Ascendency class, decorated British war hero, celebrated writer and Irish rebel. Erskine Childers played an important role in Irish history alongside his wife Molly. But, who were they?
Erskine Childers (25 June 1870-24 November 1922)
Robert Erskine Childers was born in Mayfair, England, on 25th June 1870. His mother, Anna Mary Henrietta Barton, was from the Anglo-Irish landowning family of Annamoe, County Wicklow, Ireland. After the death of both of his parents within a six-year period, a young Erskine and his four siblings were sent to live with the Barton side of the family in Glendalough House.
He earned a degree in law at Trinity College in Cambridge and begun working as a Clerk of the House of Commons, hoping to follow his cousin, Hugh Childers, into the British Parliament.
Erskine served the British Empire in the Boer War by enrolling in the City Imperial Volunteers. He also had a distinguished record serving with the Royal Naval Air Force during World War I.
However, although he was raised in the comfort of the Protestant Ascendancy class, Erskine was also brought up loving Ireland. This was to grow ever-more enduring throughout his life.
While on a course for a career as an MP in the British House of Commons, Childers also became an accomplished sailor and yachtsman. He not only took to the seas around the British Channel and the Baltic seas in large sailing vessels, he also became a successful writer when he fictionalised his exploits in the 1903 best-selling novel, The Riddle of the Sands.
When Erskine met Molly…
In autumn of the same year, Erskine was travelling across the United States by motorcycle after extending a business trip. One day, Erskine’s motorcycle fortuitously broke down outside number 8 Beacon Street in Boston.
Mary “Molly” Osgood (14 December 1875-1 January 1964)
Born Mary Osgood in December of 1875, Molly was the daughter of Dr. Hamilton Osgood and the American writer and poet, Margaret Cushing Osgood. The well-respected family lived in the historical and prestigious Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Boston, Massachusetts.
When Erskine Childers’ motorcycle broke down outside the Osgood family home, he knocked in to borrow some tools and was subsequently invited for dinner.
Molly was well-read, well-educated and outspoken. She would have been captivating to someone like Erskine, who fell for her during the course of dinner. By January of 1904, in what was described in Boston newspapers as the most “distinguished gathering” of the season, Erskine and Molly were married. The Asgard, the 28-ton yacht the pair eventually used for the Howth gun-running, was a wedding present.
Molly was an important influence in Erskine’s life. Until now, he was a supporter of the British Empire. However, with her strong republican sensibilities, she played a large role in ridding Erskine of his (already waning) imperialism. Having grown up steeped in Unionism, Erskine now believed fully that the island of Ireland should have its own government.
Molly accompanied Erskine aboard the Asgard on their famous gun-running plot of 1914 when the pair smuggled guns and ammunition from a rendezvous point in the North Sea to Howth harbour in North County Dublin. This paved the way for the Irish uprising of Easter 1916 and the eventual signing of the treaty of independence for 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland.
By 1919, Erskine and Molly Childers were living in Ireland. Now with strong nationalist beliefs, the pair were deeply and passionately involved in Irish affairs. The British Government’s brutal crackdown during the Irish War of Independence solidified the Childers’ resolve and completed their radicalisation.
As a now celebrated writer, in 1921 Erskine became the propaganda director for the IRA and stressed the need for them to become a legitimate, politically-approved force. He was eventually elected a member of the Irish Dáil and was part of the contingent that travelled to England to negotiate and sign the infamous Anglo-Irish Treaty.
To cut the incredibly long and complicated story of Irish history short, after Michael Collins was assassinated, emergency laws were passed stating that those found with an unauthorised firearm would be executed. In November 1922, Erskine Childers was found with a small firearm (ironically, given to him by Collins himself) and was sentenced to death.
While habeas corpus was still undergoing, Erskine was executed by firing squad, at Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin. On the eve of his execution, he summoned his 16 year old son (also called Erskine) and told him to forgive those who signed his death warrant. This son went on to become the fourth President of Ireland.
Just before he faced the firing squad, Erskine Childers shook hands with each of the men and was reported as light-heartedly saying:
Take a step or two forward, lads. It’ll be easier that way.
Read some of the works of Erskine Childers free online: