Stories of the Revolution: The riddle of Erskine Childers
Childers’s commitment to Irish Independence was an inspiration, but his judgment as secretary to the Irish delegation in the Treaty negotiations was flawed
The Irish delegation on the day, December 6th, 1921, that the Treaty forming the Irish Free State and partioning Ireland was signed (from left): Arthur Griffith, Eamonn Duggan, Erskine Childers, Michael Collins, George Gavan Duffy, Robert Barton and John Chartres. Photograph: Hulton Archive
Shortly after Erskine Childers was shot in Beggars Bush barracks on November 24th 1922, his London solicitors asked the military authorities to provide a copy of the death certificate, so they could deal with his investments and insurance. His widow, Molly, also asked them to return the personal effects taken from him when he was arrested.
These simple requests threw the army administration into a surprising spin. It appeared that nobody had thought to secure a death certificate. The medical officer of Portobello barracks stated on December 14th that he had certified the death (an eyewitness to the execution later suggested that the MO at Beggars Bush had refused to do so) but no certificate was produced.
On December 13th, Molly wrote once more to the adjutant-general of the National Army, to be told that the issuing of death certificates was the responsibility of the home affairs ministry.
When a certificate eventually emerged in January 1923, it dated the death three days earlier than it had occurred. This, as the home affairs ministry told the adjutant general, was “extremely awkward”, to say the least.
A similar wounding carelessness determined the fate of Childers’s possessions – a gold half-hunter watch, silver cigarette case, gold cufflinks – which, as Molly wrote in July 1923, had “special and sacred value” to her. A year on from his death, she renewed her request. The army’s discipline office at Parkgate had meanwhile repeatedly asked the commandant of Portobello to locate the items, without even receiving a reply.
Increasingly urgent demands by the defence ministry for “a definite report, without further delay” were no more successful (“to neither of my recent reminders have I received any acknowledgement”). On March 31st, 1924, the adjutant general finally reported that investigations had failed to trace the officers into whose hands the items had passed.
This sad tale was the private side of a major public drama, perhaps marking a tipping point of the Civil War.
The execution signalled an escalation of the Irish Free State’s repressive policy against the “irregulars” of the anti-Treaty republican IRA, heralded by the Army Emergency Powers Resolution of September 28th.
The first people to be convicted by the military courts established under the resolution, four young Dublin rank-and-file IRA men, were executed on November17th. Meting out the same treatment to Childers demonstrated the government’s determination to strike at the republican leadership as well.
Just what kind of “leader” Childers actually was, is an interesting question. Although the government affected to believe that he was the eminence grise of the anti-Treaty movement, he had no formal place in the command structure – he was described as a “staff captain”. He was, as he had been during the Anglo-Irish war, a propagandist.
He had a national, and indeed international, reputation as the author of The Riddle of the Sands (recently listed as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time), and as the daring sailor who had run a cargo of guns into Howth for the Irish Volunteers in July 1914.
When Childers was arrested at Glendalough on November 10th, most people assumed that he would face a charge relating to the government’s portrayal of him as a fomenter of illegal violence.
Such a charge would have been hard to frame and probably impossible to prove: instead he was put on trial, as the four Dublin IRA men had been, for possession of a firearm – a capital offence under the new emergency powers. (Whether he had made any attempt to use the pistol – which had been a gift from Michael Collins – remains unclear.) The guilty verdict was open and shut, but the trials were controversial – unsurprisingly since they provided a jolting echo of the British army’s military courts.
The leaders of the Labour Party (the nearest thing to a parliamentary opposition) protested in particular that the defendants had not been given access to lawyers. This was not in fact the case – indeed Childers himself, who wanted simply to refuse to recognise the court, was persuaded to allow an appeal to the high court. Unlike the famous appeal in the case of Egan v Macready under the British regime, this one failed.
Childers has not lacked for biographers, partly because of the “riddle” of his career, and partly perhaps because, as one biographer put it, he “never received the recognition he deserved”.
But how should he be recognised? He was a capable and energetic publicist, who made a significant contribution to the success of the republican guerrilla struggle. His absolute commitment to Irish Independence was an inspiration for many, but his judgment as secretary to the Irish delegation in the Treaty negotiations was flawed.
On the issue of defence, especially, his distrust of British intentions was almost pathological and determined his rejection of the Treaty.
For some people, a trace of his enemies’ vilification of him still perhaps sticks – Winston Churchill memorably denounced him as a “murderous renegade”, a “strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth”. (In fact, he never killed anyone after leaving the British naval air service, or possibly even while in it.)
Even republicans admired him with reservations. Arthur Griffith’s charge that Childers was not just a “damned Englishman” but a British spy, however baseless, left a mark.
Could it have been, though, that his wife really was a spy? Dragged reluctantly from her London home to Dublin in 1919, she may, it has been suggested, have supplied a stream of inside information from the highest level of Sinn Féin to the Special Branch chief Basil Thomson.
The allegation is shocking, indeed, more so than Griffith’s – the American Molly has been assumed to be a “natural republican” and is credited with having converted Erskine to Irish nationalism. The photograph of her with a case of Mauser rifles on their sailboat Asgard in 1914 remains one of the iconic images of the Irish Independence struggle.
Identifying her as the informant does not conflict with the facts, as far as they are known, but certainly does with her character. Maybe she too presents the kind of “riddle” that may intrigue a biographer.
Charles Townshend, professor of international history at Keele University, is author of Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (Penguin 2005)