all armies in WWI – again – if only they’d listened.
With this aristocratic, public school and Cambridge background, having fought on the front line in the Boer War, with contemporaries such as Churchill, who at this stage greatly admired him (and who as first Lord of The Admirality in 1914 had Childers draw up plans for an invasion of Germany via the Frisian Islands) , a degree in law, with this tremendous gift with words, this foresight and this imagination, the hit novel of his generation under his belt, having now had several years experience rising through the ranks in the House Of Commons, and even winning a Distinguished Service Cross for his work in Gallipoli in WWI, the platform was there or him to become on of the great men of the British Empire.
But he didn’t. Ever his own man, he chose another path. This champion of the British Empire became one of the most extreme Irish nationalists, devoting his life to Ireland in its fight against the British for home rule and independence. This was a choice that would eventually cost him his life.
It seems this change was gradual. An early disillusionment with Britain’s empire policy was his realisation that, given more patient and skilful negotiation, the Boer War could have been avoided.
Perhaps the first major deviation from the “chosen path” came in 1912. “Childers resigned his post as Clerk of Petitions to leave himself free to join the Liberal Party, with its declared commitment to home rule, and in May 1912 he secured for himself the candidature in one of the parliamentary seats in the naval town of Devonport,” says Wikipedia. “As the well-known writer of The Riddle of the Sands, with its implied support for an expanded Royal Navy, Childers could hardly fail to win the vote whenever the next election was called. However the Liberal Party, although relying upon Home Rule MPs for its Commons majority, in response to threats from the Ulster Unionists of a civil war, began to entertain the idea of exempting some or all of Ulster from Irish self-government. Childers abandoned his candidacy and left the party.” He was ever a man of principle.
In 1914 he was even running guns for the Irish, smuggling 900 rifles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition on his yacht, the Asgard, from Belgium to Hoath near Dublin to arm the Irish Volunteers.
In 1919 he became ill and retired from London to his family home in Glendalough in Ireland, where he was introduced by his cousin, Robert Barton, to the Irish revolutionaries, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera and, eventually, Arthur Griffith. But, on account of his Englishness, he was never quite trusted, particularly by Griffith.
In 1919 he was made Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament. In 1920 he published Military Rule in Ireland, a strong attack on British policy. And in 1921 he was elected to the Second Dáil as a Sinn Féin member.
In 1921, when the time came to negotiate the Anglo-Irish treaty, Childers was in many ways, as both a man of the Empire and a man of Ireland, the ideal man to do it. But he was shut out of the negotiations by both sides, who, for various reasons, both seemed to fear him. He was vehemently opposed to the final draft of the agreement, particularly the clauses that required Irish leaders to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British king, and he fell out very publicly with Arthur Griffith. The treaty continued to divide Sinn Féin and the IRA, and Ireland descended into civil war on 28 June 1922. Childers became the inspiration behind the propaganda of the Republican movement (IRA). But he was hated – and feared – by those in Sinn Féin who had now become his enemies, even though they all ultimately wanted the same thing – an independent Ireland.
In November 1922 his whereabouts were betrayed and he was arrested for “possession of a fire arm”. This was a pistol that Michael Collins had given him many years before for his own protection, when the two were still on the same side. But “possession of a firearm” had – deliberately it seems – just been made a crime punishable by execution. He was sentenced to death on November 20th and four days later, before his appeal could be heard, executed.
Some men are strong. Others aren’t. Childers was a strong man, right up to the last. As he stood in front of the firing squad, clearly framed, refusing to be blindfolded, the soldiers struggled to do what they had been ordered to do. “Stand forward, men,” he told them. “You’ll find it easier that way”.
Looking back at the problems that have dogged Ireland over the last 100 years, the thousands of deaths that have ensued, it seems Childers was right to be so uncompromising about Home Rule. If the British and the Irish had listened, who knows what might have been? And who knows what Childers might have gone on to become?
Winston Churchill had actively pressured Michael Collins and the Free State government to make the treaty work by crushing the rebellion. He said of Childers : “No man has done more harm or shown more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.” Is that right?
Eamon deValera, the head of Sinn Féin, said: “He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest”.
He was the one they feared the most, the able, principled traitor.
On Thursday November 22nd the following docu-drama was broadcast on TG4, the Irish language TV station, about Erskine Childers’ life: Erskine Childers – Damned Englishman. Directed by Jerry O’Callagham with Ronan Fox as D.O.P., Jessica Regan as Mollie Childers and yours truly as Erskine. It lasts 50 minutes. Enjoy it.
I never knew anything about the man before I got to Ireland in July 2011, but ending up developing this a close bond to this amazingly talented and multi-faceted, uncompromising man. I can’t thank Jerry O’Callaghan enough for giving me this opportunity and for giving me one of the most fantastic fortnights I’ve ever had. I fell in love with Ireland then. Jerry cast me without ever auditioning or even meeting me. “Ah well,” he said. “I knew you could do the voice. And you look like him. I saw your picture on the internet.” If only the BBC or, better, Hollywood worked like that.