Becoming his father's son


The young Erskine Childers was a boarder among sons of wealthy English families as his father was being executed in Ireland. A new book on the'alternative' school, which asked Childers to leave after his father's death, reveals a glimpse of the young exile's life. Kieran Fagan reports

I saw Erskine Childers just once. He had just voted - presumably for himself - in the election which made him president of Ireland in 1973. There was some low-level barracking from a crowd of young men as he left the polling booth. He seemed flummoxed, vulnerable, almost childlike for a moment, then the professional politician's mask fell back into place.

There's another sighting of the child who grew up to be the fourth president of Ireland in a newly published book. He was a boarder at a somewhat unusual English public school when his father - also Erskine - become deeply involved in Irish affairs and was executed by people who had once been his comrades.

Imagine this. You are a teenager at a rather posh boarding school. You are English, as is your father. He had been a major in the newly formed RAF and had been decorated for bravery during the first World War. Now he was an Irish nationalist. He became notorious, an Englishman turned Sinn Féin TD and minister, lost his seat, and took the losing side in the Civil War which laid waste to so much of the hope there had been for the infant Irish state.

And you are at school with the sons of members of the House of Lords and of MPs, a school where clergymen sent their sons. Donald Maclean, the British diplomat who defected to the USSR would attend, as did the poet W.H. Auden, the composer Benjamin Britten and Lord Reith, the creator of the BBC. In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the school could so easily have been a haven for jingoism.

If you could use the word progressive about a school without suggesting that the boys all smoked pot and slept with the matron, then Gresham's was that. Childers senior and his American wife Molly chose it for their son because they admired the academic and liberal and creative values of its headmaster, G.W.S. Howson.

Erskine went to Gresham's to board in 1918, just before the war ended. He was coming up to his 13th birthday. In May 1921, his father was elected as a Sinn Féin deputy. The headmaster whom his parents had admired had died but his place was taken by another independent spirit, J.R. Eccles.

As Steve Benson's history of Gresham's puts it: the boy "lived for two-thirds of the year in Norfolk, yet in the holidays in Ireland the whole atmosphere was devoted to severing Irish ties with England".

He wanted to join the officer training corps which prepared young Englishman to serve "King and Country", but his mother told him that he could not "wear that uniform for one moment".

Erskine's letters home take up the tale. "JRE (Eccles, the headmaster) is always introducing me as a sort of curiosity, i.e. Sinn Féin, he is awfully nice about it". Eccles clearly discussed Irish affairs with his young pupil because later Erskine reported: "JRE has changed sadly, he wants independence but thinks the IRA are all brigands".

For Ireland and for the emerging Irish nation and the Childers family, 1922 was a calamitous year. In January, the Dáil voted to accept the Treaty, drafted the previous month under threat from Lloyd George of war. Childers had been secretary to the delegation that negotiated the Treaty. In June, the pro-treaty faction won the general election and Childers lost his seat. The Civil War broke out; Michael Collins was killed by the anti-treaty faction in August and in November, the first of 77 executions of those opposed to the Treaty began.

In November, Eccles sent for the young Childers to tell him that his father had been arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm. The gun had been given to him by Collins. The boy returned to Dublin immediately to attend the trial.

On November 24th, Robert Erskine Childers was executed by firing squad, by the Irish whose cause he had taken up. In his last conversation with his son, he made the boy promise to work for reconciliation between the English and the Irish and to convey his forgiveness to those who had signed his death warrant.

A pupil at Gresham's recalls the headmaster reading a letter aloud from Childers senior knowing that he was to be executed but emphasising that he had no bitterness against England. We don't have his exact words but on the morning of his execution he wrote this to his wife and children: "You must be pleased to see how imperturbably normal and tranquil I have been this night. It all seems perfectly simple and inevitable like lying down after a hard day's work . . . for me it is easy now, for you the hard road." He shook hands with members of the firing squad.

Before young Erskine returned to school after a miserable Christmas holiday, Eccles gathered together the boys of his "house" and reminded them that it would be an unnatural son who would not be loyal to his father - even to his politics. However, some parents had complained to the governors of the school about the presence of a traitor. Three former pupils of the school serving in the British army had been killed in Ireland in the previous two years.

In August 1923, Erskine spoke at a public rally in O'Connell Street, Dublin. He protested at the arrest of de Valera, who he would later succeed as president of the Republic. This was too much for the school. Eccles told the boy he could stay until the end of the 1924 summer term, and that his young brother would not be allowed to attend the school as planned.

Erskine Childers kept his word to his father. He entered public life in Ireland and made a point of not saying or doing anything that would reopen old wounds. He served as a Fianna Fáil TD, and minister, and for 18 months as president of Ireland.

He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 while attending a conference of doctors.

He was a Protestant leader in a Catholic nation, an Englishman honoured by Ireland with its highest office. His death as Northern Ireland's agonies worsened deprived us of a powerful symbol of tolerance and reconciliation.

The name of Erskine Childers is nowadays best remembered in connection with a fine atmospheric thriller, The Riddle of the Sands, which his father wrote. Though the book still reads and sells well, we would probably do better to remember Childers, father and son, for their refusal to allow bitterness or recrimination to get in the way of their sense of public duty, no matter where it took them.

I will plant me a tree, a history of Gresham's School by Steve Benson will be published by James and James this month. It is available from Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 6EA, England. E-mail: