Erskine Childers was a loyal servant of the British Empire who went on challenge the authorities in direct and controversial circumstances.
Born in London in 1870 to an Englishman and an Irishwoman, Childers was an orphan by the age of 13 and was raised by his Anglo-Irish family in County Wicklow. He studied law at Cambridge and became a junior committee clerk in the House of Commons. He also took up sailing, learning the ropes while sailing alone in the Thames Estuary on his ‘scrubby little yacht’ Shulah. Only four years later he was sailing with his brother across the North Sea to the Frisian Islands, the location for Riddle of the Sands.
Childers contributed detective stories to Cambridge Review while at university. He wrote In the Banks of the C.I.V after serving in the Boer War in 1900, a series of letters which were published at the end of 1900. Childers spent the next two years writing Riddle of the Sands, which was published in May 1903 and was an immediate hit. It has never been out of print since.
Childers’s attitude towards Britain and the Empire became increasingly complex and troubled. He became convinced of the need for Irish independence, and in 1914 sailed his yacht Asgard from Belgium to Howth with a load of 1870 Mauser rifles bought in Germany. At Howth the rifles were handed over to Irish Volunteers. When war broke out, Childers was given a reserve commission in the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service where he principally helped with navigational training and practice. He was decorated in 1916 for service in the Admiralty – the same year as the Easter Rising in Ireland, when smuggled German rifles were used against British soldiers.
Dismayed with Britain’s repressive response to the 1916 rising, Childers moved to Ireland after the war. In 1921 he was elected to the Second Dáil as a Sinn Féin member, and in late 1921 was secretary-general of the Irish delegation at the historic Anglo-Irish Treaty meetings of 1921-22. Childers was violently opposed to the treaty, and took the republican side in the ensuing Irish civil war. He was executed by an Irish Free State military firing squad on 24 November in Dublin. His son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, would later become President of the Republic of Ireland.