Illuminations: Erskine Childers
By: J. Michael Finn
Robert Erskine Childers was born in Mayfair, London, England on June 25, 1870. He was the second son of Robert Childers, an oriental scholar from an Anglican family, and Anna Mary Barton, who was from an Anglo-Irish landowning family of Glendalough House, County Wicklow.
When Erskine was six, his father died from tuberculosis. His mother died six years later. The five children were sent to live with the Bartons at Glendalough, County Wicklow. The children were treated kindly by the Bartons and Erskine grew up knowing and loving Ireland.
The Bartons sent Erskine to boarding school at Haileybury College in England. There he won a scholarship to Trinity College in Cambridge, where he studied law. A back injury he sustained while hiking bothered him for the rest of his life; it left him slightly disabled and unable to pursue his intention of playing rugby.
With many sporting ventures now closed to him because of his disability, Childers was encouraged by a friend to take up sailing. In 1893, he bought his own “scrubby little yacht,” Shulah. Bigger and better boats followed. In 1897, he took a long cruise to the Frisian Islands, off the coast of Germany, in his thirty-foot cutter Vixen.
As with most men of his social background and education, Childers was originally a steadfast believer in the British Empire. In 1898, as negotiations failed over the voting rights of British settlers in the Boer territories of South Africa, the Boer War broke out. Childers needed little encouragement to enlist.
Serving as an artilleryman in the Honorable Artillery Company, Childers was a driver caring for a pair of horses and riding them in the ammunition supply train. The unit set off for South Africa on February 2, 1900. On June 26, Childers first came under fire. His unit was dispatched back to England on October 7, 1900.
In 1903, Childers published his most famous novel, The Riddle of the Sands. The book enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I. It is an early example of the spy novel and was extremely influential.
The novel combines Erskine’s love of sailing and knowledge of the Frisian Islands to successfully shine a light on German militarism as a potential threat to Britain. Mystery writer Ken Follett praised Childers’ book as “an open-air adventure thriller about two young men who stumble upon a German armada preparing to invade England.”
In the autumn of 1903, Childers travelled to the United States. He spent his time exploring New England on a rented motorcycle. One day his motorcycle broke down outside the Boston home of Dr. Hamilton Osgood, a prominent physician. Childers went to the home to borrow a wrench and was invited in for dinner.
There he was introduced to Dr. Osgood’s youngest daughter, Mary (Molly) Alden Osgood. The well-read republican minded heiress and Childers became attracted to each other. Molly Osgood and Childers were married at Boston’s Trinity Church on January 5, 1904. As a wedding gift, Molly’s father arranged for a fine 28-ton sailing yacht, Asgard, to be built in Norway for the couple.
In 1910, Childers switched his attention to support for Irish Home Rule. He was alarmed by the failure of the British government to prevent the unionist gun-running at Larne, in Ireland. As a result he became involved in what became known as the “Howth Gun Running.”
In May of 1914, a committee of nationalists was set up to raise funds to purchase arms. Republicans Roger Casement and Darrell Figgis negotiated the purchase of 1,500 rifles and 49,000 rounds of ammunition from arms dealer Moritz Magnus in Hamburg, Germany, to arm the Irish Volunteers.
Childers paid for the arms, arranged for the transfer and used his yacht to secretly transport the arms from Germany. Childers, his wife Molly and Mary Spring Rice piloted the Asgard and on July 12, 1914, the arms were transferred from a German tugboat to Childers’s yacht. The Asgard sailed into Howth harbor on July 29, where the arms were handed over to the awaiting Irish Volunteers.
In what seems like an obvious contradiction to his gun running activities on behalf of the Irish Volunteers, Erskine enlisted in the British Naval Air Service in August 1914 at the onset of World War I, where he served as an intelligence officer, until 1919.
In March 1919, Childers made the decision to move to Ireland and to use his writing skills to aid Sinn Féin propaganda. His family left their comfortable world in England at the end of 1919 to live with him in Dublin.
For the rest of his life, Childers concentrated exclusively on Irish affairs. He joined the IRA and was appointed Director of Publicity for the First Dáil Éireann. He was the architect of the Republican movement’s successful propaganda campaign during the War of Independence.
At this time, Childers became a close friend to Éamon de Valera, and his ideas appear to have had some influence on de Valera. However, Childers was not trusted by everyone; Arthur Griffith called him “that damned Englishman,” and due to his British intelligence associations, many in the republican movement suspected him of being a spy. After the May 1921 election, he became a Sinn Féin member in the Second Dáil.
Childers was appointed one of the secretaries to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. During the negotiations he secretly reported back to de Valera on developments, and had increasingly strained relations with Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.
The British delegation also regarded Childers as a harmful influence during the negotiations and set up private meetings with Griffith and Collins in order to bypass him. He became one of the fiercest public opponents of the 1921 Treaty and sided with the Anti-Treaty Republican forces during the Civil War.
Childers was soon living on-the-run, fearing arrest by the Free State Forces. Childers was arrested on November 10, 1922, and was charged with possession of a small pistol, given to him as a keepsake by Michael Collins. He was convicted by a Free State military court and sentenced to death.
Erskine Childers was executed on November 24, 1922, by firing squad at the Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin. Before his execution, he shook hands with the firing squad. His last words, spoken to the firing squad, were: “Take a step or two forward, lads; it will be easier that way.” Childers’ body was buried at Beggars Bush Barracks until 1923, when it was reburied in the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. Éamon de Valera said of him, “He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest.”
The Childers had three children. Noteworthy among them was Erskine Hamilton Childers, who later became the fourth President of Ireland (1973-1974). Molly Childers died on January 1, 1964 at the age of eighty-nine. She survived to see eight grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren.
*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.