Peter Garland – The Love Life of Erskine Childers


Peter Garland was born in Dublin, went to the U.S. at twelve years of age.  New York then San Francisco.  Graduated from U. C. Berkeley in literature, gained a couple more degrees.  Had careers as navy analyst and high school teacher – now a writer!  Published several articles in the past year on Oscar Wilde and his family who have roots in Galway.

The Love Life of Erskine Childers

By Peter Garland

Erskine Childers was born in London in 1870.  His father was a translator and Orientalist scholar (the first to translate Buddhist texts into English) and his mother, née Barton, came of an Anglo-Irish landowning family in Glendalough which family owned, and still owns the Château Langoa-Barton winery in Bordeaux, France.  Erskine and his four siblings lost their parents early on and they were sent to the Bartons at Glendalough where they were kindly and comfortably raised as members of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.

Erskine returned to England to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became president of the College Debating Society, arguing passionately against Home Rule for Ireland.

After college he worked as a junior committee clerk in the English House of Commons, preparing formal and legally sound bills from government proposals.

A Boer War stint with the Royal horse artillery, in the company of young men from Cork, began to democratize Erskine Childers.

In 1903, based on his own sailing trips with his brother Henry, investigating all the coasts of southern England as well as those of the North Sea, including Germany, he published a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, which predicted war with Germany and warned of British unpreparedness.  Winston Churchill, who would later damn its author to hell, credited the Riddle with convincing the British public and their Admiralty to build several naval bases in eastern Scotland and cope with the impending German threat.  The novel has never gone out of print.

Later that year, Erskine and his unit were invited to America by the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company of Boston for a brotherly celebration and when the rest of his unit returned home, Erskine stayed on to explore New England via motorcycle.  One day his machine broke down outside some stately homes in Boston and, diffidently, he went to the door of one and asked to borrow a wrench.  The owner of the house, Dr. Hamilton Osgood, a prominent Boston physician, whose family had originally come over on the Mayflower, divined that Childers was a member of the visiting artillery unit.  He invited the young man in and introduced him to his wife, Margaret, and to their daughter, Molly Osgood.  Erskine was invited back to dinner and seated opposite Molly.  She accompanied him on his further explorations of Boston, introducing him to many people and after three weeks he proposed to her.  Much to his amazement, he reports, she said, “Yes.”

They were married at Boston’s Trinity Church in January 1904, lived happily together in Chelsea, London and had three sons, two of whom lived.  Today Molly is known as an Irish writer and nationalist.  She encouraged Erskine in his developing desire for Irish independence.  In due time, he became passionately convinced that the island of Ireland should have its own government.  By the time the First World War rolled around, he had resigned from Parliament and was publishing works critical of British policy in Ireland and in South Africa.

He taught Molly, somewhat handicapped from a childhood skating accident, how to sail and in 1914 together in their sailing yacht the Asgard (a wedding present from her father, built according to their own specifications to accommodate Molly’s handicap) they smuggled 900 German Mauser rifles with ammunition into uniformed Irish Volunteers at Howth, rifles that were later used in the Easter Rising.  (The Germans sold far more rifles to the Unionist forces in Northern Ireland.)  Erskine’s activities were no secret to the British.  His recall back into the English army was delivered to the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin.  He went again to war for England; he and Molly hoped that a British victory would benefit smaller countries.

During the conflict, Molly raised funds and worked for the relief of Belgian refugees.  Afterwards King George V gave her the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Award (MBE) and she was honored by the Queen of Belgium.  Along with Maud Gonne, she and her husband were members of the Irish White Cross Society, predecessor of the Red Cross and Mrs Childers belonged to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which later merged into UNESCO.

In the fight for Irish nationhood, some Irish patriots, Arthur Griffith, for instance, did not know what to make of “that bloody Englishman,” Erskine Childers.  Nevertheless, Childers was secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British government in the winter of 1921.  One of his cousins, Robert Barton, was also an Irish delegate, along with Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.  Childers was vehemently opposed to the final draft of the Treaty, which required Irishmen to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British king.  However, the agreement was approved by a Dáil vote of 64-57 in January 1922

In the ensuing Irish Civil War, Erskine Childers was on the Republican anti-Treaty side and Michael Collins of Sinn Féin on the pro-Treaty.  Some time earlier, when they were cohorts, Collins had given Childers a present of a Spanish-made “Destroyer” .32 caliber semi-automatic pistol.  After Michael Collins was assassinated, the nascent Irish Free State government, declaring martial law, made it illegal for anyone to carry a gun without a license.  Unfortunately, on November 10, 1922, on his way to meet Éamon De Valera, who had participated in the Howth gun-running and was the only commandant of the Easter Rising not to have been executed, Childers was picked up at his Glendalough home by soldiers of the new government, who discovered the Spanish revolver.  He was quickly tried by a military court and condemned to death by firing squad.  He asked if he could see his wife before his death and was told, “No,” but was allowed to see his sixteen-year-old son Erskine, Jr.  Childers told his son not to hold his father’s death against his Irish captors but to seek out and shake hands with each man who had signed his death warrant.

Childers went cheerfully to his death, though his appeal against the sentence was still pending, even joking with the riflemen who were to execute him.  He was buried at Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin; the following year his remains were reinterred in the Republican plot of Glasnevin Cemetery.

From his prison cell, Erskine Childers had written to his wife Molly, “I can only say, thank God I am dying, thank God.  I never thought to, and now I leap to it…Now I am going.  Coming to you, heart’s beloved, sweetheart, comrade, wife.  I shall fall asleep in your arms, God blessing us – all four of us.  Erskine.”

If those words have not made you cry, you must be no Irish woman nor man, Erskine Childers was a man who burned, lived and loved with a livid flame until that flame was extinguished by his enemies, but from his ashes arose a phoenix, his son, who became the fourth president of the Republic of Ireland. Childers’ novel, The Riddle of the Sands, is on many lists of the greatest novels of all times.  It is a book that you never want to put down and when you must at the end, you feel as if you’re losing a friend.  Both England and Ireland are indebted to Erskine Childers.






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