Erskine Childers executed over possession of a pistol
The Wicklow files: Free State government had little to pin on high-profile anti-Treaty leader but was desperate to get rid of him
Republican author and politician Erskine Childers (1870-1922), with his wife, aboard his yacht, the Asgard, which was used to run guns for the Irish Volunteers. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Incident: Execution of Robert Erskine Childers
Date: November 24th, 1922
The Free State government had nothing to pin a charge on Robert Erskine Childers just hours before National Army soldiers found him with a pistol that was used to justify his execution at his cousin’s home in Wicklow.
The death by firing squad of Childers on November 24th, 1922, aged 52, was one of the most high-profile and controversial executions of the Civil War. The Free State government executed 77 anti-Treaty prisoners during the Civil War in a vicious and escalating campaign of reprisal killings.
It is clear from correspondence in Childers’ military pensions archive file that the Free State government was desperate to arrest him and remove him from the scene. Childers had a remarkable career as a British sailor, diplomat and novelist. He was also the man responsible for landing the guns at Howth in July 1914 for the Irish Volunteers, which he did on his yacht Asgard.
Childers had taken the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, although he had been part of the delegation that had signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921.
The Free State government believed him to be one of the prime military instigators of the Civil War, along with being head of propaganda for the anti-Treaty IRA. In August 1922, just two weeks before he died, National Army commander-in-chief Michael Collins was told that Childers was in Liverpool trying to organise rebels gathering in the city to attack Dublin by sea while the National Army was engaged down the country.
It caused Collins to write to the director of intelligence. “I should like to know if there have been any developments in the Childers case. The idea that would be most suitable would be that he should be arrested as a stow-away.”
Despite his reputation as a renegade, the Free State struggled to pin anything on Childers. The National Army’s head of intelligence wrote a letter on November 10th to the adjutant general. It stated: “I am instructed to enclose your file and papers in connection with Erskine Childers and to state, that . . . neither the file nor the papers supply anything which would be the basis of a charge.”
Yet, that evening, Childers was arrested at the home of his cousin Robert Barton at Annamoe, Co Wicklow. He had been found in possession of a pistol, which he claimed was given to him as a present by Michael Collins.
The Free State government had passed draconian laws under the Army Emergency Powers Resolution, establishing martial law and making the carrying of unauthorised weapons a capital offence.
It was enough to pin a charge on him. He was transferred to Portobello Barracks and tried for “being in possession of an automatic pistol”. On November 19th, 1922, he was sentenced to death. There are telegrams within the file pleading for clemency before he was killed, and others decrying the execution.
One from the California branch of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic warned Collins’s successor Gen Richard Mulcahy that it would regard his execution or that of any other republican prisoner as “murder”.
In his book, Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Pádraig O’Connor, a detailed account is given of Childers’ execution, which took place in Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin.
According to Capt Frank Holland, who had been guarding Childers, the man responsible for carrying out the execution ordered that only ex-British soldiers should be in the firing squad party.
The execution took place on November 24th, 1922 Fifteen men were selected for the job but only five had live ammunition. Childers is reported to have said to his executors before he was shot: “Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”