Overview of Erskine Childers' Political Development 1903-23

Notes by Roy H W Johnston relating primarily to his extensive role in the 'decade of centenaries' period.

(c) Roy Johnston 2013

(comments to roy@rjtechne.org)


There were at least five biographies done subsequent to the centenary of the birth of Erskine Childers:: Tom Cox in 1975, Burke Wilkinson in 1976, Andrew Boyle in 1977, Jim Ring in 1996 and Leonard Piper in 2003. Theere are references in Thomas Jones 'Whitehall Diaries' vol 3 (where the Irish material is collected) about his role in the Treaty negotiations. I have attempted to summarise the key episodes in his political evolution base on this material in what follows.

Childers 1903 book 'Riddle of the Sands' was the main prior source of his fame. In it he identified what he saw as a German threat to the British Empire, in the form of an invasion across the North Sea. At the same time Sir Henry Wilson was independently identifying a German threat to the British Empire in Africa. These combined to influence the emergence of the French alliance in 1904, and Wilson in the Imperial General Staff developed the idea of a 'British Expeditionary Force' for use in what was seen as the comiing war on the Continent.

Childers and Home Rule

Childers was influenced by his cousin Robert Barton and Horace Plunkett in favour of all-Ireland Home Rule, initially in the course of a visit to the south-west in the context of the co-operative movement. He subsequently wrote a book in support, 'Framework of Home Rule', published in 1911. He was convinced this would be necessary if Ireland were to be supportive of Britain and the Empire, in the face of the perceived German threat. He became an active Liberal and considered standing in the 1910 elections, but failed to get a nomination. He was prioritising the Irish Home Rule agenda, and was surprised at the lack of inherest by the public in England.

Visiting Belfast in the Covernant period however he under-estimated the Orange threat in this context, seeing it as mainly minor landed gentry. This however was enhanced by the active Tory influence, with the support of Sir Henry Wilson of the Imperial General Staff (IGS), who was promoting the idea of strategically deceiving Germany by building up the threat of civil war in Ireland. This evolved into active connivance with the Larne and Howth gun-runnings.

Home Rule in the Imperial Context

The Larne event in April 1914 was rooted in the Covenant and the percieved 'Rome Rule' threat associated with Home Rule, the prime movers were the Tory-Orange alliance, with the connivance of the Curragh officer-corps in the 'mutiny', in a cleverly managed elitist right-wing political environment. The Howth gun-running, on the other hand, was instigated by an upper-crust group motivated by the idea of an all-Ireland Home Rule supportive of the Empire, and Childers had no problem supporting this, in association with Redmond's volunteers and their perceived Empire-supporting position.

The Howth landing was in late July 1914, and Childers was a visitor to Westminster on Augusr 3 1914. He explained to his wife the cheering of the Commons MPs on the occasion of the declaration of war, in response to the German invasion of Belgium, in terms of the united support of Redmond and Carson for Asquith's lead of a united Commons.

Childers was then working for the Admiralty. On the Howth project he had with him Gordon Shephard, a colleague in the amateur sailing network, who worked in the War Office. This however could perhaps be a link with the Wilson scheme for deceiving the Germans, and introducing an element of surprise into the war declaration. It is quite possible that Childers was aware of this, and approved. However, from Wilson's perspective, it was also providing the means of wrecking the Home Rule process by introducing the gun into it, as later proved to be the case. Wilson was convinced that Home Rule on the Canadian model for Ireland would wreck the Empire; he said this repeatedly in his diaries. He was actively supportive of the Carson position.

So we have a 1914 scene in which the Larne and Howth gun-runnings are key elements in imperial strategy, aimed at deceiving the Germans and making their entry of the war a surprise; they hoped to defeat the Germans quickly and be 'home for Christmas' (it turned out however that they had serioulsly underestimated the German war machine!). Childers could have been conscious of this, as a supporter of Redmondite Home Rule in support of the Empire.

Childers, the war and 1916

Childers then became an active naval airman, and supported the war, one way or another, up to the end. He was surprised by 1916, and took a dim view of it, but was influenced by the savagery with which it was suppressed and the leadership executed. He was also influenced by his cousin Robert Barton, who had volunteered early in the war, but resigned after 1916 and joined Sinn Fein, initially to Childers' dismay.

In July 1917 Childers was taken out of active service by Lloyd George (who had succeeded Asquith) to act as Secretary to the Convention; this was an attempt by the British Establishment to deal with the post-1916 political situation. Chaired by Horace Plunkett, it was in effect an unsuccessful attempt to get a watered-down Home Rule process; it also gave Carson and Craig an opportunity to develop further the emerging partitionist politics in the North. Childers helped Plunkett draft the Report (February 1918).

Childers and Sinn Fein

In 1919, after completing his war work, Childers became a Sinn Fein supporter. He had conceivably been influenced by his Convention experience, and was critical of the way his earlier all-Ireland Home Rule concept had evolved. Robert Barton had a period in jail, and Childers had a period running his cousin's estate; in this context he was introduced by Barton to de Valera and Collins.

He became convinced that an independent republic was the necessary alternative to all-Ireland Home Rule. The details of the ecolution in his thinking however remain enigmatic, and Griffith tended to be suspicious of his motivation.

After his initial approach offering his services, he was sent to Paris, to try to influence the peace conference interaction, in the company of Sean T O Ceallaigh and others, but this turns out to be a fruitless project, being blocked by the British.

Childers was then invited to take over Sinn Fein publicity, producing their newsletter, which continued during the war of independence, in which process he was successful in influencing public opinion abroad, contributing to the pressure leading eventually to a truce and the subsequent treaty talks.

Childers and the Treaty

According to Thomas Jones, Lloyd George's secretary, on June 25 1921 de Valera, Griffith and Childers were all seen in terms of 'treason', and the idea of regarding all Dail members similarly was considered.

Then in July 14-21 a negotiating team led by de Valera , with Griffith, Stack, Barton and Childers, met the cabinet; Tom Jones on this initial occasion noted that Childers seemed on the verge of breakdown. Then on August 17 Childers was grudgingly recognised as an 'intellectual' and a possible member of a treaty negotiating team.

Preliminary procedures having been agreed, subsequent meetings took place, with de Valera as President of the Dail remaining in Dublin. The Irish negotiating team included Griffith, Collins, Barton, Duffy, Duggan, with Childers and Chartres as secretarial support. This met on October 11; there had been a prior meeting on October 10 between Tom Jones, Childers and Chartres, on agendas, procedures and credentials; this latter topic involved the recognition of the group as being accredited by the Dail, but it would appear that this aspect was not acknowledged.

In this the role of Childers was supportive in the interactions between the secretarial services, and in drafting of position papers. He did however have a direct intervention in the record, when on October 18 he actively intervened on the need for active naval defence, with control of access to ports, driven presumably by his admiralty experience, but this at the time was blocked by Churchill. Childers is subsequently excluded from the group, remaining supportive of de Valera in Dublin. Tom Jones was happy that he had been excluded, regarding him as 'most extreme'.

On November 30 Childers in Dublin advised Griffith in London (via a Tom Jones telegram on December 1) about the dangers of Sir Henry Wilson, two armies, civil war; the clear need for a joint Army Council; he was clearly concerned about Partition and the Craig/Carson threat. The final discussions began on December 3 and Childers was excluded

Treaty and Civil War

In the post-Treaty situation Childers became a member of Dev's cabinet in the Dail, replacing Desmond Fitzgerald who had been jailed. There is some evidence that Childers before the civil war attempted to act as a go-between for de Valera and Collins. The Wilson assassination however triggered a threat of intervention unless the Free State acted smilitarily against the aspirant republic, resulting in the Four Courts bombardment. In the ensuing context Childers remained nominally managing republican propaganda, though without resources or credibility; he was seen by the Free State as the arch Civil War villain.

The rule about the death penalty for possession of arms was, it would appear, set up to get Childers, though the four who were executed before him were perhaps to divert attention from this; none was similarly executed after him. Some, including Griffith, were inclined to see Childers as a British agent, seeking to make the transition to quasi-independence as divisive as possible. Wilson regarded the Treaty as being disastrously close to the Canadian model, which he had earlier seen as the 'end of the Empire'; he had been actively undermining the process via the Orange/Tory network (personally and via his brother). The role of Chartres has also been questioned.


In Tom Jones there is a passing mention of the Childers execution in the editorial comment introducing the 1923 section. Also on 21/01/23 Childers is accused of having excluded expert draft experience from the Treaty documentation.

His gentlemanly acceptance of his execution process adds to the depth of the famous 'Riddle' of the Boyle biography title. He must have been under extreme pressure, one way or another. His son, who later became Prosident, was in his teens an active supporter of Sinn Fein during the war of independence period, and has since served Ireland well, as has his grandson Erskine B via the UN.

One way or another, in the opinion of the present writer the main villain was Sir Henry Wilson, who was the prime mover, along with Carson, Craig and Crawford, responsible for introducing the gun into Home Rule politics prior to 1914.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 2013