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Centenary of Erskine Childers’ Execution In Dublin On Thursday, November 24th Will Evoke A Complexity Of Responses

23rd November 2022
Happy times – Molly and Erskine Childers cruising Asgard in the Baltic in 1910. His short life of 52 years from 1870 until his execution in Dublin on November 24th 1922 was one of increasing seriousness, and this is one of the very few photos which show him with even the hint of a smile
Happy times – Molly and Erskine Childers cruising Asgard in the Baltic in 1910. His short life of 52 years from 1870 until his execution in Dublin on November 24th 1922 was one of increasing seriousness, and this is one of the very few photos which show him with even the hint of a smile Credit: Wikipix

The gaunt but serene Erskine Childers (52) died an hour after dawn on November 24th 1922 in Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin. He had been captured as an armed opponent of the new Irish Free State Government’s policy of implementing the compromising Anglo-Irish Treaty, resulting in the Civil War which the authorities were now ruthlessly - through a brutal programme of high-profile executions of anti-treaty forces of all ranks – bringing to a speedy if blood-laden end.

Childers died as he had lived, with dignity. Before the execution, he shook hands with each member of the firing squad. And after he had been secured in place and his eyes blindfolded, his last words were: “Take a step forward, lads – it will be easier that way”. Moreover, in the week before his execution, he had his son Erskine Hamilton Childers, a future President of Ireland, come from school to visit him in prison to extract the promise that, in adulthood, he would seek out each surviving member of the Firing Squad to shake his hand.

And further still, he requested that the younger Childers would then find each member of the Government who had signed his death warrant in a similar gesture of reconciliation to close the era of bloodshed which Childers - as someone who had an all-or-nothing approach to life - realised was inescapable before Ireland began to find a way forward, whatever it might be.

Erskine Childers in 1922Erskine Childers in 1922

MOVING ON AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE

So compactly vicious had the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War become that the death of Childers would have been noted in Ireland as inevitable, as something to be moved on from just as quickly as possible. And in the broader world in which he had once held the position of one of the English language’s most popular authors of unusually-themed spy thrillers, the change in his status at the time of his death was so total that people either blanked out his memory in confusion, or else preferred to remember only the star-spangled period of his life, with his final decade being consigned to oblivion as a total aberration.

And now, 152 years after his birth, everyone considers Childers through the lens of their own particular interests. Political and military historians assess his role in Ireland in the turbulent years from 1914 to 1922 as it affected the development of events. Meanwhile, attitude analysts make much of the total change in his approach from a staunch and enthusiastic unionist and British Imperialist in his youth and early manhood, into an anti-imperialist pro-Irish republican activist of the most dedicated kind.

As for sailing folk, we simple sons and daughters of the sea and the lakes, we much prefer to think of Erskine Childers only as a brilliant seaman and an eloquent writer about our largely misunderstood and often ignored passion, someone who wrote an alleged spy thriller which was in itself the act of a double agent.

Vixen under sail – remarkably, there is a converted RNLI lifeboat in there somewhere. As Dulcibella, Vixen became the star of Erskine Childers’ best-seller The Riddle of the SandsVixen under sail – remarkably, there is a converted RNLI lifeboat in there somewhere. As Dulcibella, Vixen became the star of Erskine Childers’ best-seller The Riddle of the Sands

THE MOST MAGIC SAILING BOOK

For Childers’ novel The Riddle of the Sands – never out of print since it was first published in 1903, and a well-received feature film in 1979 - may seem to the general reader to be a brilliant and subtle warning of how the rapidly rising Germany was building up the potential to have a viable invasion force in Friesland which could cross the North Sea to conquer an unsuspecting England on her weakest flank.

But we amateur sailors know that it is really a superbly-camouflaged description of the special joys of small boat cruising in shallow waters among interesting islands and coastal communities, the most magic sailing book. All the rest of it – the searching around of mysterious new artificial harbours, the avoidance of nosey officialdom, the portrayal of pantomime villains, and (Heaven forbid) the hint of a love interest - all this is only flim-flam to fool civilians into not realising that it is primarily a story about the enduring appeal of genuine amateur cruising in a small boat.

DUN LAOGHAIRE’S ROLE IN CHILDERS’ SAILING

Thus readers in England tend to see Childers’ sailing and its ethos as centrally based in their waters. Yet it all started in Ireland, on the lakes of the Wicklow mountains and in Dublin Bay. For in England, Childers was essentially an orphan from the age of six, when his father died of tuberculosis. His mother was infected, and though she lived for another eight years, it was in a fever hospital in total isolation from her family of two sons and three daughters.

But as his mother was a Barton from Glendalough House at Annamoe in the Wicklow hills, it was there that young Childers and his deprived siblings found a family home among loving relatives after 1883. It was there that they started sailing experiments with their Barton cousins on Lough Dan with sailing canoes and lake boats fitted with rudimentary rigs. And it was from Annamoe at the age of 22 that Erskine Childers and his older brother Henry ventured in 1892 down to what was then Kingstown to meet a noted Royal St George YC member, the renowned helmsman, racing star and rule innovator G B Thompson (later Vice Commodore of Royal St George YC from 1896 to 1920), whose relatively new A E Payne-designed 5.5 Rater Shulah was on the market.

 Spring arrives late on the Wicklow hills at Lough Dan, where Erskine Childers started his sailing. Photo Wicklow.ie Spring arrives late on the Wicklow hills at Lough Dan, where Erskine Childers started his sailing. Photo Wicklow.ie

Thompson felt he’d achieved everything in local racing that he could with Shulah, and it was time to move on to another boat - he owned and campaigned ten in his long sailing career. But he felt Shulah would be ideal to introduce promising newcomers from the right background to the Dublin Bay racing scene, in which he could be their mentor. However, the Childers brothers had other ideas entirely. Their research had shown them that at 8 tons Thames Measurement, with a small cockpit and basic sleeping accommodation below, the 33ft Shulah had the potential to be a handy little fast cruiser.

SUCCESSFUL CORINTHIAN CRUISERS

They’d no personal experience whatever of cruising, and very little, if any, of sea sailing. But “How To” books for neophyte cruisers were increasingly available, and Shulah seemed to tick enough boxes. So though we don’t know if it was Thompson who steered them towards a paid hand/coach to guide them on their first mini-voyages around and from Dublin Bay with Howth being their first “foreign port”, we do know that as the summer of 1892 progressed, they felt sufficiently emboldened to cruise to the Clyde where Shulah was laid up at Gourock with further Scottish cruising planned for 1893. And by that time the Childers brothers reckoned they were better off without a paid hand to assist – they would become true Corinthian cruisers.

Kingstown Harbour in the late 1800s – Erskine Childers’ first cruise – to Scotland – started from here with Shulah in 1892.Kingstown Harbour in the late 1800s – Erskine Childers’ first cruise – to Scotland – started from here with Shulah in 1892

But even as their cruise on up the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides in 1893 was adding to their experience and enjoyment of sailing, other factors were intervening in their lives. As products of the English upper-ranks education system – Erskine went to public school at Haileybury and university at Cambridge – they sought careers in administrative roles in in London, and after returning to Dun Laoghaire with Shulah, their plan was to get her to the Solent and possibly the Thames Estuary to serve their sailing needs while London-based.

However, adverse weather meant that they got Shulah no further than Plymouth in the Autumn, where she was laid up for the off-season. And through the winter it became evident that the two brothers’ career paths ashore and afloat would be more effectively served by individual boat-ownership, so Shulah – which had been listed in Lloyds Register as solely owned by Henry – was sold to a Plymouth yachtsman.

Erskine’s sailing was now mainly focused on a couple of smaller craft based in the southeast of England with The Netherlands, Belgium and France as possible destinations, and he had soon joined with kindred spirits in the very non-racing Cruising Club (founded 1880 and elevated to Royal Cruising Club in 1902) where he was quickly an active member of the Committee, and the awardee of some cruising trophies - his talent for the entertaining narrative of a mini-voyage was already well-developed.

WATER WAG TO LOUGH DAN

But despite his emerging persona as a young man-about-town in London with enthusiastic outdoor interests at the nearest available countryside and coast, he still felt very strongly drawn to Wicklow, and in 1894 he had arranged the purchase in Kingstown of one of the 1887-founded Dublin Bay Water Wag Class 13ft lug-sailed dinghies, organising its transport to Lough Dan so that it would be available to sail on the almost mystical waters of his youth during his visits home.

 A trio of the original 1887 Water Wags. Erskine Childers bought one of these in 1894 for use on Lough Dan when he was visiting home in Wicklow A trio of the original 1887 Water Wags. Erskine Childers bought one of these in 1894 for use on Lough Dan when he was visiting home in Wicklow

However, with a career in the making as a Clerk - effectively a “Business-of-the-Day Manager” – in the House of Commons in the Westminster Parliament, and with ambitions of becoming a Member of that Parliament in his own right, his life was increasingly London-centric, and very demanding with it. So much so that when the Clerks finally managed to guide the argumentative House’s business to a close for the Summer Recess in 1897, the summer was already well advanced.

In frustration, the briefly boat-less Childers had made the impulse buy of an eccentric little cruising cutter called the Vixen, an ingeniously-converted former RNLI lifeboat with a great big centreboard in the middle of the already limited accommodation. But at least this facilitated the shoal waters cruising which he found increasingly fascinating, and with Autumn already almost upon them, he and some shipmates including brother Henry set off for the Baltic. They soon found themselves among the mysterious Friesian Islands off the northwest coast of Germany, and thus the seed of The Riddle of the Sands was sown.

TOWARDS A CHANGING MIND-SET

Back in London, the setbacks in the Boer War as the 19th Century drew to a close found Childers becoming voluntarily involved with the Honourable Artillery Company, and he served with a special deployment that was sent to serve in South Africa from March to September 1900. In the South African winter – such as it was – this was an increasingly unpleasant experience in a very messy and often unusually cruel war, and Childers returned to England to find himself experiencing his first doubts about the validity and morality of the Imperial Mission.

But nearer home, there was much routine work to be done in Westminster, while the growing stories of Germany’s build-up of her armed forces added urgency to the project of turning the experiences of his 1897 cruise to Friesia into a subtle spy book warning of the dangers of a trans-North Sea invasion. And after much effort and a couple of false trials, it was published in 1903 to universal acclaim and attention in all the right decision-making places.

A carefree Erskine Childers – the Victorian sporting man aboard Vixen in 1897A carefree Erskine Childers – the Victorian sporting man aboard Vixen in 1897

This was a life-changing development. But the greatest life-course changer for Erskine Childers was to come the following year, when the Honourable Artillery Company made its 1904 goodwill visit to Boston. It was the first formal and friendly visit by any unit of the British military to an independent American city, for relations with the new and rapidly growing power on the other side of the Atlantic had often been far from smooth despite the 138 years since Independence from Britain.

Goodwill was in the air, and within days Erskine Childers had met the love of his life, Mary Alden Osgood – known to all as “Molly” - the daughter of one of the leading “Boston Brahmin” families. But in the case of the Osgoods, this was a distinguished and affluent professional family with a notably liberal, generous and distinctly anti-imperialist outlook.

So in finding his soul-mate in Molly Osgood, Erskine Childers had teamed up with a life-partner who would encourage his own increasingly liberal outlook on life, and in particular his nascent interest in Home Rule for Ireland in a movement which was already being enthusiastically espoused by the Barton cousins in the Wicklow hills.

In due course that would all develop, but in the meantime life was joyously taken up with their wedding present from Molly’s parents, the gift of a new 51ft 28-ton cruising ketch to be designed and built to Erskine & Molly’s specifications by a designer and shipwright chosen by Erskine.

Since parting from Vixen – which had become Dulcibella in The Riddle of the Sands - Childers had owned the 15-ton yawl Sunbeam in partnership with a couple of sailing friends, and a cruise to the Baltic which had somehow been fitted into the busy year of 1903 had increased his awareness of the work of the great Norwegian naval architect/shipwright Colin Archer (he was of Scots descent) of Larvik near Oslo.

 The Master of Larvik – Colin Archer was in particularly good form when designing and building Asgard for Erskine & Molly Childers in 1905, as Norway was enjoying newly-won independence from Sweden The Master of Larvik – Colin Archer was in particularly good form when designing and building Asgard for Erskine & Molly Childers in 1905, as Norway was enjoying newly-won independence from Sweden

That cruise had also developed his concept of the ideal cruising yacht, accentuated by experiencing the severe limitations of Vixen, which had reinforced the viewpoint expressed in one of his few sardonic comments about the Boer War: “There are no medals awarded for enduring unnecessary discomfort”.

With the hugely-experienced Colin Archer - who was in a particularly good frame of mind as the keenly-anticipated Norwegian independence from Sweden was finally achieved in 1905 - the 51ft 28-ton Asgard was created in very auspicious circumstances for the newly-weds, becoming one of the most effective yet unpretentious cruising yachts of her day.

And thanks to the many turns which the lives of Erskine and Molly Childers were to take – both together and separately – over the next increasingly turbulent 17 years – today we can admire the conserved Asgard in all her remarkable yet understated glory on exhibition in the Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin.

 The conserved Asgard on display in Collins Barracks, with conservator John Kearon explaining to a group of cruising enthusiasts how the project of saving her was successfully completed. Photo: W M Nixon The conserved Asgard on display in Collins Barracks, with conservator John Kearon explaining to a group of cruising enthusiasts how the project of saving her was successfully completed. Photo: W M Nixon

As to how she comes to be there, we’ll assume general knowledge of her key role in the July 1914 gun-running to Howth in support of the much-promised but often delayed Home Rule for Ireland. We’ll assume, too, that you know that all the main actors in the three yachts involved in the total gun-running project immediately signed up for service with the allied forces in the Great War which broke out wihin days of the guns coming ashore in Howth and Wicklow.

And we’ll take it as a given that you’re aware that after the Easter Rising of 1916, Childers was taken out of his be-medalled service in the war in order to be a line of contact between the opposing forces both within Ireland, and between Ireland and London.

The Great War ended in November 1918 to become known – all too soon – as World War I. And in Ireland the scene had moved forwards towards the End Game with a Sinn Fen landslide in the south and west of the country in a General Election which provided such a powerful mandate that the SF members refused to take up their seats in London’s Westminster parliament.

Instead, the first Dail was established in Dublin’s Mansion House and a remarkable parallel alternative administration began to develop throughout the nationalist-majority areas of Ireland. It was headed by Michael Collins, as Eamonn de Valera was away in the USA fund-raising, and Erskine Childers worked for it in the unsubtly-named Department of Propaganda, while his fellow former gun-runner, Conor O’Brien, was recruited with his ketch Kelpie to be a Fisheries Inspector off the West Coast.

But inevitably this measured approach had already proven too slow for the more impatient Home Rulers or advocates of total Independence, and the War of Independence was soon messily under way. Yet the underlying strength of the Provisional Government was demonstrated in its continuing functioning, even to having alternative law courts which many communities found to be much more effective than the occasionally convened and often totally ignored British ones.

And in the Department of Propaganda, working anonymously, Erskine Childers was in his element. Any respected international journalist who had shown the slightest fair-minded attitude to the situation was given every assistance in coming to Ireland and developing his or her stories.

The American and other journalists whom he brought over were impressed by his professionalism, thoroughness and thoughtfulness in trying to help them provide an accurate overview of the situation. His personal problem was that British politicians and their imperialist press – with whom he would otherwise have got on reasonably well as an equal - regarded him as a complete traitor. The fact that he’d written the popular and influential Riddle of the Sands only added to their confusion and annoyance.

Making history – Asgard departing Howth after the successful landing of the guns on Sunday July 26th 1914 which – contrary to the account in some histories – was not at all a warm summery day. She is setting a gaff-headed trisail as her mainsail had been torn during the unloading of the gunsMaking history – Asgard departing Howth after the successful landing of the guns on Sunday July 26th 1914 which – contrary to the account in some histories – was not at all a warm summery day. She is setting a gaff-headed trisail as her mainsail had been torn during the unloading of the guns

At the other end of the spectrum, the more extreme Irish republicans with whom he was supposed to work in harmony were profoundly suspicious of him as a potential spy, and they disliked him instinctively as being an obvious member of the Ascendancy landlord class, for all that the Bartons in Wicklow had been model landlords.

And then, too, he had become someone with whom people could not comfortably feel at ease in a professional situation. His ultimately totally uncompromising attitude was occasionally hinted at, despite the supposed affability of propaganda work. Long gone was the jolly life-exuding young skipper who had sailed out with his friends in that crazy cruise with the Vixen in 1897. In their place was someone who, even when off duty, had the harrowed look of a man who had an inescapable date with destiny.

It would be easy to talk of Erskine Childers in 1920 as being on an unalterable course towards that appointment with the firing squad two years later. Yet now a hundred years later, it helps us to come to terms with what looks like a terrible waste, the totally untimely end to an exceptional talent at the age of 52 when he had come through so much, he had given so much, and surely – had things been very different - could have learned again how to enjoy and give as he had in times past.

Towards dawn on November 24th 1922, he asked for an extra hour so that he could see the sun come up on his beloved Wicklow hills above the dark lake where his little sailing dinghy nestled in its winter shelter. And already that sun shone on Snowdonia in Wales, beneath whose peaks in the boatyard beside the Menai Straits, his beloved Asgard still rested, stored undisturbed since the events of July 1914. Then Erskine Childers turned, and in his awkward yet gentle way, he helped the firing squad to do their duty.

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

Email The Author

William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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