Robert Erskine Childers

This article is about the Irish nationalist author. For other people with a similar name, see Erskine Childers (disambiguation).
Robert Erskine Childers

Childers in uniform of the City Imperial Volunteers (CIV), 1899
Born (1870-06-25)25 June 1870
Mayfair, London, England, UK
Died 24 November 1922(1922-11-24) (aged 52)
Beggars Bush, Dublin, Ireland
Occupation Soldier, journalist, politician, novelist
Political party Sinn Féin
Religion Church of Ireland
Spouse(s) Mary "Molly" Alden Childers, nee Osgood
Children Erskine Hamilton Childers,
Henry Childers,
Robert Alden Childers

Robert Erskine Childers DSC (25 June 1870 – 24 November 1922), universally known as Erskine Childers,[1][2][3] /ˈɜːrskn ˈɪldərz/[4] was the author of the influential novel The Riddle of the Sands and an Irish nationalist who smuggled guns to Ireland in his sailing yacht Asgard. He was executed by the authorities of the nascent Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War. He was the son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers; the cousin of Hugh Childers and Robert Barton; and the father of the fourth President of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers.

Early life

Childers was born in Mayfair, London, the second son to Robert Caesar Childers, a translator and oriental scholar from an ecclesiastical family, and Anna Mary Henrietta, née Barton, from an Anglo-Irish landowning family of Glendalough House, Annamoe, County Wicklow,[5] with interests in France such as the winery that bears their name. When Erskine was six his father died from tuberculosis and, although seemingly healthy, Anna was confined to an isolation hospital, where she was to die six years later. The children, by this time numbering five, were sent to the Bartons at Glendalough. They were treated kindly there and Erskine came to identify himself closely with the country of Ireland, albeit at that stage from the comfortable viewpoint of the "Protestant Ascendancy".[6]

At the recommendation of his grandfather, Canon Charles Childers, he was sent to Haileybury College. There he won an exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge, studying the classical tripos and then law.[7] He distinguished himself as the editor of Cambridge Review, a university magazine. Notwithstanding his unattractive voice and poor debating skills, he became president of the Trinity College Debating Society (the "Magpie and Stump" society). Although Erskine was an admirer of his cousin Hugh Childers, a member of the Cabinet in favour of Irish home rule, he spoke vehemently against the policy in college debates.[5] A sciatic injury sustained while hill walking in the summer before he went up, and which was to dog him for the rest of his life, had left him slightly lame and he was unable to pursue his intention of earning a rugby blue, but he became a proficient rower.[8]

Having gained his degree in law, and with the vague intention of one day following cousin Hugh into parliament as an MP,[9] Childers sat the competitive entry examination to become a parliamentary clerk. He was successful and early in 1895 he became a junior committee clerk in the House of Commons, with the responsibility of preparing formal and legally sound bills from the proposals of the government of the day.[10]


Robert and Molly aboard Asgard on a Baltic cruise, 1910

With many sporting ventures now closed to him because of his persisting sciatic injury, Childers was encouraged by Walter Runciman, a friend from schooldays, to take up sailing. After picking up the fundamentals of seamanship as a deckhand on Runciman's yacht, in 1893 he bought his own vessel, the "scrubby little yacht" Shulah, which he learned to sail alone on the Thames estuary. The Shulah was sold in 1895 to a Plymouth man following a trip around the Lizard in a heavyish sea.[11][12] In 1894 while he was living in Glendalough, County Wicklow, he bought a Dublin Bay Water Wag, a 13'-0" long local type of sailing boat, usually sailed in Kingstown, vaguely pear shaped with a single gaff rigged sail. He sailed this boat on Lough Dan, close to his house. He and his brother Henry used to take friends for a sail in the Water Wag.[13] Bigger and better boats followed: by 1895 he was taking the half-deck Marguerite across the Channel and in 1897 there was a long cruise to the Frisian Islands, Norderney and the Baltic with Henry in the thirty-foot cutter Vixen: a voyage he repeated in the following spring. These were the adventures he was to fictionalise in 1903 as The Riddle of the Sands, his most famous book.[14] In 1903 Childers, now accompanied by his new wife Molly, was again cruising in the Frisian Islands, in Sunbeam, a boat he shared with William le Fanu and other friends from his university days. However his father-in-law, Dr Hamilton Osgood, had arranged for a fine 28-ton yacht, Asgard, to be built for the couple as a wedding gift and Sunbeam was only a temporary measure while Asgard was being fitted out.[15]

Asgard was Childers's last, and most famous, yacht: in June 1914 he used it to smuggle a cargo of 900 elderly but serviceable Mauser Model 1871 rifles and 29,000 black powder cartridges to the Irish Volunteers movement at the fishing village of Howth, County Dublin (later known as the "Howth gun-running").[5][16] It was acquired by the Irish government as a sail training vessel in 1961, stored on dry land in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol in 1979, and finally became a static exhibit at The National Museum of Ireland in 2012.[17]

War service

Boer War

Driver Childers, Honourable Artillery Company

As with most men of his social background and education, Childers was a steadfast believer in the British Empire. Indeed, for an old boy of Haileybury, a school founded to train young men for colonial service in India, this outlook was almost inevitable,[18] although he had given the matter some critical consideration.[19] In 1898, then, as negotiations over the voting rights of British settlers in the Boer territories of Transvaal and Orange Free State failed and the Boer War broke out, he needed little encouragement when in December Basil Williams, a colleague at Westminster and already a member of the volunteer Honourable Artillery Company, suggested that they should enlist together.[20] It was, therefore, as an artilleryman that Childers joined the City Imperial Volunteers, something of an ad hoc force comprising soldiers from different territorial regiments, but funded by City institutions and provided with the most modern equipment. He was classed as a "spare driver", caring for a pair of horses and riding them in the ammunition supply train.[21] The unit set off for South Africa on 2 February 1900 and here Childers's sailing experience was useful: most of the new volunteers, and their officers, were seasick and it largely fell to him to care for the troop's thirty horses.[22][23][24] After the three-week voyage it was something of a disappointment that the HAC detachment was, initially, not used. It was not until 26 June, while escorting a supply train of slow ox-wagons, that Childers first experienced enemy fire, in three days of skirmishing in defence of the column. However it was a smartly executed defence of a beleaguered infantry regiment on 3 July that established their worth and more significant engagements followed.[25] On 24 August Childers was evacuated from the front line, not as the result of a wound but from a type of trench foot, to hospital in Pretoria. The seven-day journey happened to be in the company of wounded infantrymen from Cork, Ireland, and Childers noted approvingly how cheerfully loyal to Britain the men were, how resistant to any incitement in support of Irish home rule and how they had been let down only by the incompetence of their officers.[26] This is a striking contrast to the attitude he was to note towards the end of the First World War when conscription in Ireland was under consideration: "...young men hopelessly estranged from Britain and ... anxious to die in Ireland for Irish liberty."[27] After a chance meeting with his brother Henry, also suffering from a foot injury, he rejoined his unit, only for it to be despatched to England on 7 October 1900.

First World War

Childers's attitude to Britain's establishment and politics had become somewhat equivocal by the start of the First World War. He had resigned his membership of the Liberal Party, and with it his hopes of winning a parliamentary seat, over concessions to Unionists and a further postponement of Irish self-rule;[5] he had written works critical of British policy in Ireland and in its South African possessions; above all, in July 1914, he had smuggled a shipment of arms bought in Germany to supply nationalists in Ireland.[5] This knowledge was not in wide circulation, but neither was it a great secret,[28] and the official telegram calling Childers to naval service was sent to the Dublin headquarters of the Irish Volunteers, the group to which he had made the delivery.[29] Although in 1914 it could be argued that, in the case of war, the Irish Volunteers might fight on the side of Britain as a means of securing bargaining power in home rule negotiations, these weapons were used against British soldiers, diverted from fighting the enemy, in The Easter Rising of 1916.[30][31] Then again, Childers believed that smaller nations such as Belgium and Serbia would benefit from Britain's defeat of Germany and, as a prospectively independent nation, Ireland too would gain.[5]

If Childers's support for Britain in the fight against Germany may have been in some doubt, when in mid-August 1914 he did once again volunteer, the grant of a reserve commission in the intelligence arm of the Royal Navy was entirely to be expected: Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, although hostile to spending money on armaments at the time The Riddle of the Sands was published,[32] later gave the book the credit for persuading public opinion to fund vital measures against the German naval threat, and he was instrumental in securing Childers's recall.[32][33] His first task was a neat reversal of his plot for The Riddle of the Sands: to draw up a plan for the invasion of Germany by way of the Frisian Islands.[34] Only a few days later he found himself allocated to HMS Engadine, a seaplane tender, as an instructor in coastal navigation to newly trained pilots. He managed to extend his duties to include flying as a navigator and observer, including a sortie navigating over a familiar coastline in the Cuxhaven Raid, an inconclusive bombing attack on the Cuxhaven airship base on Christmas Day 1914, for which he was mentioned in despatches.[35][36] In 1915 he was transferred in a similar role to HMS Ben-my-Chree, in which he served in the Gallipoli Campaign and the eastern Mediterranean, earning himself a Distinguished Service Cross.[37] He was sent back to London in April 1916 to receive his decoration from the king and for service in the Admiralty. This period in his life is relatively undocumented and his Irish detractors were to allege that he was once again engaged in intelligence work. In reality he was engaged in the mundane task of allocating seaplanes to their intended ships.[31] It took Childers until autumn of that year to extricate himself and train for service with a new coastal motor-boat squadron operating in the English Channel.[38]

Irish Convention

A respite from Childers's military career was offered on 27 July 1917, when Sir Horace Plunkett asked for him to be assigned to the secretariat of Prime Minister Lloyd George's Home Rule Convention initiative in Dublin Castle.[39] The enterprise failed and, on his return to London in April 1918, Childers found that, as a naval flyer, he had been transferred into the newly created Royal Air Force. No job was found for him until Hugh Trenchard formed his Independent Bomber Command and he was attached as a group intelligence officer to prepare navigational briefings for attacks on Berlin. The raids were forestalled by the Armistice and Childers's last assignment was to provide an intelligence assessment of the effects of bombing raids in Belgium.[40]


Mary "Molly" Alden Childers

In autumn 1903 Childers travelled to the United States as part of a reciprocal visit between the Honourable Artillery Company of London and the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts of Boston.[41] At the end of the official visit he elected to remain and explore New England on a hired motor cycle. One day by chance the machine broke down outside the Beacon Hill home of Dr Hamilton Osgood, a prominent physician in the city. Childers diffidently knocked to borrow a spanner but, as a visitor with the celebrated HAC, he was invited in for dinner and introduced to Dr Osgood's younger daughter, Mary Alden ("Molly") Osgood.[42] The liberal English author and the well read republican heiress found each other congenial company.[43] The hospitable Dr Osgood organised the rest of Childers's stay, with much time shared with Molly, and the pair were married at Boston's Trinity Church on 5 January 1904.

Childers returned to London with his new wife and resumed his position in the House of Commons. His reputation as an influential author gave the couple access to the political establishment, which Molly relished, but at the same time she set to work to rid Childers of his already faltering imperialism.[44] In her turn Molly developed a strong admiration for Britain, its institutions and, as she then saw it, its willingness to go to war in the interests of smaller nations against the great.[45] Over the next seven years they lived comfortably in their rented flat in Chelsea, supported by Childers's salary—he had received promotion to the position of parliamentary Clerk of Petitions in 1903—his continuing writings and, not least, generous benefactions from Dr Osgood.[46] Molly, despite a severe weakness in the legs following a childhood injury,[47] took enthusiastically to sailing, first in the Seagull and later on many voyages in her father's gift, the Asgard. Throughout their marriage Childers wrote frequently to his wife and his letters show that the couple lived in great contentment during this time.[5][48] Three sons were born: Erskine in December 1905, Henry, who died before his first birthday, in February 1907, and Robert Alden in December 1910.[49]


Childers's first published work seems to have been some light detective stories he contributed to the Cambridge Review while he was editor.[50] His first book was In the Ranks of the C. I. V., an account of his experiences in the Boer War, but he wrote it without any thought of publication: while serving with the Honourable Artillery Company in southern Africa he composed many long, descriptive letters about his experiences to his two sisters, Dulcibella and Constance. They, together with Elizabeth Thompson, daughter of George Smith of the publishing house Smith, Elder and a friend of the family, edited the letters into book form.[51][52] The print proofs were waiting for Childers to approve on his return from the war in October 1900 and Smith, Elder published the work in November.[53] It was well-timed to catch the public's interest in the war, which continued until May 1902, and it sold in substantial numbers.

Boer War

Childers's colleague Basil Williams was preparing a more formal book, The HAC in South Africa, which was intended to be the official history of the regiment's part in the campaign. When Williams was recalled to Johannesburg, now as a civilian on the peace commission, the HAC approached Childers to finish the work. Collaborating with Williams by letter, Childers completed the book for publication in 1903.[54]

The Riddle of the Sands

In January 1901 Childers started work on his novel, The Riddle of the Sands, but initially progress was slow:[55] it was not until winter of that year that he was able to tell Williams, in one of his regular letters, of the outline of the plot. At the end of the following year, after a hard summer of writing, the manuscript went to Reginald Smith at Smith Elder, but in February 1903, just as Childers was hoping to return to The HAC in South Africa, Smith sent back the novel, with instructions for extensive changes. With the help of his sisters, who cross-checked the new manuscript pages against the existing material, Childers produced the final version in time for publication in May 1903. Based on his own sailing trips with his brother Henry along the German coast, it predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness. There has been much speculation about which of Childers's friends was the model for "Carruthers" in the novel and it seems that he is based not on Henry Childers but on yachting enthusiast Walter Runciman; "Davies", of course, is Childers himself.[56] Because of The Riddle, Childers was invited to join the Savile Club, then a literary centre in London.[57] Widely popular, the book has never gone out of print and in 2003, several centenary editions were published.[58] The Observer included the book on its list of "The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time".[59] The Telegraph listed it as the third best spy novel of all time.[60] It has been called the first spy novel[61] (a claim challenged by advocates of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, published two years earlier), and enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I. It was an extremely influential book: Winston Churchill later credited it as a major reason that the Admiralty decided to establish naval bases at Invergordon, Rosyth on the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow in Orkney.[33] It was also a notable influence on authors such as John Buchan[62] and Eric Ambler.[63]

The "Cavalry Controversy"

Childers's neighbour, Leo Amery, was editor of The Times's History of the War in South Africa, and having already persuaded Basil Williams to write volume four of the work, he used this to persuade Childers to prepare volume five. This profitable commission took up much of Childers's free time until publication in 1907.[64] It drew attention to British political and military errors and made unfavourable contrast with the tactics of the Boer guerrillas.[65]

Motivated by his expectation of war with Germany, Childers wrote two books on cavalry warfare, both strongly critical of what he saw as outmoded British tactics. All were agreed that cavalry should be trained to fight dismounted with firearms, but traditionalists wanted cavalry still to be trained as the arme blanche, charging with lance and sabre. War and the Arme Blanche (1910) carried a foreword from Field Marshal Roberts,[66] and recommended that cavalry "make genuinely destructive assaults upon riflemen and guns" by firing from the saddle – Sheffield describes this tactic as "immensely difficult and generally unrewarding" and Childers's views as "bizarre".[67]

German Influence on British Cavalry (1911)[5] was Childers's "intolerant" rejoinder to criticisms of War and the Arme Blanche made by Prussian general Friedrich von Bernhardi, writing in an unlikely alliance with British General French, who had commanded successful cavalry charges at Elandslaagte and Kimberley.[68] Although the traditional view appears absurd with hindsight (see, for example[69]) it was reestablished as Roberts retired and French and his protégé Major-General Haig rose to the top of the army.

Irish Home Rule

It was as a prospective Liberal Party candidate for Parliament that Childers wrote his last major book: The Framework for Home Rule (1911).[5] Childers's principal argument was an economic one: that an Irish parliament (there would be no Westminster MPs) would be responsible for making fiscal policy, to the benefit of the country, and would hold "dominion" status, in the same detached way in which the Dominion of Canada managed its affairs.[70] His arguments were based in part on the findings of the "Childers Commission" of the 1890s that had been chaired by his cousin, Hugh Childers. Erskine Childers had consulted the Unionists of Ulster in preparing Framework and, somewhat naively, he wrote that their reluctance to accept the policy would easily be overcome.[71][72] Although, for Childers, it represented a major change from the opinions he had previously held, Irish home rule was Liberal Party policy at the time, albeit one very unpopular with English voters: the first Home Rule Bill in 1886 had caused the Liberal Party to split, whilst the Second in 1893 had been decisively rejected by the House of Lords.


There was no single incident which was responsible for Childers's conversion from extreme supporter of the British Empire to extreme[73] Irish nationalist.[74] Rather, there was a growing conviction, later turning to fanatical obsession,[75] that the island of Ireland should have its own government. An early source of disillusionment with Britain's imperial policy was his realisation that, given more patient and skilful negotiation, the Boer War could have been avoided.[76] His friend and biographer Basil Williams noticed his growing doubts about Britain's actions in southern Africa while they were on campaign together: "Both of us, who came out as hide-bound Tories, began to tend towards more liberal ideas, partly from the ... democratic company we were keeping, but chiefly, I think, from our discussions on politics and life generally."[11] Molly Childers, brought up in a family that traced its roots to the Mayflower voyage, also influenced her husband's outlook on the right of Britain to rule in other lands.[44] The ground was well prepared, then, when in the summer of 1908 he and his cousin Robert Barton took a holiday motor tour inspecting agricultural co-operatives in the south and west of Ireland. "I have come back," he wrote to Basil Williams, "finally and immutably a convert to Home Rule...though we both grew up steeped in the most irreconcilable sort of Unionism."[77]

In the autumn of 1910 Childers resigned his post as Clerk of Petitions to leave himself free to join the Liberal Party, with its declared commitment to home rule,[78] and in May 1912 he secured for himself the candidature in one of the parliamentary seats in the naval town of Devonport. As the well-known writer of The Riddle of the Sands, with its implied support for an expanded Royal Navy, Childers could hardly fail to win the vote whenever the next election was called. However the Liberal Party, although relying upon Home Rule MPs for its Commons majority, in response to threats from the Ulster Unionists of a civil war began to entertain the idea of exempting some or all of Ulster from Irish self-government. Childers abandoned his candidacy and left the party.[5]

The threats of revolt were real; disaffection among army officers who might be required to act against any rebellion was revealed by the Curragh incident in March,[79] and the large-scale covert Larne gun-running was made in April 1914. The organisers of the Unionists' gun-running were influential men[80] and in the interests of political expediency they were not prosecuted. Their action succeeded in causing the introduction of an Amending Bill, exempting some or all of Ulster from Home Rule. The Liberals' Home Rule Bill, introduced in 1912, would eventually pass into law in 1914, but was immediately – by a separate Act of Parliament – shelved for the duration of the Great War which had just broken out, whilst the Amending Bill to exclude the Six Counties, the duration of whose provisions still remained a matter of debate, was dropped altogether for the time being.[81][82]

Childers's response to the Larne gun-running was to organise a symbolic[83] arms purchase on behalf of the Irish Volunteers, known as the "Howth gun-running". In May 1914 a committee of idealistic Anglo-Irish "cultural nationalists"[84] was set up to raise the necessary funds, with Alice Stopford Green as treasurer and Molly Childers as secretary.[85][86] Roger Casement was appointed as the link with the Volunteers' leadership and Darrell Figgis, who was able to offer introductions to various arms dealers, was co-opted at Casement's suggestion.[87] At the end of May, Childers and Figgis travelled to the Hamburg arms firm of Moritz Magnus der Jüngere and bought a consignment of 1,500 Mauser Model 1871 rifles and 49,000 rounds of ammunition, for delivery at sea. On 12 July 1914 off the mouth of the River Scheldt the arms were transferred from a German tugboat to Childers's yacht Asgard and the Kelpie of Conor O'Brien. Childers sailed into Howth shortly after noon on 26 July and the weapons were handed over, in a far from secret operation, to uniformed columns of Irish Volunteers.[88] The movements of Kelpie had become known to the authorities and so, off the coast of Wales, O'Brien transferred his cargo to Sir Thomas Myles in the Chotah. This was landed at Kilcoole, south of Dublin, under cover of darkness on 1 August.[89][90]

Although Childers may have intended his act as no more than a symbolic gesture, it had all too tangible consequences: the Volunteers were too numerous to allow any official intervention to succeed, but police nonetheless attempted to intercept the weapons as they were being marched towards Dublin. A small detachment from The King's Own Scottish Borderers was called to assist the police, but the Volunteers had dispersed, with most of the weapons. However the troops found themselves at the centre of a hostile demonstration and opened fire on the crowd: three died.[91] Because the imminent declaration of war against Germany, just nine days away, was occupying all of Childers's attention, this ill-targeted official reaction did not, at the time, strengthen his nationalist resolve any further.[92] The same could not be said of Molly who, while having previously viewed her husband's association with Casement (whom she assessed as having "a streak of madness" in him) with suspicion,[93] was now persuaded of Britain's "injustice and cruelty".[94]

Unknown to Childers, the Irish Volunteers organiser at Howth, Bulmer Hobson,[95] was a founding member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and at Easter 1916 the Brotherhood used the "Howth Mausers" to mount the historic Easter Rising.[16] Hobson himself did not support the rising and Casement, who had arranged to supply the rebels with a further shipload of arms from the German army, was under arrest with his consignment scuttled.[96] The uprising was crushed in heavy fighting and was followed by a strict imposition of martial law. Childers, on temporary leave in London, was shocked by the harsh and summary punishments (including the execution of sixteen of the leaders of the rising) authorised by General John Maxwell, but as a serving officer he could do little.[97]

Home Rule

The violent suppression of the Easter Rising had dismayed Childers and a Westminster bill to extend military conscription to Ireland, leading to the Conscription Crisis of 1918, angered him further: he described the proposal as "insane and criminal".[27] In March 1919, after a severe attack of influenza, his doctors ordered rest in the country. Glendalough was the obvious choice and he joined his cousin Robert Barton there.[98] Barton, however, had thrown in his lot with Sinn Féin and he introduced Childers to the underground military leader Michael Collins, who in turn introduced him to Éamon de Valera, the President of Sinn Féin. Influenced by these figures, and other uncompromising nationalists who regularly stayed at Glendalough, he finally came to believe that his moderate "dominion" proposal would not serve. At the end of his convalescence Childers returned to Molly at the Chelsea flat, but a month later he received an invitation to meet the Sinn Féin leadership in Dublin. Anticipating an offer of a major rôle, Childers hurried to Dublin but, apart from Collins, he found the Nationalist leadership wary, or even hostile. Arthur Griffith, in particular, looked on him as at best a renegade and traitor to Britain, or at worst as a British spy. The task they gave him was to join the unofficial Irish delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.[99][100] This unpromising undertaking, as Childers saw it, was intended to advance the cause of Irish self-rule by reminding the various official representatives of the ideals of freedom over which Britain had gone to war. In this they were totally unsuccessful, and Childers returned once again to London.[101] Anxious to be at the centre of events he rented a house in Dublin, but Molly was reluctant to join him: mindful of her sons' education, and believing that she and her husband could best serve the cause by influencing opinion in London, only with resignation did she eventually give up their London home of fifteen years to settle in Dublin, at the end of 1919.[102]

In 1919 Childers was made Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament. In 1920 Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a strong attack on British policy. At the 1921 elections, he was elected (unopposed) to the Second Dáil as Sinn Féin member for the Kildare–Wicklow constituency,[103] and published the pamphlet Is Ireland a Danger to England?, which attacked the British prime minister, David Lloyd George. He became editor of the Irish Bulletin after the arrest of Desmond FitzGerald. He stood as an anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate at the 1922 general election but lost his seat.[104]

Civil War and death

Childers towards the end of his life

Childers was secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British government. He stayed at the delegation headquarters in Hans Place throughout the period of the negotiations, 11 October – 6 December 1921. Childers became vehemently opposed to the final draft of the agreement, particularly the clauses that required Irish leaders to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British king. The Treaty was approved by a Dáil vote of 64–57 in January 1922. In the course of the debates some felt that Childers had been insulted by Arthur Griffith, and the matter was in turn debated in June.[105] The treaty continued to divide Sinn Féin and the IRA, and Ireland descended into civil war on 28 June 1922.

Said to be the inspiration behind the propaganda of the republican movement, Childers was hunted by National Army soldiers and had to travel secretly. The death in an ambush of Michael Collins intensified the desire of Free State authorities to exact retribution, and on 28 September 1922 the Irish Dáil introduced the Army Emergency Powers Resolution, establishing martial law powers and new capital offences for the carrying of firearms without licence.[106][107] The author Frank O'Connor was involved with Childers during the later part of the Civil war and gave a colourful picture of Childers's activities. Seemingly he was ostracised from the anti-treaty forces and referred to as "That bloody Englishman" owing to his foreign birth.[108] As the hunt for Childers became more urgent after the death of Collins the high command of the anti-treaty forces distanced themselves from Childers on the grounds that he was too infamous to be of any practical use, despite his considerable military experience,[109] and at one stage he was put to work addressing letters in the staff office in Macroom, Cork.

On 10 November, Childers was arrested by Free State forces at his home in Glendalough, County Wicklow, while travelling to meet de Valera. He was tried by a military court on the charge of possessing a Spanish-made "Destroyer" .32 calibre semi-automatic pistol on his person in violation of the Emergency Powers Resolution.[110][111][112] The pistol had been a gift from Michael Collins while the two men had been on the same side, indeed, were friends, before Collins became head of the pro-treaty Provisional Government.[109] Childers was convicted by the military court and sentenced to death on 20 November. While his appeal against the sentence was still pending, Childers was executed on 24 November by firing squad at the Beggar's Bush Barracks in Dublin. He was buried at the barracks until 1923 when his body was reinterred in the republican plot of Glasnevin Cemetery.[5]

Before his execution, in a spirit of reconciliation, Childers shook hands with each of the firing squad.[5] He also obtained a promise from his then 16-year-old son, the future President Erskine Hamilton Childers, to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed his father's death warrant.[113] His last words, spoken to them, were (characteristically) in the nature of a joke: "Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way."[114]

Winston Churchill, who had exerted pressure upon Michael Collins and the Free State government to make the treaty work by crushing the rebellion, expressed the view that, "No man has done more harm or shown 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."[115] Some Irish (principally those against the treaty) claimed Childers's execution was politically motivated revenge, an expedient method of halting the continuing flow of anti-British political texts for which Childers was widely credited.

Éamon de Valera said of him, "He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest".[116]

It was the express wish of Mary Childers, upon her death in 1964, that any writings based upon the extensive and meticulous collection of papers and documents from her husband's in-depth involvement with the Irish struggles of the 1920s, be locked away from anyone's eyes until 50 years after his death.[117] Thus, in 1972 Erskine Hamilton Childers started the process of finding an official biographer. In 1974, Andrew Boyle (previous biographer of Brendan Bracken, Lord Reith amongst others) was given the task of exploring the vast Childers archive, and his "official" biography of Robert Erskine Childers was finally published in 1977.[118]


In 1991 Childers was featured in Jonathan Lewis's TV documentary for Thames Television called The Treaty. Bosco Hogan played Childers, alongside Brendan Gleeson as Michael Collins.[119]

In 1998, BBC Radio 3 broadcast in the Drama on 3 slot a play by Leigh Jackson called A Flag Unfurled, based on the life, times and writings of Childers. It featured Michael Maloney as Childers, Deborah Norton as his wife Mary (Molly), Natascha McElhone as his sister Dulcie and Laura Hughes as his sister Constance. It was produced in Belfast by Roland Jaquarello.[120]

Late in 2011 production company Black Rock Pictures included the arrest and trial of Childers in its six-part television series Bású na gCarad, to be broadcast on TG4 in September 2012. Childers is played by Dominic Frisby.[121][122]



  1. Boyle (1977: 256) "An aura of legend still enveloped the name of Erskine Childers in Dublin because of his valorous role in running those guns to Howth."
  2. His last letter, written from the condemned cell to his wife, was signed "Erskine". (Boyle 1977: 25).
  3. His publications are all in that name. (O'Hegarty, Patrick Sarsfield (1948). "Bibliographies of 1916 and the Irish Revolution, 16 : Erskine Childers". The Dublin Magazine. Dublin. 23 (2): 40–43. OCLC 11597781.)
  4. Staff. "Erskine Hamilton Childers". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 23 December 2008.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Ring, Jim (September 2004). "Childers, (Robert) Erskine (1870–1922)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  6. Boyle (1977:38)
  7. "Childers, Robert Erskine (CHLS889RE)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  8. Boyle (1977:49–61)
  9. Boyle (1977:64)
  10. Piper (2003: 19): "The duties included drafting and continually re-drafting proposed legislation…carefully selecting words and phrases to comply with the compromises reached by the politicians…"
  11. 1 2 Williams, Basil (1926). Erskine Childers, 1870–1922: A Sketch. London: Privately published—Molly Childers. OCLC 34705727.
  12. Boyle (1977:69;73)
  13. Edith Picton Tubelvill's contribution to 'Myself when Young' edited by the Countess of Oxford and Asquith.
  14. Fowler, Carol (December 2003). "Erskine Childers's log books". Sailing Today. National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 23 December 2008.
  15. Boyle (1977:125)
  16. 1 2 Ball, Robert W. D. (2006). Mauser Military Rifles of the World. Iola, WI: Krause. p. 153. ISBN 0-89689-296-4.
  17. "Howth Gun Running Vessel Asgard Exhibition Launched at National Museum". Afloat. 9 August 2012. Retrieved 12 August 2012.
  18. Buettner, Elizabeth (2005). Empire Families. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 167. ISBN 0-19-928765-1.
  19. Boyle (1977:43; 71; 100)
  20. Piper (2003: 39–42)
  21. Childers (1901: 30–31)
  22. "The War in South Africa". The Times. London (36057): 9. 5 February 1900.
  23. Reader, William (1988). At Duty's Call: A Study in Obsolete Patriotism. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-7190-2409-2.
  24. Childers (1901: 13)
  25. Piper (2003:48)
  26. Piper (2003:55)
  27. 1 2 Boyle (1977:239)
  28. For example, G. M. Trevelyan, an acquaintance from Trinity College, wrote to Childers a letter of congratulation on his exploit: quoted in Boyle (1977: 329).
  29. In later years Childers's enemies in the new Irish parliament would cite this telegram as evidence that he had always been a British agent. Boyle (1977: 196; 256; 308)
  30. FitzPatrick, David (1997). Thomas Bartlett, Keith Jeffery, ed. A Military History of Ireland. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 386. ISBN 0-521-62989-6.
  31. 1 2 Piper (2003:173)
  32. 1 2 Piper (2003:77)
  33. 1 2 Knightley, Phillip. The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. London: Pimlico. p. 17. ISBN 1-84413-091-6.
  34. Boyle (1977:197)
  35. "Cuxhaven Raid". The Times. UK. 19 February 1915. p. 6.
  36. Piper (2003:153)
  37. "Naval Honours. Awards for Patrol and Air Services". The Times. UK. 23 April 1917. p. 4.
  38. Piper (2003:179)
  39. Boyle (1977:231)
  40. Boyle (1977:242–243)
  41. Correspondent (4 October 1903). "The Londoners in Boston". New York Times. p. 1.
  42. Piper (2003: 87) Molly's older sister, Gretchen, was married to philanthropist Fiske Warren and wealthy in her own right.
  43. McCoole, Sinéad (2003). No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900–1923. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 147. ISBN 0-86278-813-7.
  44. 1 2 Boyle (1977: 124–126)
  45. Boyle (1977: 238)
  46. Boyle (1977: 138).
  47. McCoole (2003: 30)
  48. Collections at Trinity College, Dublin and Trinity College, Cambridge.
  49. Piper (2003:94; 101)
  50. Piper (2003:70)
  51. Bell, Alan (May 2006). "Thompson, Henry Yates". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  52. Piper (2003:61)
  53. "New and recent books". London Daily News. 21 November 1900. p. 6.
  54. Williams, Basil; Childers, Erskine (1903). The H.A.C. in South Africa : a record of the services rendered in the South African War by members of the Honourable Artillery Company. London: Smith Elder. OCLC 34705727.
  55. Piper (2003: 71)
  56. Piper (2003: 67–68)
  57. 'The Savile Club (1868–1923' Published by Savile Club 1923, London : Listed in Member's List (1903–1909)
  58. McCrum, Robert (12 October 2003). "The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list | Books | The Observer". Guardian. UK. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  59. Drummond, Maldwin (1992). "Introduction". In Childers, Erskine. The Riddle of the Sands (1st ed.). London: The Folio Society.
  60. "The 20 best spy novels of all time". Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  61. Polmar; Allen. Spy Book (2nd ed.). Random House. ISBN 978-0-375-72025-3.
  62. Clark, Ignatius (1992). Voices prophesying war, 1763–1984. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 142–3. ISBN 0-19-212302-5.
  63. "Eric Ambler Dies; Lauded as Father of Modern Spy Thriller". The Washington Post. 25 October 1998. Retrieved 15 August 2012.  via HighBeam Research (subscription required)
  64. Boyle (1977: 115)
  65. Boyle (1977: 129–131)
  66. Badsey, Stephen (July 2008). Doctrine and Reform in the British Cavalry 1880–1918. Farnham, England: Ashgate. pp. 223–224. ISBN 978-0-7546-6467-3.
  67. Sheffield 2011, p55
  68. "For the first time we see Erskine the fanatic, the least pleasant aspect of his character; an aspect that was to become all too dominant when his naturally obsessive nature became involved with Ireland."—Piper (2003: 103)
  69. Boyle (1977: 135–136)
  70. Kendle (1989: 264)
  71. Boyce, David George; O'Day, Alan (2001). Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish Unionism Since 1801. London: Routledge. p. 152. ISBN 0-415-17421-X.
  72. Boyle (1977: 165–169)
  73. Piper (2003: 206): "By this time [sc. his arrest] Erskine's opinions were more extreme than most members of Sinn Féin...The fact is that Erskine Childers went to extremes with everything he did."
  74. Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella (1992). Portrait of a Revolutionary. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky. p. 180. ISBN 0-8131-1791-7. In the eyes of the cabinet, Childers's position of leadership within the Republican movement made it imperative that he be treated harshly...The government held the leaders of the Republican movement responsible for leading trusting and naive men and women into a civil war.
  75. Piper (2003: 98; 104)
  76. McMahon, Deirdre (1999). "Ireland and the Empire-Commonwealth, 1900–1948". In Brown, Judith M; Louis, William. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 147–148. ISBN 0-19-820564-3.
  77. Quoted in Boyle (1979:144)
  78. Clarke, Peter (1990). "Government and Politics in England: realignment and readjustment". In Haigh, Christopher. The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 294. ISBN 0-521-39552-6.
  79. Seaman, Lewis (1966). Post-Victorian Britain, 1902–1951. London: Methuen. pp. 31–34. ISBN 0-416-69760-7.
  80. McNeill, Ronald (11 October 2007). "On the brink of civil war". Ulster's Stand for Union. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar. p. 212. ISBN 978-1-4264-7698-3.
  81. Boyle (1977; 184–185)
  82. Staff (31 July 1914). "Vital importance of national unity. The Amending Bill postponed". The Times. London (40590): 12.
  83. Piper (2003:122)
  84. Daly, Mary (2005). Roger Casement in Irish And World History. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. p. 197. ISBN 1-904890-04-0.
  85. McConville, Seán (2003). Irish Political Prisoners, 1848–1922. London: Routledge. p. 415. ISBN 0-415-21991-4.
  86. Figgis, Darrell (1927). "German rifles". Recollections of the Irish War. London: E. Benn Ltd. p. 25. OCLC 2959602.
  87. Piper (2003:123)
  88. Special Correspondent (27 July 1914). "Story of the Coup". The Times. London (40586): 9.
  89. Ellis, Peter Berresford (2004). Eyewitness to Irish history. New York: Wiley. p. 207. ISBN 0-470-05312-7.
  90. "The Kilcoole Gunrunning". An Phoblacht. Dublin: Sinn Féin. 22 July 2004.
  91. Correspondent (27 July 1914). "Fighting in Dublin. A riot after gun-running". The Times. London (40586): 9.
  92. Boyle (1977:195)
  93. Boyle (1977:186)
  94. Boyle (1977: 176;195)
  95. Figgis (1927:43)
  96. Figgis (1927:117; 125)
  97. Piper (2003:177–8)
  98. Piper (2003:196)
  99. Boyle (1997: 251)
  100. Piper (2003: 197)
  101. Piper (2003:198)
  102. Boyle (1997: 253–254)
  103. "Mr. Erskine Robert Childers". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 10 March 2012.
  104. "Robert Erskine Childers". Retrieved 10 March 2012.
  105. Motion of Censure debate on-line
  106. "Cumann na nGaedhael" (in Welsh). General Michael COLLINS.
  107. Campbell, Colm (1994). Emergency law in Ireland, 1918–1925. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-19-825675-5.
  108. O'Connor, Frank (1960). An only son: an autobiography.
  109. 1 2 Boyle (1977: 15)
  110. Coogan, Tim Pat, The IRA: A History, Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993.
  111. Wilkinson, Burke, The Zeal of the Convert: The Life of Erskine Childers, Sag Harbor, New York: Second Chance Press, 1985.
  112. Siggins, Lorna (18 October 1995). "Pixilated Pistol puts in a timely reappearance". The Irish Times. p. 1.
  113. Peter Stanford (8 November 1976). "On Soundings". Time Magazine. Retrieved 8 August 2008.
  114. Boyle (1977:25)
  115. From a speech given by Winston Churchill, 11 November 1922 in Dundee."Mr Churchill at Dundee". The Times. 13 November 1922. p. 18.
  116. Jordan, Anthony J (2010). Éamon de Valera, 1882–1975 : Irish : Catholic : visionary. Dublin: Westport Books. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-9524447-9-4.
  117. Boyle (1977:8–10)
  118. "Papers of Robert Erskine Childers (1870–1922), author and politician". Janus.
  119. Clip of The TV Film The Treaty on YouTube
  120. Jaquarello, Roland. "Roland Jaquarello Radio Productions". Retrieved 15 June 2009.
  121. "Irish Civil War Doc Series 'Bású na gCarad' in Prep". The Irish Film & Television Network. 28 March 2011. Retrieved 16 March 2012.
  122. Bású na gCarad (2012) at the Internet Movie Database
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