See A. Boyle The Riddle of Erskine Childers (1977).
Robert Erskine Childers DSC (25 June 1870–24 November 1922) was an author and Irish nationalist who 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.
He was sent to Haileybury College and then studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and after graduation took a job in 1895 as a clerk in the House of Commons. He was an enthusiastic yachtsman, owning several boats during his life and sailing them regularly. At this point in his career he was a supporter of the British Empire.
He was wounded in South Africa and invalided back to Britain. On his return he wrote the novel The Riddle of the Sands, which was published in 1903. Based on his own sailing trips along the German coast, it predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness. Widely popular, the book has never gone out of print and in 2003, a handful of centenary editions were published. The Observer has listed the book as #37 on its list of "The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time". It has been called the first spy novel (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. It was also a notable influence on John Buchan. Childers wrote Volume V of the Times' History of the War in South Africa (1907), which drew attention to British errors in that war and praised the tactics of the Boer guerrillas. He also wrote two books on cavalry warfare based on his experiences, War and the Arme Blanche (1910) and the German Influence on British Cavalry (1911). Both books were strongly critical of the British Army. Childers became a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen; an auxiliary branch of British Intelligence, and was an officer commanding the Dublin Troop. The unit later joined the Irish National Volunteers under Childers influence.
The main opponents of Home Rule formed the Ulster Volunteers in 1912 and shipped rifles into Larne in April 1914. In the rest of Ireland the Irish Volunteers had been formed in response, and in July 1914 Childers and his wife smuggled German arms to Howth, County Dublin, in their yacht Asgard, days before the outbreak of World War I. These weapons would later arm some of the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising of 1916. The remainder of the consignment of guns purchased in Germany for the Irish Volunteers was landed a week later at Kilcoole, county Wicklow by Sir Thomas Myles from his own yacht, the Chotah.
With the start of war, Childers joined the Royal Navy as an Intelligence Officer and flew seaplanes for aerial reconnaissance off the HMS Engadine in the North Sea, and then later on the HMS Ben-my-Chree in the Dardanelles. He was awarded the DSC for bravery and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in the RNVR in 1916. He was also made Honorary Secretary of the Maritime branch of the Legion of Frontiersmen in London. The violent suppression of the Easter Rising had angered Childers, and after the war he moved to Dublin to become fully involved in the struggle against British rule. He joined Sinn Féin, forming a close association with Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.
In 1919 he was made Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament and attempted to represent the Irish Republic at the Versailles conference in Paris. In 1920 Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a strong attack on British policy. In 1921 he was elected (unopposed) to the Second Dáil as Sinn Féin member for Wicklow 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.
Said to be the inspiration behind the irregulars' propaganda, Childers was hunted by National Army soldiers and had to travel secretly. The ambush death of Michael Collins intensified the desire of Free State authorities to exact retribution, and in September 1922 the Irish Dáil introduced the Emergency Powers legislation, establishing martial law powers and new capital offences for the carrying of firearms without licence. The author Frank O'Connor was involved with Childers during the later part of the Civil war and give a colourful picture of Childers activities. Seemingly he was ostracised from the predominantly Catholic anti-treaty forces and referred to as "That bloody Englishman" due to his foreign birth. As the hunt for Childers became more urgent after the death of Collins the high command of the anti-treaty forces distanced Childers on the grounds that he was too infamous to be of any practical use, despite his considerable military experience and at one stage he was put to work addressing letters in the staff office in Macroom, Co.Cork.
In November Childers was arrested by Free State forces at his home, Glendalough, in County Wicklow, while travelling to meet De Valera. He was tried by a military court on the charge of possessing a small-calibre automatic pistol on his person in violation of the Emergency Powers Resolution. Ironically, the pistol was alleged to be a gift from Michael Collins before the latter swore allegiance to the Free State. Childers was convicted by the military court and sentenced to death. While his appeal of the sentence was still pending, Childers was executed by firing squad at the Beggar's Bush Barracks in Dublin. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Before his execution, in a spirit of reconciliation, Childers 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. Childers himself shook hands with each member of the firing squad that was about to execute him. 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.
Winston Churchill, who had actively pressured Michael Collins and the Free State government to crush the rebellion by armed force, expressed the British view of Childers at the time: "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. In Ireland, however, many saw Childers's execution as politically-motivated revenge, an expedient method of halting the continuing flow of anti-British political texts for which Childers was widely credited.
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. 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.