‘The zeal of the convert’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers: born in London 150 years ago on June 25th. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Erskine Childers: born in London 150 years ago on June 25th. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


One of Erskine Childers’s biographies is titled The Riddle of Erskine Childers, and there was much that was enigmatic about him. English born, he worked in the British civil service and served in the British army in two wars. Yet he turned completely against the British presence in Ireland, threw in his lot with the violent struggle to end that presence and died an irreconcilable republican before a Free State firing squad.

Robert Erskine Childers was born in London 150 years ago on June 25th. He attended the prestigious Haileybury College in Hertfordshire and afterwards Trinity College, Cambridge.

His mother was a Barton of Glendalough House, Annamoe, Co Wicklow, and he spent long periods there as a child and young man with his cousin Robert Barton, who afterwards played a prominent role in the Irish independence struggle.

Childers volunteered to serve in the British army in the Boer War which began in 1899.

He was a skilled yachtsman and his book The Riddle of the Sands (1903) is a fictionalised account of German plans to invade England; it was based on sailing holidays he had taken in the Baltic. It’s an early and classic example of the espionage novel and foresaw the Great War that was to engulf Europe in 1914.

In 1904, Childers married Mary Ellen Osgood of Boston. One of their wedding presents was the yacht Asgard, which was to feature famously in Irish history 10 years later.

It seems that he became a convert to Irish home rule around 1908. Given the amount of time he had spent in Wicklow this shouldn’t be too surprising and his initial attachment probably represents a strain in British Liberalism that saw the best future for the British Empire in a federalist arrangement among its members.

But with time he became a more convinced home ruler. He resigned his House of Commons position in 1910 and the following year produced the book The Framework of Home Rule. This gave the British government the sensible advice to give Ireland a meaningful and substantial measure of self-government in order to ensure genuine Irish attachment to the arrangement. In particular, he urged that Ireland be given complete control over her own revenues and fiscal policy, even to the extent of allowing the new Irish government the right to impose protective tariffs if it so wished. His arguments fell on deaf ears.

He was aghast at the intense anti-home rule campaign waged by the Ulster unionists and their British Conservative allies from 1912 to 1914. The successful Larne gunrunning of the Ulster Volunteers in April 1914 spurred him and other Liberal Anglo-Irish ascendancy sympathisers of home rule into action.

Childers accompanied Darrell Figgis to Germany at the end of May to purchase rifles and ammunition. The Asgard, crewed by Childers, his wife and Mary Spring-Rice, landed the rifles at Howth in late July, passing through the British Grand Fleet at Spithead en route.

On the outbreak of the first World War, he joined the Royal Navy Air Services and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1916. It has been argued that the reason he enlisted again was in the belief that Britain and her allies would support the claims of Irish nationality after the war. In 1917, Lloyd George appointed him secretary to the Irish Convention, a conference of representatives of the various strands of political opinion on the island (though Sinn Féin, then gathering momentum as a political force, excluded itself) convened to see if an agreed position on Irish self-government could be worked out. No agreement was reached and Erskine Childers moved a further stage along the road that took him away from his pro-British origins.

After his experiences of the Convention and with the position Britain was taking at the post-war Paris Peace Conference, he became a convert to the full Irish national claim of a republic. For this new political position he was to display what one of his biographers termed “the zeal of the convert”. He offered his full-time services to the new Dáil government in 1919. Initially he organised publicity for the Dáil delegates to the peace conference. He then assisted Desmond FitzGerald in the Dáil’s Department of Publicity and, after FitzGerald’s arrest, he became director of publicity in March 1921.

In May 1921 he was returned unopposed as TD for Wicklow. He was chief secretary of the Dáil delegation that negotiated the Treaty at the end of that year, an agreement which he fiercely opposed. He was intellectually one of most formidable opponents of the Treaty.

When the Civil War broke out, he took responsibility for anti-Treatyite propaganda and edited the short-lived Poblacht na hÉireann/Republic of Ireland. He was captured by Free State forces while visiting Glendalough House in November 1922, court-martialled and sentenced to death. Before his execution he shook hands with each member of his firing squad and is reputed to have said: “Move closer, lads, it will be easier that way.”

Erskine Childers was a courageous as well as an able man and a small country like ours could ill afford his loss.