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Erskine Childers, and the Riddle of the Sands




Erskine Childers and Mary Spring Rice on board the Asgard, off Howth, Co Dublin, July 1914


Erskine Childers, English born, worked in the British civil service, served in the British Army in two wars, yet, he turned completely against the British presence in Ireland. Childers, born June 25, 1870, 151 years ago to Anglo-Irish parents was brought up in Ireland. His mother was a Barton of Glendalough House, Annamoe Co Wicklow, he spent long periods thee with his cousin who later played a role in the struggle for Irish independence. A clerk in the House of Commons from 1895-1910 he sailed the North Sea, English Channel, German, Dutch and Danish coasts during long summer holidays. A skilled yachtsman, he wrote The Riddle of the Sands, the first ever spy novel published in 1903, is a fictionalised account of German plans to invade England, based on sailing holidays taken in the Baltic. This early espionage novel foresaw the Great War due to engulf Europe in 1914.

Childers married Mary Ellen Osgood of Boston. Among their wedding presents was the yacht Asgard due to feature in Irish history only 10 years later. Childers' conversion came in 1908 he then became a more convinced home ruler. Childers resigned his membership of the Liberal

Party and with it his hopes of winning a parliamentary seat, over concessions

to Unionists and postponement of Irish self-rule; he had written works critical of British policy in Ireland and in its South African possessions, The Framework of Home Rule. This gave the British government the sensible advice to give Ireland a substantial measure of self government in order to ensure genuine Irish attachment to the arrangement. He urged that Ireland be given complete control over her own revenues and fiscal policy, even allowing the new Irish government the right to impose protective tariffs if they so wished.

He despaired at the Ulster Unionists and their British Conservative allies anti-home rule campaign. The Larne gun running, April 1914, inspired him and other Liberal Anglo-Irish ascendancy sympathisers of home rule into action.

In May 1914, Childers and Darrell Figgis travelled to Germany to purchase arms and ammunition. The Asgard, crewed by Childers his wife and Mary Spring Rice, the rifles were landed at Howth in late July passing through the British Grand Fleet at Spithead enroute. This was a feat of extraordinary navigation over 1,000 km of rough seas. Childers joined the Royal Naval Air Service and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1916, expecting Britain to support the claims of Irish nationality post-war.


Churchill sent the official telegram calling Childers to naval service to the Dublin headquarters of the Irish Volunteers, the organisation to which he had made the delivery of arms. In 1914 the Irish Volunteers were expected to fight on the side of Britain during WW1 in order to secure Home Rule. Childers believed that smaller nations such as Belgium and Serbia would benefit from Britain's defeat of Germany and, as a prospectively independent nation, Ireland would gain. In mid-August 1914 Childers secured a reserve commission in the intelligence arm of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill, the first Lord of the Admiralty, although hostile to spending money on armaments at the time The Riddle of the Sands was published, later, he granted the book the credit for persuading public opinion to fund vital measures against the German naval threat, and he was instrumental in securing Childers' recall. His first task was a reversal of his plot for The Riddle of the Sands: to draw up a plan for the invasion of Germany by way of the Frisian Islands. Only a few days later he was allocated to HMS Engadine, a seaplane tender, as an instructor in coastal navigation to newly trained pilots. He flew as navigator and observer, including a sortie navigating over a familiar coastline in the Cuxhaven raid, an inconclusive bombing attack on the Cuxhaven airship base on Christmas Day 1914, for which he was mentioned in dispatches. In 1915 he was transferred in a similar role to HMS Ben-my-Chree, in which he served in the Gallipoli Campaign and the eastern Mediterranean, earning a DSC. He was sent back to London in April 1916 to receive his decoration from the King and for service in the Admiralty.

This period in his life is not fully documented and his Irish detractors alleged that he was once again engaged in intelligence work. In reality he was engaged in the mundane task of allocating seaplanes to their intended ships. It took Childers until autumn of that year to extricate himself and train for service with a new coastal motor boat squadron operating in the English Channel.

A respite from Childers' military career was offered on 27 July 1917, when Sir Horace Plunkett asked for him to be assigned to the secretariat of Prime Minister Llyod George’s Home Rule Convention initiative in Dublin Castle. Childers became a zealous nationalist offering his services to Desmond Fitzgerald, and after Fitzgerald’s arrest he became Director of Publicity March 1921. In May 1921 he was returned as TD for Wicklow. Childers was chief secretary of the Dáil delegation that negotiated the Treaty in 1921 which he vehemently opposed and joined Republican forces until arrested at Glendalough House November 1922, he was

executed by firing squad for carrying a .22 poltergeist pistol, given to him by Michael

Collins he shook hands with each member of the firing squad, suggesting they stood

closer 'that it would be better for all of us'. So expired a remarkable man with excellent

achievements. Childers begat an Irish President and an MEP Neassa Childers.

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