Robert Erskine Childers

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Robert Erskine Childers in 1899

Robert Erskine Childers (25 June 187024 November 1922) was an English-born Irish writer, politician, and militant. His works included the influential novel The Riddle of the Sands. Starting as an ardent Unionist, he later became a supporter of Irish Republicanism and smuggled guns into Ireland in his sailing yacht Asgard. He was executed by the authorities of the nascent Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War.


Literary Years and War (1900-1918)[edit]

  • Most of England's wit and manhood scintillated in the sunlight, while British matrons and England's fairest maids lit up with looks of proud affection; bosoms heaved in sympathetic unison with the measured tramp of the ammunition boots....
    • "In the Ranks of the C.I.V." By Erskine Childers, Smith & Elder and Co. (London, 1901), p. 20.
  • One of the charms of Africa, is the long settled periods of pure unclouded sky, in which the sun rises and sets with no flaming splashes of vivid colours, but by gentle, imperceptible gradations of pure light, waning or waxing.
    • "In the Ranks of the C.I.V.", by Erskine Childers, Smith & Elder and Co. (London, 1901), p. 127.
  • Everything had been new and strange : the lean and ragged foot-soldiers who marched alongside of us, toughened, stained and blasés after months of service; the turmoil of encampment in the dark, with the shrill yells of black drivers, and the hassle and crush of crowding wagons, the twinkle of hosts of camp-fires, and the hot glow of a distant veldt-fire; and, finally the ghostly ride of two miles to water the horses....
    • "The H.A.C. in South Africa", by Erskine Childers and Basil Williams, Smith & Elder, (London, 1903), p. 72.
  • An artillery man is not made in a month, nor an officer in a year; and unless we had had educated men as keen as mustard, and no trouble about discipline, I doubt if the battery in South Africa would have been much good for a long time.
    • "The H.A.C. in South Africa", by Erskine Childers and Basil Williams, Smith & Elder, (London, 1903), p. 193.
  • First let us rid our minds of the fallacy that guerrilla war is a wholly distinct thing in kind from regular war. It is nothing of the sort. War is a science whose fundamental principles are constant however wide or numerous the variations....
    • "War and the Arme Blanche", by Erskine Childers, Edward Arnold, (London, 1910), p. 231.
  • The cavalryman, is for practical purposes a compound of three factors; man, horse and rifle. The lance should go altogether.
    • "German Influence on British Cavalry", by Erskine Childers, Edward Arnold, (London, 1911), p. 215.
  • Being shot with volcanic suddenness into the Navy at an hour's notice is a queer experience, but I am beginning to get used to the life and to forget that I ever had a moustache or a tweed suit.
    • Written aboard HMS Engadine in 1914, cited in " The Riddle Of Erskine Childers " By Andrew Boyle, Hutchinson, London, (1977), pg. 200.
  • I do not know how I stand this parting from Molly, save that by a paradox we are so absoultely one that in the sense we never part, but talk to one another and watch one another and commune night and day, and grip fast the same ideals. The North Star is our only meeting place, in this manner. We both look at it every night.
    • A 1915 letter written to his aunt in regards to his wife Molly Childers. Cited in " Erskine Childers " by Jim Ring, Faber and Faber, London , (1996), pg. 432.
  • I leapt into my boots, trousers and jacket, tumbled all my gear, lying ready laid out, into my bag, donned helmet and goggles, seized charts and rushed to the upper deck....the sea was calm under a heaving swell. Engadine towered above my cockle-shell.
    • "Written aboard HMS Engadine in 1916, cited in " The Riddle Of Erskine Childers " By Andrew Boyle , Hutchinson, London, (1977), pg. 205.

The Riddle Of The Sands (1903)[edit]

The Riddle Of The Sands, by Erskine Childers, Smith & Elder and Co. (London, 1903).
  • feel oneself a martyr, as everybody knows, is a pleasurable thing...
    • p. 1.
  • ...the Dulcibella had begun to move in her sleep, as it were, rolling drowsily to some faint send of the sea, with an occasional short jump, like the start of an uneasy dreamer.
    • p. 35.
  • It was devotion to the sea, wedded to a fire of pent-up patriotism struggling incessantly for an outlet in strenuous physical expression; a humanity, born of acute sensitiveness to his own limitations, only adding fuel to the flame.
    • p. 91.
  • What the devil do you mean Carruthers?
    • p. 154.
  • Juist, by jove!
    • p. 192.
  • A keen wind from the west struck our faces, and as swiftly as it had come the fog rolled away from us, in one mighty mass, stripping clean and pure the starry dome of heaven....
    • p. 217.
  • Drunk with triumph, I cuddled in my rocking cradle and ransacked every unvisited chamber of the see the residue take life and meaning in the light of the great revelation.
    • p. 276.

Last Years: Ireland (1919-1922)[edit]

  • This Irish war, small as it may seem now, will, if it is persisted in, will corrupt and eventually ruin not only your army, but your Empire itself. What right has England to torment and demoralise Ireland?
    • The Daily News, 1919, as cited in "The Riddle of Erskine Childers" By Andrew Boyle, Hutchinson, London, (1977), pg. 260.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Malone––was it necessary, in order to carry out the raid, to-ransack the nursery, and to wake up the children?
    • From a letter to the editor, where Childers questions the reasons behind the recent raid of his Dublin home. Irish Times , 19 April 1920.
  • I served four years in the War under the belief, growing ever fainter but held to the end, that it was fought to make such things impossible, and now I am daily witness to the prostitution of the Army I served in to fulfil the many aims I loathed and combated. I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland....
    • A 1920 private letter to Admiral Herbert Fisher, cited in " Herbert Fisher (1865-1940) A Biography" By David Ogg , E&A, London, (1948), pg. 101.
  • What we all know is that Ireland is permeated with spies, ordinary and extraordinary, imported Englishmen and perverted Irishmen, in and out of uniform, in low places and high places....punishing first and foremost the great national crime of Republicanism, and in the second place real crimes artificially promoted by the regime––symptoms of a disease invariably arising from the forcible suppression of a national ideal.
    • The Daily News, 19 April 1920.
  • From this farcical Belfast, where anti-Catholic pogroms are occurring daily and where 30,000 Catholics are out of work because of their religion, and where the religious test is imposed on civic and private employment, we have cut ourselves off from as entirely as we have severed British connection. We will never recognize the partition of Ireland. When the time comes, Dail Eireann will be summoned by President Eamon De Valera and it will meet as an all Ireland parliament, independent of England.
    • A statement in reply to King George V's recent speech in Belfast. At the time, Childers had a formal role as Minister Of Propaganda for Sinn Fein. Chicago Tribune, 23 June 1921.
  • And here again, what does the King mean? The functions of a King as an individual, are very small indeed. What the King means, is the British Government, and let there be no mistake, under the terms of this Treaty the British Government will be supreme in Ireland.
  • Parnell once said that no man has the right to set a boundary to the onward march of a nation. Parnell was right. Parnell spoke in a moment when Ireland was still in a subordinate position in the British Empire. Since that time, Ireland has taken a step from which she can never withdraw by declaring her independence. This Treaty is a step backwards. And I, for my part, would be inclined to say that he would be a bold man, who would dare set a boundary to the backward march of a nation, which, of its own free will, had deliberately relinquished its own independence.
    • Both above from a speech regarding the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) given on 21 December 1921 at University College Dublin. Cited in "Great Irish Speeches" by Michael McLoughlin, Poolbeg, London (1997), pp. 103-107.
  • The treaty, though it has good points, is a vast trap.
    • The Illustrated London News, 31 December 1921.
  • In this supremacy of tragedy, we find it only in our hearts, to wish that God's curse may overwhelm the treacherous...
    • Speaking in elegy regarding the recent death of Michael Collins. From " Poblacht na-Eireann (War News ) No. 47 " Thursday 24 August 1922.
  • The British can sign and find a way to repudiate their signatures. They've done it over and over again. You need to go back to the Treaty Of Limerick. You have Malta and Egypt, for instance. They can always find high moral reasons for such repudiation. They are opportunists. Griffith, however, having given his word, would stick to it whatever the consequences, even though it meant the disaster of a civil war. They knew that.
    • Taken from a 1922, conversation between Childers and Brennan in regards to Arthur Griffith's decision to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921), cited in "Allegiance" by Robert Brennan, Browne & Nolan, Dublin (1950), pp. 254-55.
  • I wish to make this statement in view of the mass of prejudice which has gathered about me owning to false statements, calumnies and innuendos which have been made about me in the press and elsewhere for a year past and to most of which I have been unable to reply. I am making no appeal. Let that be clear. Whatever befalls me I shall suffer gladly and happily, but I think it is due to me and the cause I represent, which has been traduced and slandered through the agency of attacks on me, to make some refutation to these attacks. I have been constantly called an Englishman, who, having betrayed his own country, came to Ireland to betray and destroy Ireland––a double traitor. In the alternative, I have suffered the vile charge of innuendo; instead of betraying England I have been acting as a spy or agent provocateur of Englishmen, trying to destroy Ireland in England's interest.
    • His own words from his last military trial on 17 November 1922.
  • ....death stills the bitterest controversy.
    • In conversation with Desmond Ryan, cited in "Unique Dictator" by Desmond Ryan, Arthur Barker Limited, London (1936), p. 213.
  • I am a birth, domicile, and deliberate choice of citizenship an Irishman...
    • His own words from his last military trial on 17 November 1922, cited in The Freeman's Journal Newspaper, 27 November 1922.
  • I want you to shake the hands of every Minister in the Provisional Government ( Irish Free State )who's responsible for my death. I forgive them and so must you, Erskine. The second will apply if ever you go into Irish politics. You must not speak of my execution in public.
    • Robert Erskine's last jail cell words to his son, also named Erskine, in November 1922. His son would become President of Ireland 52 years later. Cited in " The Riddle of Erskine Childers " By Andrew Boyle, Hutchinson, London (1977), pg. 320.
  • Take a step or two forward will be easier that way.
    • His last words to the firing squad, lined up before him holding rifles, at his execution. Cited in " The Riddle of Erskine Childers " By Andrew Boyle, Hutchinson, London (1977), pg. 25.

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