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Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers about 1900

Robert Erskine Childers was shot by an Irish Free State firing squad Nov. 24, 1922, after being convicted of having a small pistol. He had been one of the leaders, with Eamon de Valera, of the Irish Republican Army rebellion against the Free State leadership of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. His son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was president of Ireland in 1973-4.

Childers, shown here in a photo around the time of the Boer War, was a cousin of Hugh Childers, who served Gladstone as First Lord of the Admiralty and Minister of War. As a clerk in the House of Commons, Erskine Childers had free time to sail on his 30-foot cutter Vixen (which must have been the prototype for Dulcibella) including to the Baltic and Friesland Islands. After a tour in his larger yacht, Sunbeam, Childers wrote The Riddle of the Sands, in 1903. Although the book was not published until 1915 in the United States, Childers in 1903 traveled to the United States, where he met and married Mollie Osgood, daughter of a Boston physician. They had a 50-foot ketch, Asgard, built for them and sailed it regularly to the North Sea and Baltic.

Childers became an advocate of Irish Home Rule and he and his wife used their sailboat to smuggle to the Irish rebels in July, 1914, arms which served as the basis for the Easter uprising of 1916.

As soon as World War I started, Childers volunteered in the Royal Navy and served in Naval Intelligence, raiding Cuxhaven and flying in a seaplane to the North Sea coast of Germany. He received a Distinguished Service Cross.

After the Irish partition Childers served the cause of Irish independence until his execution.

The book has become famous as one of the first spy stories. Several Englishmen were arrested for espionage in Germany in 1910--they evidently followed the novel religiously. Their trials publicized not only the book but also anti-German feeling in the years before the Great War.

Winston Churchill said of Childers after his capture and in support of his execution: "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."

The book was also made into a good film a few years ago, available on video tape.

The Boston Globe in Massachusetts, U.S.A., printed a fine article by Kevin Cullen on 1998-03-25 about Childers and the campaign to preserve the Asgard, which is now mouldering in a Dublin jailyard. See the Boston Globe article "Irish History Adrift, On Land Yacht That Brought Aid To Rebels Now Needs It" published on March 25, 1998. search the Globe archives. However, the online version does not include several nice illustrations, so see your local public library for the full story.

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