Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Christopher SandfordMarch 16, 2023
Erskine Childers pictured during the Boer War (Wikimedia Commons) Erskine Childers pictured during the Boer War (Wikimedia Commons) 

Social historians are always keen to identify what seem to be the transformative shifts in our communal life. But such judgments are generally only feasible with the aid of hindsight. Few of those confronted with the individual pieces of the jigsaw can picture the finished puzzle.

Still, it is fair to say that there was an unusually decisive point in the West’s literary affairs that truly did represent an observable shift in style and taste. This was the period on either side of the First World War, which proved a golden age for escapist fiction in general, and which, in particular, raised the spy novel to a new level of seriousness and respect. Perhaps there is nothing like a really cataclysmic global shock to get the creative juices flowing, or for readers to seek some solace for the misfortunes of their time. In any event, in July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes aside long enough to publish a story with the unambiguous title of “Danger!” a cautionary tale of the British Isles being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade. The following year, the Scottish author John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps mixed jingoism and Germanophobia in a topical yarn involving a sinister anarchist gang. Somerset Maugham went one further and actually became a wartime spy, an experience he later put to good use in his celebrated Ashenden series.

Erskine Childers went from being the John le Carré of his day to a convicted war criminal and nationalist martyr. 

Perhaps the model for the emerging genre was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, politician and latterly radical nationalist Erskine Childers. It had the lot. If some destructive process were to mysteriously eliminate the world’s entire spy-thriller library with only The Riddle remaining, we could surely reconstruct from it every outline of the basic formula, every essential plot device, and every character and flavor contributing to the genre. It was that good.

In essence, the novel mixes some gentle satire about the snobberies of the Edwardian-era class system with a lively seafaring adventure involving a couple of British chaps going after some German spies in the Baltic. Childers’s taut, complex plot, strong storytelling gifts and distinctive characterization made the book a memorable literary achievement. It is not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the decrepit state of Britain’s maritime defenses at the time that it prompted the Royal Navy to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still commands a respectable sale today. Ken Follett has called it “the first modern thriller.”

Childers clearly went about the business of being a novelist with journalistic care. Every location in his book was visited, and conversations, tones, accents, dress and the overall atmosphere of a place all recorded at length in his notebooks. Like Conan Doyle, he was both a serious writer and a profoundly entertaining one. Curiously enough, about the only person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself, who was something of an odd bird, by all accounts, even by literary standards. Aged 33 at the time of The Riddle’s publication, he never wrote another novel, instead concentrating on dry military manuals and increasingly strident political tracts.

Childers’s taut, complex plot and strong storytelling gifts made The Riddle of the Sands a memorable literary achievement.

To call Childers a man of humanizing contradictions is an understatement. On the one hand, he served the British crown as a wartime intelligence and aerial reconnaissance officer, distinguishing himself in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. On the other, he was busy on the side periodically smuggling German guns to supply the Home Rule nationalists in Ireland, running the weapons onto a moonlit beach north of Dublin on his racing yacht Asgard, accompanied by his wife Molly and a small crew. It was almost like a scene out of The Riddle, with the critical distinction that instead of sounding the alarm about German ambitions, Childers was in the paradoxical position of serving the British cause while transporting arms from the German kaiser.

Surely no writer of genre fiction would have dared strain credulity by inventing the turn of events that went on to transform Erskine Childers from the John le Carré of his day into a convicted war criminal and nationalist martyr. There was nothing remotely predictable or even consistent about him, except for the absolute refusal to accept handed-down truths—whether in religion, politics or art—that remained the eternal constant in his character.

Childers was clearly a complicated man who acted according to his own beliefs. For one thing, he was born in London, in June 1870, to a landowning Anglo-Irish family. His father was a respectable nonconformist businessman and academic, and the boy’s family life seems to have been one of propriety and decorum. But tragedy lay ahead. After both his parents’ early deaths from tuberculosis, Childers and his four siblings would be sent to live with maternal relatives amid the wild beauty of the Glendalough hills of County Wicklow.

To call Childers a man of humanizing contradictions is an understatement.

In time, he formed a deep and abiding personal attachment to the land that had raised him, and in later years spoke of his “Irishness” as more of an attitude than a legally defined nationality. Similarly, Childers described his religion as “not narrowly proscribed, [nor] ideologically rigid,” but instead forged in the fire of a “direct and human” connection with the creator that was “vital and imperishable.” For him, that relationship was “alive and present in all our actions, and not limited to the fine print of a prayer book or the mumbled responses in Church.”

The 1916 Easter Rising that saw the deaths of 485 men, women and children, among them a number of swiftly enacted judicial executions, in a week of rioting around Dublin, seems to have clarified any remaining questions of national allegiance in Childers’s mind. “I am daily witness to the prostitution of the British army I served to fulfill the many aims I loathed and combated,” he wrote at the time. “I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland.”

The war over, Childers was a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic and barely survived. This was apparently another significant or decisive turning-point in his evolution from popular middlebrow author to radical activist. One of his biographers has speculated that Childers suffered a form of psychological breakdown during the winter of 1919-20 as a result, with a subsequent “addiction to danger that amounted almost to a death-wish.” It might be fair to say that the war and his illness served to remold him from an abstract supporter of Irish independence, and more broadly a free thinker on society and religion, into the incendiary figure who saw armed struggle as justified to achieve his political ends.

As if to illustrate the fact, in May 1920 Childers went on to publish Military Rule in Ireland, a stinging attack on British policy, and followed it by a series of articles in the weekly Irish Bulletintearing the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George to shreds. Childers was secretary to the delegation that eventually negotiated an accommodation with the Westminster parliament in December 1921, providing for Irish Home Rule 12 months later. Following that, the proposal went, the Dublin government would act as a self-sufficient dominion of the British Empire, much like Canada or Australia. It also required the taking of an oath of allegiance to the crown. Lloyd George wrote in his diary of a “sullen” Childers, seething with “compressed wrath” that his attempts to bring about total and immediate Irish independence had failed. Winston Churchill went one further, calling him a “murderous renegade” and a “strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.”

Winston Churchill called Childers a “murderous renegade” and a “strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.”

The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty spurred Childers, and others of his persuasion, such as the National Army commander Michael Collins, to take direct action in the face of what they saw as a sellout to London. Collins himself was ambushed and killed—it remains unclear whether by a hard-core nationalist, or by a British sniper—in August 1922.

This was far from the only violent episode that distinguished the long and bloody troubles that followed the treaty with London. After a further series of articles in the provocatively titled War News, the now frail middle-aged Childers set off by bicycle in early November 1922 from his current home in County Kerry on a 200-mile journey to confer with the recent Irish Republican president Éamon de Valera and his fellow rebels in Dublin. There might almost be a certain wry comedy to the scene but for its tragic consequences. Childers was arrested by British troops along the way and found to be in possession of a small .32 caliber pistol, in violation of recently passed legislation.

The subsequent judicial proceedings were swift. Childers was taken to Dublin, where he was put on trial for treason a week later. The proceedings ended on Nov. 18, 1922, after the defendant had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the British military tribunal convened for the event. The possession of the pistol was enough to condemn him to death.

Childers lodged an appeal against the sentence, and this was heard the following day by a civil magistrate who said he lacked jurisdiction because of the ongoing paramilitary disturbances in the area. “The prisoner disputes the authority of the Tribunal and comes to this court for protection,” the judge wrote, “but its answer must be that its jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war that he himself has helped to produce.”

Early on the morning of Nov. 24, 1922, Childers, now a stooped, gaunt-looking man of 52, was led into a tin-roofed shed used as a firing range at the Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin, where a row of 12 soldiers was waiting for him in front of an open coffin. Perhaps nothing in the life of this brilliant, troubled and sometimes perverse figure became him like the leaving it. After shaking the hand of each member of the firing squad, his final words were: “Take a step or two forwards, lads, it will be easier that way.”

A few hours earlier, Childers’s 16-year-old son—also named Erskine, and a future president of Ireland—had been allowed to briefly visit his father in his cell. The condemned man made him promise two things: that he would forgive every minister in the provisional government who was responsible for his death, and that if he ever went into politics he was never to seek to capitalize on his execution.

The younger Childers did as he was asked, and in later years sometimes produced a scrap of paper on which his father had written his last testament: “I die loving England, and passionately pray that she may change completely and passionately towards Ireland.”

More: Books / Ireland

The latest from america

Gerard O’Connell and host Colleen Dulle analyze the reported forthcoming appointment of Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict XVI’s longtime secretary and how it fits into the archbishop’s often publicly tumultuous relationship with Pope Francis.
Inside the VaticanApril 18, 2024
A Reflection for Saturday of the Fourth Week of Easter, by Ashley McKinless
Ashley McKinlessApril 17, 2024
A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinApril 17, 2024
A student works in his "Writing Our Catholic Faith" handwriting book during a homeschool lesson July 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Karen Bonar, The Register)
Hybrid schools offer greater flexibility, which can allow students to pursue other interests like robotics or nature studies or simply accommodate a teenager’s preferred sleep schedule.
Laura LokerApril 17, 2024