Remembering Erskine Childers
June 25th 1870 Robert Erskine Childers was born in London.
When Erskine was six, his father died from tuberculosis and, although seemingly healthy, Anna was confined to an isolation hospital, where she died six years later.
Erskine and his siblings were sent to live with the Barton’s, the family of their mother’s uncle, at Glendalough, County Wicklow who were Anglo-Irish landowners.
He grew up with a very pro-British view on Irish affairs even disagreeing with his cousin Hugh Childers MP who argued for Home Rule in the British Cabinet.
While in Trinity college Cambridge studying law he became president of the college debating team and editor of the college magazine.
He got his degree in law and by 1895 he was working in the House of Commons as a junior committee clerk with talk of him maybe becoming an MP like his cousin Hugh.
He was very fond of rugby but an injury he sustained while hiking limited his sporting activities, so he took up rowing and then sailing.
In 1893 he bought his first boat named Shulah which he learned to sail alone on the Thames Estuary.
The next year he bought a Dublin Bay Water Wag, a 13-foot type of sailing boat usually sailed in Dun Laoghaire, pear-shaped with a single gaff-rigged sail, he became a very good sailor while practising in Lough Dan near his home in Glendalough.
Bigger and better boats followed: by 1895 he was taking the half-deck Marguerite across the Channel and in 1897 there was a long cruise to the Frisian Islands, Norderney and the Baltic with Henry in the thirty-foot cutter Vixen: a voyage he repeated in the following spring.
His good sailing skills would come in handy for Irish Republicans later but for now, he was quite firmly pro-British, and this was very evident when in 1900 he signed up for the city imperial volunteers to fight in the Boer War for Britain.
He wrote about his experiences in the Boer war in a book called “In The Ranks Of The C.I.V.” and letters he sent to his sisters were also published.
It is suggested that it was the Boer war that Childers began slowly but surely to lose faith in the British Empire as he believed the war could have been avoided and wasn’t supportive of British actions during the war.
In 1903 he wrote his most famous of books “The Riddle Of The Sands” an espionage novel. This book became very popular.
On a trip to the United States in 1903, he met and married Mary "Molly" Alden and he returned to London with his new wife in 1904.
Molly helped Erskine rid himself of his already faltering imperialist views but both loved mixing with the elite which his house of commons job gave them access too.
Despite his earlier views, he was now a supporter of home rule and much of that was due to a holiday motor tour he took with his cousin Robert Barton inspecting agricultural co-operatives in the south and west of Ireland, areas ravaged with poverty.
In 1910 he decided to join the liberal party who were pushing for Home Rule, he outlined his reasons for supporting Home Rule in his 1911 book “The Framework For Home Rule”.
He resigned from his job so he could stand as a candidate for the liberal party in the naval town of Devonport, but when the Liberal party watered down their eagerness for Home Rule because of threats of violence from Unionists in 1912 Childers resigned as a candidate and from the party.
When the Home Rule Bill was postponed because of the impending world war he wrote more critically of Britain’s role in Ireland and in July 1914 he used his Yacht the Asgard to smuggle German weapons into Ireland at Howth in a direct response to unionists importing arms into Larne in April of the same year.
Despite smuggling arms for Irish Republicans, a month later he decided to volunteer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and became a lieutenant, he believed Britain winning the war would be good for Ireland.
The violent suppression of the Easter Rising in 1916 dismayed Childers and he described a proposed British Bill to extend military conscription to Ireland as "insane and criminal".
Despite his reservations about the rising he continued helping the British during WW1 and even become an intelligence officer in the newly formed Royal Airforce in 1918.
By March 1919 he had left the RAF and returned to Wicklow by orders of his doctor to get rid of his serious bout of influenza.
This was a major turning point for Erskine as this is where his cousin Robert Barton introduced him to Michael Collins who in turn introduced him to Eamon de Valera the President of Sinn Fein.
It is then that Childers is convinced that only an Irish Republic would suffice and gone was his view of dominion status/home rule for Ireland.
He was made the director of publicity for the first Dail of 1919 but there was many in the Republican leadership that mistrusted him, seen him as a traitor or even a British spy.
He published more books in 1920/1921 criticising British rule in Ireland and was elected as a TD for Wicklow for Sinn Fein in 1921 but lost his seat in 1922 when he ran as an anti-treaty candidate.
When the truce was called with the British in 1921 Childers was part of the Irish delegation which met with the British to hammer out a treaty.
Childers was very much against the final draft of the treaty which was agreed on in December 1921 and he became head of publicity for the Republican forces during the civil war.
This made him a hunted man especially after Collins was assassinated in 1922, in response the Free state made it a capital offence to carry an unlicensed firearm.
By this time Childers had become ostracised from the Republican movement as many seen him as to famous to be able to do anything.
On November 10th 1922 Free State forces burst into the Barton mansion in Glendalough where Childers was staying and found a small gun that Michael Collins had given him as a gift.
He was put on trial by a military court for possession of a 32 calibre semi-automatic pistol in violation of Emergency powers, on November 20th he as found guilty and sentenced to death.
With his appeal still pending Erskine Childers was executed on November 24th in Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin by firing squad.
Childers' body was buried at Beggars Bush Barracks until 1923 when it was exhumed and reburied in the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.
Erskine was an unlikely rebel but his contribution especially his role in the Howth gun-running must never be forgotten.