On November 24th, 1922, Erskine Childers became the best-known republican prisoner to be executed during the Civil War.
Fifteen men were selected for the firing squad, but only five had live ammunition. One of them was Samuel Edmonds, a British army veteran who had served with the Royal Field Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery during the first World War.
In July 1922 he answered the call from Michael Collins to join the National Army. Just a month later he witnessed the death of Collins at Béal na Bláth as one of the soldiers in the second Crossley tender in the convoy ambushed there by anti-Treaty IRA.
Samuel Edmonds revealed that he was one of those involved in the Childers’ firing party when he told his son Tommy not to drive past Beggars Bush Barracks (now the offices of the Labour Relations Commission). “Why?” asked his son. “That’s where I shot Erskine Childers,” replied Samuel Edmonds.
He was in the presence of another son when he cried visiting Beal na Bláth in the early 1960s before he died at the age of 70 in 1966.
He was full of remorse too for the shooting of Childers, according to his grandson Victor Edmonds who lives in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
Mr Edmonds (75) has been researching his grandfather’s background since 2010 and has compiled a detailed study of Childers’s execution.
The man in charge of the firing party, Comdt Pádraig O’Connor, decided to select first World War veterans to use the live ammunition rather than “one of our own”, meaning those who had served in the IRA during the War of Independence.
Childers is reported to have said to his executioners before being shot: “Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”
Samuel Edmonds also told his family that he had been involved in other firing squads. He did not elaborate, but soon after the Childers executions, three other men, Joseph Spooner, John Leo Murphy and Patrick Farrelly were executed in Beggars Bush Barracks.
Mr Edmonds said the grandfather he remembered was a “very meek and mild man, he never shouted. He smoked his Woodbines and drank his bottle of stout.”
He outlived Mr Edmonds’s father, also called Sam, who died of cancer at the age of 40 in 1961. “He stayed with my father for the last six weeks of his life. He gave him the morphine injections. He was a loving and caring man.”
Childers was English-born and educated at Haileybury College and Cambridge. His parents died young and he was reared by his mother’s family, the Bartons. He worked in the British diplomatic service and was also a first-class sailor. Childers was also author — in 1903 — of The Riddle of the Sands, a bestselling novel that highlighted the military threat posed by Germany at a time when France was still regarded as the chief enemy.
His conversion to Irish nationalism is often credited to his wife Molly Osgood, a Boston-born anti-imperialist. Yet Childers joined the royal navy as an intelligence operative in the first World War.
His final years were dominated by the Irish struggle for independence. His skills as a propagandist saw him replace Desmond FitzGerald, who had been arrested in February 1921, as the director of publicity for the IRA during the War of Independence.
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. He provoked powerful emotions in those who knew him. Many of those who signed the Treaty hated him. Arthur Griffith called him that “damned English man”, Winston Churchill described him as a “strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth” while David Lloyd George said Childers was brave and resolute but also “rigid and fanatical”. Éamon de Valera, on the other hand, regarded him as a “prince among men”.
Childers’s execution, like so many in the Civil War, was a legal travesty. He was arrested at the home of his cousin Robert Barton at Annamoe, Co Wicklow, and found in the 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. Unlike the first four to have been executed that same week, Childers had powerful friends within the legal profession.
Four barristers, two of whom would go on to become attorney generals, interceded to prevent the executions, but the provisional government was determined to make an example of such a high-profile anti-Treaty figure.
The verdict was confirmed on the night of November 23rd. His barrister, Michael Comyn, immediately attempted to lodge an appeal but it was too late.
He remembered years later: “It was a complete negation of justice, the worst I have ever known, to execute a man whose case for life or death was actually under argument and awaiting judgement.”