Irish History

Robert Erskine Childers

Robert Erskine Childers (25 June 1870 – 24 November 1922)

Robert Erskine Childers, best known as Erskine Childers, was born in London on 25 June 1870.   Childers’ parents died when he was just a boy. He was sent to Glendalough , County Wicklow with his four siblings, to be brought up by his mother’s family, the Bartons. He was sent to school in Hailebury College, England and went on to study law at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Having gained his degree, Childers began working as a junior clerk in the House of Commons in London. In 1898 he enlisted in City Imperial Volunteers as an artilleryman and served in the Boer War in South Africa.   One of his most important works was Volume V of “The Times History of the War in South Africa” which was published in 1907.

He wrote his best known novel The Riddle of the Sands in 1903. Based on sailing trips with his brother Henry along the German coast, it predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness. The book is still in print today and The Observer included it in its list of “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time”.

In 1904, Childers married Mary Ellen, also known as Molly, Osgood, daughter of Hamilton Osgood of Boston, USA. They had two sons, the eldest of whom Erskine Hamilton, who was born in 1904, went on to become the fourth President of Ireland.

One of the wedding presents the couple received was Asgard, a 28-ton yacht.  Childers was an accomplished sailor, and had crossed the Channel as well as enjoying cruises around the Baltic with his brother. He had a great love for the sea and claimed to be never so happy as when sailing. His new yacht was berthed in Southampton.

In July 1914 Childers used Asgard to smuggle a cargo of 900 Mauser Rifles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition, bought from Germany, to the Irish Volunteers movement at the fishing village of Howth, County Dublin.

In the belief that the Allies would support the claims of Irish Nationality, Childers joined the British Navy on the outbreak of World War 1 and won the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts but the violent reaction to the Easter Rising had dismayed Childers and a Westminster bill to extend military conscription to Ireland angered him further.

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. Barton, however, had thrown in his lot with Sinn Fein and he introduced Childers to Michael Collins, who in turn introduced him to Éamon de Valera. Influenced by these figures, and other nationalists who regularly stayed at Glendalough, his earlier Home Rule sympathies hardened into full support for an Irish Republic.

Along with his wife and family, Childers settled in Dublin in 1919 and was elected to the Dáil in 1921 as a member for Wicklow. He was appointed Minister for Propaganda and was secretary to the Irish delegation during the negotiations for a Treaty with Britain in 1921. His cousin Robert Childers Barton was one of the signatories.

Despite attending the negotiations for the Treaty, Childers disagreed with its signing as it agreed to giving Ireland dominion status in the Commonwealth, included an oath of allegiance to the King, and partitioned six of the counties in Ulster, which would remain under British rule.

During the subsequent Civil War, Erskine Childers was arrested at Glendalough House for carrying a gun, allegedly given to him by Michael Collins. He was sentenced to death and was executed at Beggars Bush Barracks on 24 November 1922 having first shaken hands with each member of the firing squad.

“I have a belief in the beneficent shaping of our destiny and I believe God means this for the best, for us, Ireland, and humanity. I die full of intense love of Ireland.

Robert Erskine Childers is buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. His yacht Asgard is now preserved in the National Museum of Ireland.

Sources:   Irish, The Riddle of Erskine Childers by A Boyle 1977