WH Auden and Erskine Childers
Sir, – Karl O’Hanlon’s fascinating piece on TS Eliot’s reception among Irish revolutionaries (“Desmond FitzGerald on T.S. Eliot: a revolutionary taste in poetry”, Books, December 17th) calls to mind another surprising document from the same period.
The 1921 newsletter of Gresham’s School in Norfolk records the names of two pupils who had excelled in science that year: a 14-year-old WH Auden and a 15-year-old Erskine Childers. The future poet and the future president of Ireland were both active in the school’s Natural History Society; its records show that Auden presented a paper on “Enzyme Action”, while Childers’s experiments with synthetic dyes were said to have resulted in “orders for dyeing hats and other garments from more than one lady visitor”.
In later life, Auden had a considerable knowledge of Irish politics, but his earliest and most direct encounter with a revolutionary perspective may well have come from the boy who was busy dyeing hats.
In a summary of a school debate on Irish independence in 1920, the newsletter records a striking contribution to the day’s proceedings: “E.H. Childers knew all the Sinn Féin secret societies personally . . . The opinion of a whole nation could not be crushed. Ireland must have justice and self-determination.’
The year after winning their prizes in science, the lives of both boys changed permanently, though for entirely different reasons.
Childers’s father was executed by firing squad at Beggars Bush Barracks in 1922, casting his son’s life into disarray. In March of that same year, Auden decided to become a poet. – Yours, etc,