Monday, November 24, 2008

... by firing squad in Dublin 86 years ago today, for the crime of carrying a handgun as a rebel against the Irish Free State, Erskine Childers was executed.

A single-paragraph, third editorial in today's Guardian marks the occasion. The short piece notes:
Many things about Childers were contradictory. English born, and an Anglican, he ended up fighting the British empire he had once supported. A powerful writer - the Observer once put [T]he Riddle of the Sands 37th in its list of the 100 greatest books of all time - he produced only one novel, less well known now than it should be.
Of course, it isn't anything like that 266-word simple. Very few things are.

For Malcolm, it comes down to three essential questions*:

1. Why did Childers support the Irish republicans?

Well, why not?

His mother, Anne Barton, had her family home at Glendalough House (right) in the County Wicklow, and that was where she returned when she was widowed. So Childers grew up there, returning to England for his Cambridge education, before taking up the family business in the Civil Service (as a Clerk in Parliament). His experiences as a volunteer in the Boer War (above,left), and the 1906 Election turned him to Liberalism. With Liberalism went Home Rule.

He was never close to the IRB: the gun-running episode was more quixotic than anything else. Beyond that, he was more involved with literary and journalistic support for the cause. A superb letter to the Times in 1919, which Diarmaid Ferriter quotes in full, compares the British attitude to the states newly-established at Versailles to that shown to Ireland, concluding:
Great Britain is guaranteeing the boundaries of these new states, of which so little is known that the PM can joke in parliament about his ignorance till yesterday of the position on the map of one of the numerous 'Ulsters'. Is she, in the same breath, to decline to deal with Ireland, whose uninterrupted historical identity and boundaries nobody can mistake? Ireland, the last unliberated white community on the face of the globe?
His route to joining the rebels was parallel to Casement's: Diarmaid Ferriter refers to:
September 1913, Childers found himself having an intense conversation about Irish nationalism in Belfast, while 'climbing a lovely mountain just behind the town'.
2. Why did the Free Staters take against Childers?

When the time came for the Downing Street negotiations, Childers ended up as one of the Secretaries to the delegation (after all, he had been an insider in Westminster), and worked closely with Collins on the drafting. In a number of key areas, Childers' input was decisive. The British were prepared to offer Dominion status on the model of Canada: Childers (through Collins) responded that was not adequate -- Canada was far more remote, and therefore independent, than the other end of the mailboat route to Dublin. The British wanted Ireland to be effectively demilitarised (excepting, of course, the Treaty Ports): Collins wanted the power to defend Irish neutrality.

As the Treaty negotiations wore on, so did Childers' tenacity for a 32-county republic wear on Arthur Griffith, who was irritated by the constant flow of briefing material Childers provided. At one moment, Childers produced a memorandum of the concessions the Irish side had already offered. By the time the delegates returned to Dublin for the final Cabinet consultation, Childers was advising against the draft offered by Britain: (as Dorothy Macardle says) "it would give Ireland no national status and made neutrality impossible". Lloyd George noted, at the moment of Collins's final capitulation:
the desperate, tragic face of Erskine Childers, who waited outside in the lobby, while Ireland's Independence was signed away.
Childers then instigated a propaganda campaign, publishing a regular newsletter on the developments. As the split in Sinn Féin developed, inevitably Childers gravitated to the Republicans, to the extent of taking a portable press with him when he went on "active service" with the Irregulars.

Shooting the messenger

On 27th September, 1922, General Mulcahy came to the Dáil to ask for emergency powers. The resolution was proposed by Cosgrave, to allow the Free State army to set up military courts with unlimited powers of summary sentence and execution. The highest drama of the debate was Kevin O'Higgins (right) identifying one particular target:
I do know that the able Englishman who is leading those who are opposed to this Government has his eye quite definitely on one objective, and that is the complete breakdown of the economic and social fabric, so that this thing that is trying so hard to be an Irish nation will go down in chaos, anarchy and futility. His programme is a negative programme, a purely destructive programme, and it will be victory to him and his peculiar mind if he prevents the Government coming into existence under the terms of the Treaty signed in London last December.
O'Higgins was pressed on a point of information: to whom did he refer?
I am now referring to the Englishman, Erskine Childers.
When Childers was ordered to Dublin to act as Secretary to the Republican Government, he was the subject of a specific manhunt by the Free Staters. On the morning of 1oth November, the house of Childers' cousin, Robert Barton, was surrounded. Childers was arrested, carrying a small automatic, a souvenir from Michael Collins, but could not use it because of his sensitivities towards the women in the house.

Next day, speaking in Dundee, Churchill upped the ante:
I have seen with satisfaction that the mischief-making murderous renegade, Erskine Childers, has been captured. No man has done more harm or shown 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. Such as he is may all who hate us be.
So Childers came to trial before a military court: although the emergency provisions had been enacted for the last month, no executions had yet happened.

On the day of the secret trial, four Republican prisoners were executed for carrying illegal revolvers. The Labour Party brought the executions to the floor of the Dáil. Again, O'Higgins (who, in total, would approve 77 executions) brazenly spelled it out:
If [the military] took, as their first case, some man who was outstandingly active and outstandingly wicked in his activities, the unfortunate dupes throughout the country might say he was killed because he was a leader, because he was an Englishman, or because he combined with others to commit raids.
Childers, by then, had already been sentenced to death. All legal means were frustrated or over-ruled by the Free Staters. Within hours of Mulcahy and O'Higgins refusing to accept the order of habeas corpus, and despite a pending appeal, Childers was executed at Beggars Bush Barracks.

* Next post will address Malcolm's third question: is The Riddle of the Sands that good?
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