Robert Erskine Childers DSOTD 18701922

Erskine Childers was many things, soldier, author, British civil servant, gun runner and member of the Hail for Co. Wicklow, yet he was never really accepted by his fellow Republicans who never forgave his Anglo-Irish origins. He dedicated much of his life to the cause of Irish independence and much to the chagrin of his contemporaries became a close confidant of de Valera. Despite his holding no military appointment during the civil war both the British and Irish governments vilified Childers and claimed he was the evil genius behind the rebel war effort. Nothing could have been further from the truth, yet such was the loathing for Childers in Saorstat circles that he was executed under the provisions of the Public Safety Act.

Of Anglo-Irish Protestant stock, Childers' family was from Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, although he was born in London on 25 June 1870, His mother was Irish but his father was a distinguished English academic, Professor Robert Childers. Despite being orphaned as a child and placed In the care of an uncle in Co. Wicklow, Childers was educated in England at Haileybury College and Trinity College, Cambridge, which is why he sounded like an upper-class Englishman rather than an Irishman,

In 1895 he took a job as a clerk in the House of Commons and was an enthusiastic supporter of empire. His cousin, Hugh Childers, had been Gladstone's Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1882 to 1885 and was a supporter of Irish Home Rule and it is likely that he influenced Childers' own conversion to the Nationalist cause. When the Second Boer War broke out in 1899 Childers joined

Erskine Childers. the Anglo-Irish Republican TD for Co. Wicklow who was executed by the Provisional Government on 24 November 1922. © Hutton-Getty Library the City Imperial Volunteers to fight in South Africa and was wounded in 1900. He was invalided out of the army and once back in Rritain resumed his career as a clerk in the Commons.

On his return from the Boer War Childers discovered a taste for writing and in 1903 wrote the best selling novel The Riihlle of the Sands which predicted war with Germany. The book was a bestseller and according to Churchill it played a key part in getting the Admiralty to open bases at Invergordon and Scapa Flow although in one of his more acerbic moments Arthur Griffith credited it with causing World War I.

Childers' literary talents went beyond that of a novelist and included factual studies of

Cahir Higgins

military operations. In 1907 The Times commissioned him to write Volume V of its History of the IVar in South Africa. His analysis of the war criticized the British and showered praise on the Boer commandos. In

1910 he wrote a treatise on mounted warfare, War and the Arme Blanche, and in

1911 he published The German Influence on the British Cavalry. The future of mounted operations was one of the 'hot' topics in military circles before World War I and he was critical of British methods.

Childers was not only an accomplished writer but also an enthusiastic and expert yachtsman. When he visited the USA in 1903 he met and fell in love with fellow sailing enthusiast Mollie Osgood. They were married within a year and by 1905 had a son, also named Erskine. De Valera once quipped that Childers was an 'inflexible idealist' and when he became a convert to Irish Nationalism he became one of its strongest advocates. In the finest traditions of the Anglo-Irish Childers became 'Hiheriores hibernis ipsos' - more Irish than the Irish. In 1910 he resigned from his job in the Commons and in 1912 wrote The Form and Purpose of Home Rule.

But Childers was not just an intellectual Nationalist and on 26 July 1914 he sailed his yacht, Asgard, into llowth, Co. Dublin, carrying 900 rifles and 29,000 rounds for the National Volunteers. Despite his gunrunning Childers had not fully abandoned the British Empire in 1914 and when war came he joined the lioyal Naval Volunteer Iteserve as an intelligence officer, i le saw action in the North Sea and the Dardanelles and was awarded the DSO for his efforts. By 1916 he was a lieutenant-commander when his anger

Members of St John's Ambulance Brigade provided much of the medical support to both sides in the Dublin fighting of 1922. © Hutton-Getty Library

Members of St John's Ambulance Brigade provided much of the medical support to both sides in the Dublin fighting of 1922. © Hutton-Getty Library

Erskine Childers

at the violent suppression of the Easter Rising nudged him further down the road to Republicanism and in 1917-18 he was on the Secretariat of the Irish Convention.

By 1919, Childers was a major in the newly formed RAF and as soon as he was demobbed he made his way back to Ireland and joined Sinn Eein. He was soon appointed Director of Publicity for the first Dail and became a close friend of both Collins and de Valera. An articulate advocate of Irish independence he represented the Irish Nationalists at the Versailles Peace Conference and in 1920 put pen to paper once more to attack British policy in 'Military Rule in Ireland'. By 1921 his zeal for the cause earned him a place in the Dail as the member for Wicklow.

His pamphleteering continued with 'Is Ireland a Danger to England?' in which he launched a strong attack against the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Ills government's policies in Ireland. Both Collins and de Valera recognized his value as a propagandist and he was made editor of The Irish Bulletin,

Both Childers and his cousin Robert Barton accompanied the Irish delegation to London in the winter of 1921 to negotiate a treaty. Collins was convinced that de Valera had ensured that Childers was appointed secretary to the delegation so that he could act as de Valera's eyes and ears, and made sure that he was excluded from much of the negotiations,

Childers was horrified that the Treaty finally signed by the Irish delegates in December 1921 bound Ireland to the British Empire and spoke out against it in the Dail. He felt that the retention of the monarchy, the acceptance of partition and Dominion status were all fundamental betrayals of 'the Republic'. His exchanges with Arthur Griffith were particularly hitter and on one occasion Griffith even exclaimed, 'I will not reply to any damned Englishman in this assembly', such was his loathing for the 'disgruntled Englishman';

Despite being as Irish as de Valera or even Patrick Pearse, Childers never shook off the perception that he was really an Englishman.

Even the British saw him as a traitor to the land of his birth and vilified him for it. When civil war came Childers sided with the Republicans, which earned him the hatred of the Saorstat Government. In effect Childers became the bogeyman behind every outrage and on 6 September 1921 the Irish Times reported that 'There is no doubt that Mr Childers is the chief military brain amongst the Irregulars.'

In reality Childers was the Director of Propaganda and Publicity for the Republican 'Government' and had no military status. Like de Valera he was more or less ostracized by the Republican military leaders who did not trust the 'Englishman' any more than the Free Staters did. He was temporarily an assistant editor of the Cork Examiner until Dalton overran Cork. After that he was effectively 'on the run' with his monocled associate David Robinson, another ex-British Army officer turned Republican who claimed that Childers was liked by everyone who met them on their travels.

According to Hopkinson in his book Green against Green Childers and Robinson resembled a couple of characters from a P.G. Wodehouse novel as they drifted around south-west Ireland In a horse and cart. Isolated from Dublin and ignored by the Republican military leadership, Childers began to despair of his situation. A plan to smuggle him to the Continent came to nothing and Saorstat propaganda continued to demonize this rather effete revolutionary. Childers was well aware of British and Saorstat efforts to blacken his name but what hurt him most was insinuations that he was actually a British spy all along.

Eventually de Valera summoned Childers back to Dublin to take up an appointment as the secretary to the underground Republican Government. En route he stopped off to visit his cousin Robert Barton at his childhood home, Glendalough House, Co. Wicklow, where he was arrested by NA troops. Although Childers was armed with an automatic pistol that had been a present from Collins he declined to use it for fear of Injuring the ladies present in the house.

Childers was taken to Dublin and tried by a military court under the provisions of the Public Safety Act on 16 November 1922. He was charged with the illegal possession of a pistol, the very weapon that had been a gift from his friend Michael Collins. The weapon, a Spanish .32 automatic No. 10169, was eventually returned to Childers' family on 4 November 1939 by Cahir Davitt. Such was the animosity that he generated in Griffith and O'Higgins that the only possible outcome of his trial was a guilty verdict and a death sentence.

On the morning of 24 November 1922 Childers was led out of his cell in Beggars Bush Barracks, Dublin, to face his executioners. Unfortunately it was too dark at the appointed hour and tragically Childers was forced to wait until the light improved. To kill the time he chatted with the firing party and smoked. Whatever else was said about Childers he was a brave man who faced death with remarkable courage. He told the firing squad that he bore them no ill will and even joked that they should 'take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way.'

When Churchill heard of Childers' arrest he commented that 'No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.' Childers did not see his actions in this light and in a letter to his wife written before his execution wrote, '1 hope one day my good name will be cleared in England ... I die loving England and passionately praying that she may change completely and finally towards Ireland.'

To a degree Childers got his wish during the long years of de Valera's domination of Irish politics during the middle years of the 20th century, when his British-born son Erskine Hamilton Childers became a naturalized Irish citizen and served as a Eianna l-'ail I'D from 1938-73, rising to be Deputy Prime Minister in 1969. His career as a TD came to an end in 1973 when he was elected as the fourth President of the Republic of Ireland.

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