In some ways, to call Erskine Childers an Englishman is misleading. He died in Ireland as an Irish Republican, having worked tirelessly for the Republican cause since the First World War. He was the father of a president of the Republic. His was the son of an Irish mother. Aged six, when his father died of TB and his mother was sent to a home for incurables, the boy was sent to live in Glendalough with his uncle and aunt. And, truth is, if you can’t fall in love with Ireland at Glendalough, you never will.
For much of his career to describe Childers as an Englishman would be, in fact, pretty accurate. He went to school at Haileybury, and found himself imbued with the high minded Christian Imperialism that institution was noted for. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, he argued vehemently against Irish Home Rule. Like many of his caste, he volunteered for service in the Boer War. Before that war, he had already acquired the rather adventurous hobby of sailing in small boats, including one expedition that took him as far as the German coast. In 1903, his experiences of the Frisian Islands were crystallised in his novel, The Riddle of the Sands. It was a smash hit, a spy thriller, which still reads well, about a threatened German invasion. As such, it serves as one of the first great spy novels and a prime example of the patriotic invasion literature that sprung forth in Edwardian Britain. He would go on to write about the South African war and military strategy. Thus far, there was nothing to distinguish Childers from any other patriotic Englishman )with a bit of Irish about him) of his period.
He was already undergoing an emotional and political reorientation, however. Even in South Africa, he had emerged with no little respect for the Boers, and for the idea of self-determination. On the back of the success of his novel, Childers visited Boston in 1903, where he met and married Molly. They would prove a devoted couple; she was a Republican. When Childers toured Ireland in 1908, his view of the country shifted again.
Republicanism was the ideal of a historic past or the ideal of the youthful few in the world of 1911. Instead, the future was Home Rule. In 1911, Childers published The Framework of Home Rule, now arguing effectively for reform. He had stood for parliament as a Liberal in 1910, but then resigned from the party when it offered to exclude parts of Ulster from a Home Rule parliament. By 1914, the Unionists of the North had formed themselves into the Ulster Volunteer Force and were arming themselves; in respone, nationalist Ireland created the Irish Volunteers. By 1914, Childers was not only part of a committee set up to raise funds for arms for them, but had personally used his own yacht, Asgard, to run 900 rifles into Howth.
On the face of it, his next move might seem perverse, serving in the Royal Naval Reserve, serving at Gallipoli in particular, and winning the Distinguished Service Cross. He helped develop the torpedo boat, and helped plan proposed bombing raids on Berlin. Like many Irish nationalists, Childers had joined up believing he was fighting for the rights of small nations and in the expectation that ‘England Might keep faith’. By the time he returned to England in 1916, all that had changed, to paraphrase the poet once more. Like many, the Easter Rising and, no less, the executions of its leaders that followed radicalised him; again, in common with so many, the ham-fisted attempt to impose conscription in Ireland was the straw that broke the nationalist back.
By the time of the Versailles conference, Childers was a Sinn Fein publicist and editor, and minister. As such he was part of the delegation sent to negotiate with the British, perhaps in the belief that Childers (seated, right) had a particular understanding of the wiles of perfidious Albion.
When those talks neared their conclusion, the delegation was divided. The majority went along with Michael Collins: 26 counties of a partitioned Ireland were to get self-government in the form of a dominion status (a form of virtual independence akin to that of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa). In London, Childers became the focus of opposition to that agreement, which he believed betrayed the Republican ideal.
Having lost the vote narrowly in the Dail (the new Irish parliament) the Republican cause turned to violence and the new free state to violent repression, and Ireland faced civil war. Childers was one of the leaders of the anti-treaty cause. In truth, he confined himself to editing the Republican newspaper. It was enough to blacken his name and make him vulnerable to the draconian powers the new Free State government had taken, however. In November 1922, he was arrested in Glendalough by government forces.
By a bitter irony, his two great rivals in the treaty delegation were dead by then (he wrote them genuinely thoughtful obituaries too). Griffiths, a lifelong Anglophobe, had bitterly attacked Childers as a British fifth column. Arthur’s Griffiths had died days before Collins, a lifelong Republican, was shot by Republicans in Cork. The irony was that upon his arrest, he was in possession of a revolver. The Emergency Powers Resolution passed after Collins death made that illegal upon pain of death. Childers was sentenced to death, primarily because of who he was. The real irony was that Childers’ revolver had been given to him by Collins. Famously, Childers shook the hands of each of the men who shot him.
Pathe News were less than sympathetic.
It was a life of contradictions, that ended in contradictions. The zeal of he convert? The riddle of Eakins Childers? Perhaps the real lesson is that in any form of civil conflict, to say four legs good two legs bad never really works. Childers was both English and Irish, and paid the price for both, in his tragically curtailed life.