The Riddle of Erskine Childers

By Guy Dorrell @GuyDorrellEsq

With one outburst, Tracey Emin unwittingly created a new art movement. “Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” criticised her at-the-time boyfriend, Billy Childish’s view on how art should be. Emin’s art had become about the conceptual; My Bed and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 being her two most notorious pieces. Childish however, had less interest in conceptualism than in traditional figurative painting, essentially to make art imitate life.

When life imitates art, and vice versa, events are sufficiently unusual to be newsworthy. One such was the Pet Shop Boys track ‘Kings Cross’. Released in 1987, the song features the lines,
Only last night I found myself lost/ by the station called King’s Cross/ Dead and wounded on either side/ You know it’s only a matter of time”.

The song got attention, not because of chart position for it was not released as a single, but for the initial belief that the duo had written the song referring to the Kings Cross fire, in which 31 people died. The song achieved further headlines when it became widely known that Actually, the album featuring the track, was released in September 1987, two months prior to the disaster.

Erskine Childers was a man initially famous for life imitating his art. Later, art imitated life when a pastiche of events and the part he played in them were immortalised on film in Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins.

Early life

Robert Erskine Childers was born in June 1870 in Mayfair to a landowning Ango-Irish family. His father was an academic, his mother provided the Irish connection that would shape so much of his life, coming from County Wicklow. After both his father and his mother’s deaths from tuberculosis, six years apart, he and his four siblings would be sent to stay with his mother’s family at Glendalough.

In what must have been a traumatic time for an 11 year old, the kind treatment and surroundings of Ireland gave him fond and profound feelings towards the country, which would surface decisively 30 years later.

The shaping of Childers character continued at Haileybury school and then to Trinity College, though Cambridge, not Dublin. After graduation, he had a vague idea to become an MP, having a cousin – Hugh Childers – who was the Liberal MP for Pontefract. The Liberals, then as now, were a significant force in government, later to become out of favour with voters, consigning them to becoming also-rans in successive elections. Intriguingly, Hugh Childers was strongly in favour of Irish home rule and later wrote the Childers report into Irish financial stability, which Erskine had argued passionately against while at Cambridge. Having graduated in law, Childers joined parliament, though as a parliamentary clerk responsible for drafting up-coming legislation.

For the British Empire

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background, upbringing and career, Childers at that time held an unwavering belief in the British Empire. Already a keen sailor, with the outbreak of the Boer War, Childers did not predictably join the Royal Navy, rather he joined the Honourable Artillery Company, a City-based volunteer unit. Mobilised, he and his volunteer colleagues sailed for South Africa at the beginning of 1900. He sustained a debilitating, though not serious injury in August and returned to his unit, ready for it to sail for Britain in October 1900.

In January 1901, he began writing a novel that was to shape his future and that of countless authors to follow, as well as influencing national feeling and governmental policy. The novel was to be published as The Riddle of the Sands and life, in this case, was to imitate art.

Many works of fiction and authors are credited with being before their time. Usually, these deal with technological imaginings decades away from what is presently possible. Personal helicopters, touch screen devices and many more have been predicted by authors by simple extension of what is available today, but smaller or digital. What is unusual, and makes Childers and The Riddle of the Sands remarkable, was Childers’ ability to foresee a national zeitgeist and the geo-political forces that would come into play in the following decade.

The book tells the tale of Davies, a keen amateur yachtsman taking an exploratory voyage around the German Fresian islands close between Holland and the Baltic. Sailing alone, Davies – a fierce patriot, but unusually happy to live and let live without bothering others – is involved in a series of events arousing his suspicion. Aware of his own shortcomings when it comes to perceptiveness, he invites a friend to come to sail with him to confirm these suspicions.

Childers himself was a keen sailor, having taken it up as a substitute for the sport at which he had hoped to earn a Blue while at Oxford, rugby. With his wife, Molly, Childers sailed around all of the islands in which The Riddle of the Sands was set.

What was remarkable about the novel was the prediction of German Imperial ambition coming from Kaiser Wilhelm’s weltpolitik. Davies, together with his sailing companion Carruthers discover a secret installation building invasion barges for troops waiting to cross the North Sea as part of an invasion force targeting Britain. This prediction of the collision between Germany and Great Britain was published 11 years prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

Publication catapulted Childers to recognition and influence; Winston Churchill credited him with raising the issue of the total lack of provision of a North Sea fleet, leaving Britain exposed to an attack from the east. Beginning in the year following the book’s publication, Royal Navy bases in Invergordon, the Firth of Forth, Rosyth and Scapa Flow were established for protection from the German High Seas Fleet.

The most remarkable point of Childers’ life was yet to come however. The Riddle of the Sands established him as something of a national hero and he resigned from his position at the House of Commons so that he would be free to become a Liberal MP. The Liberal Party was attractive to him, at least in part, because of its support for Irish Home Rule. He secured the nomination to run as Liberal candidate in the 1912 for Devonport; a naval town through and through.

Late conversion

However, between May 1912 and May 1914, the riddle of Erskine Childers’ conversion from dyed in the wool British patriot to fervent Irish nationalist emerged, as in July 1914 Childers sailed a consignment of 1,500 bolt-action rifles and approaching 50,000 rounds of ammunition into the small Irish harbour of Howth, bound for the newly-raised Irish Volunteers military force. These rifles would go on to be used to mount the Easter Rising of 1916.

The Rising was violently repressed by the authorities and following a severe bout of influenza while back in mainland Britain, Childers chose to recuperate with his relatives from his mother’s side in Glendalough. One of these, Robert Barton, was well connected in Irish Nationalist circles and introduced him the some of those that would become iconic names in the struggle for Irish independence; Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. Childers and Collins quickly became friends, with Collins valuing the influence that Childers gave the fledgling movement so much that he gave Childers a present of a pistol so that he might protect himself.

Childers was made Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament, later to be credited, or discredited depending upon your view, as the guiding light behind Republican propaganda following the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in June 1922. Due to his anti Anglo-Irish Treaty stance, Childers became a marked man, hunted by the authorities. Emergency powers were passed by the Dáil, effectively establishing martial law with capital punishment mandated for a number of these offences.

Arrest and execution

On the 10th November, Childers was arrested by Free State troops at Glendalough. With him was found the pistol given to him by Michael Collins, possession of which was a summary offence, with a capital penalty. He was sentenced to death on 20th November 1922. An appeal against the conviction was lodged, but the execution was carried out on 24th November, without the appeal having been heard.

An about-face equal to Childers’ conversion to the cause of Irish Nationalism was carried out by Winston Churchill who, once having lionised the man who alerted Britain to the threat of German expansionism, now said of Childers, “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.”

Just as his invention of two amateur yachtsmen outwitting the German High Seas Fleet seems quaint and of a bygone age now, so does Childers’ resolution and behaviour. Immediately before his execution, Childers shook the hands of each man in the firing squad to symbolise the spirit of reconciliation. Eamon de Valera later spoke of Childers in the highest terms, “He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest”.

Erskine Childers will be remembered as a man of unimpeachable conviction and integrity, a politician and leader who never shied away from, nor tried to spin, the consequences of his beliefs and actions.

His legacy would not be to reap the millions of dollars that modern leaders expect, nor to be seen as a desperate apologist for the policies that he followed. The conflict that he became part of did not involve embedded journalists, given exclusive access to a single side of the story. He did not accept directorships of the organisations that his policies favoured the most, nor did he do the rounds of talk shows, political shows and 24 hour news channels to ensure that his legacy was portrayed as he intended it, rather than as history recorded it. Most fittingly perhaps is the unique legacy that he gave to the Irish people; Childers’ son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was to serve as the fourth President of Ireland.

Leave a Reply