Erskine Childers did not die the way most authors die. On a November day in 1922 Childers was shot to death by a British Government firing squad at Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin.
Nineteen years earlier, before he was killed for his role as a propagandist in the creation of the Irish Free State, Erskine Childers wrote a novel. The book had nothing to do with his death, but it did make him known to the British Government.
The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903, is Erskine Childers’ only novel. It prompted the Royal Navy to make extensive military preparations a decade in advance of the First World War. It is widely acknowledged as one of the first novels written in the foreign espionage genre.
Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Alan Furst, and authors of lesser talent who have worked in the espionage field, follow in the footsteps of Childers. He pushed beyond the ground Joseph Conrad would cover four years later in The Secret Agent; A Simple Tale. Rather than a detailed focus on the psychological elements of his characters, clearly the forte of Conrad, Childers stuck to the story and burnished it with rich descriptions of the sea.
Conrad too could obviously write descriptive nautical accounts. He first shipped out of Marseilles at the age of 16, and spent twenty-one years at sea. But while Joseph Conrad was a professional merchant seaman, Childers was a recreational sailor; the contrasts in their fiction are evident. And in terms of sheer writing ability, Childers is not in Conrad’s league. Few are, although Childers is highly accomplished at creating atmosphere. And the two had a few other things in common, including adventures in gun running.
The Riddle of the Sands takes place at the turn of the last century. It unravels the story of two Englishmen sailing through the Frisian Islands and in the North Sea off the northern coasts of Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.
They find the Germans making preparations for war and fueled by curiosity, enabled by the undemanding draft of their boat and their ability to cleverly use the area’s dramatic tides to their advantage, they poke and prod and gather a disturbing collection of facts.
Rich nautical atmosphere and descriptive prose wrapped around a good yarn have earned the book a longstanding reputation as one of the fictional gems of espionage.
The Riddle of the Sands is noteworthy as one of the first novels in which a specific foreign government is positioned as the enemy. Its prescience is chilling; World War One is referred to by character Arthur Davies as “the war that he felt was bound to come.”
Shortly after Winston Churchill, at the time First Lord of the Admiralty, read the book, he ordered the construction of naval defense facilities at Invergordon, Rosyth and Scapa Flow.
When Erskine Childers could take time away from his clerk’s job in the British House of Commons he would sail in the Baltic and the North Seas. His first sailing trip to the Frisian Islands, depicted in The Riddle of the Sands, was aboard a thirty-foot cutter in 1897.
His most celebrated boat, the 28 ton yacht Asgard, was a wedding gift from his father-in-law, a Boston doctor. Asgard has survived the years and is now displayed at the National Museum of Ireland.
Shortly before the First World War, Erskine Childers showed growing interest in the Irish struggle for independence. Childers was born in London’s Mayfair District and following the death of his father from tuberculosis, and while his mother was confined to an isolation ward in a London hospital, he was sent to live with his mother’s family in Glendalough, County Wicklow. His youth in Ireland, as a privileged protestant, kindled his interest in Irish Nationalism.
On 12 July 1914, a few weeks after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Childers was aboard Asgard, anchored off the mouth of the River Scheldt. 1,500 rifles and 49,000 rounds of ammunition hauled by tugboat from the Hamburg munitions firm Moritz Magnus der Jungere in Hamburg were transferred aboard.
What Asgard couldn’t hold went onto Kelpie, owned by Conor O’Brien. Two weeks later Childers sailed into Howth, now a Dublin suburb, and the weapons were transferred once again, this time to uniformed Irish Volunteers. The following year these weapons would be used in the Easter Rising.
The Magnus operations survived World War I and went on to manufacture arms for Hitler. The Nazis liquidated the Jewish firm at the end of 1939. Moritz, his daughter Herta and son-in-law Otto Hammerschlag, and his two granddaughters, Inge and Ellen, all died in Auschwitz.
When the war Childers prophesized arrived, he served as a Royal Naval Volunteer aboard a seaplane, HMS Engadine, then, to HMS Ben-my-Chree. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Following this duty he worked in the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty. The desk job did not suit him and he transferred to a coastal motor boat squadron operating in the English Channel.
Three years before Childers was killed he moved his family from London to Dublin. He was through wrestling with the political notion of Great Britain administering Ireland as a Dominion, and took a job as the Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament. Since serving in the Boer War he had been questioning the legitimacy of Great Britain’s imperialism. His eventual support of the Irish cause was not an impulsive reaction, but a prolonged and considered process.
Erskine Childers severed all political ties with Great Britain, where he had once served as a Liberal Party Member of Parliament from Devonport. He represented Irish nationalists at the Versailles Conference in Paris. His writing and pamphleteering prompted the British to make his capture and his death a priority.
Winston Churchill, once influenced by Childers’ fiction, now branded him as a turncoat;
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.
Erskine Childers went underground. On a trip to meet with Sinn Fein leader Eamon De Valera he was captured by the British in County Wicklow and charged with the illegal possession of a firearm, a Spanish Destroyer .32.
Before Childers was killed in the grim Beggars Bush Barracks, he made his son promise to track down each man who had signed his death warrant, and to shake that man’s hand.
And as the firing squad prepared to kill him, Childers shook the hand of each of its men and told them;
Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way.
Fifty-one years after his father’s death, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was inaugurated as the Fourth President of Ireland.
After serving seventeen months, in the fall of 1975 he suffered a heart attack and died while making a speech to members of the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin.