Erskine Childers: a strange mix of a British imperialist and an Irish republican

Childers made powerful enemies on the pro-Treaty side of the Civil War

Erskine Childers was a British imperialist and an Irish republican. His upbringing lent him to the former; his convictions in later life inclined towards the latter.

Nothing became his life like his leaving of it in front of a firing squad on November 24th, 1922, at Portobello Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin.

Fifteen men were selected for the job but only five had live ammunition. Childers is reported to have said to his executors before he was shot: “Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”

His execution, like so many in the Civil War, was a legal travesty. Childers was arrested at the home of his cousin Robert Barton at Annamoe, Co Wicklow. Barton had been one of the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty despite Childers' entreaties not to sign it. Barton later repudiated the Treaty in Dáil Éireann.


Childers had been found in possession of a pistol, which he claimed was given to him as a present by Michael Collins.

The Free State government had passed draconian laws under the Army Emergency Powers Resolution, establishing martial law and making the carrying of unauthorised weapons a capital offence.

It was enough to pin a charge on him. He was transferred to Portobello Barracks and tried for “being in possession of an automatic pistol”. On November 19th, 1922, he was sentenced to death.

Powerful enemies

By the time he died at the age of 52, Childers had made powerful enemies in the pro-Treaty side. Childers was the secretary to the Irish delegation at the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but he became a ferocious opponent of the Treaty.

For Arthur Griffith, who led the Irish Treaty delegation, Childers was that "damned Englishman"; for Winston Churchill a "murderous renegade" and a "strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth".

Childers was English-born but reared on the family estate in Wicklow of his mother’s family, the Bartons. He took a job in the British diplomatic service. He was also a first-class sailor.

He was the author in 1903 of The Riddle of the Sands, a bestselling novel which was also credited with waking Britain up to the military threat posed by Germany at a time when France was still regarded as the chief enemy. Childers said he wrote the novel out of a "a patriot's natural sense of duty".

His conversion to Irish nationalism is often credited to his wife Molly Osgood, a Boston-born anti-imperialist. Yet Childers joined the royal navy as an intelligence in the first World War.

His final years were dominated by the Irish struggle for independence. His skills as a propagandist saw him replace Desmond FitzGerald, who had been arrested in February 1921, as the director of publicity for the IRA during the War of Independence. He became a Sinn Féin TD in May 1921. In the Dáil he argued that the defence clauses in the Treaty would drag the Irish Free State into Britain’s wars without its consent.

Childers had taken the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, although he had been part of the delegation that had signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921.

The Free State government believed him to be one of the prime military instigators of the Civil War, along with being head of propaganda for the antiTreaty IRA.

In August 1922, just two weeks before he died, National Army commander-in-chief Michael Collins was told that Childers was in Liverpool trying to organise rebels gathering in the city to attack Dublin by sea while the National Army was engaged down the country.

It caused Collins to write to the director of intelligence. “I should like to know if there have been any developments in the Childers case. The idea that would be most suitable would be that he should be arrested as a stowaway.”

His death, like those of so many others in the Civil War, deprived the new Irish State of people of stature who could have made a positive contribution. His son, Erskine Jr, served in several Fianna Fáil cabinets and went on to become President of Ireland between June 1973 and November 1974. He is the only Irish President to have died in office.