claims that Erskine Childers, adventurer, politician, gun-runner, author of
"The Riddle of the Sands" and executed traitor, was an insufferable man
Erskine Childers had all the talents. He was brave and passionate; he wrote like an angel; he had ideas far ahead of his time; he was a natural leader, a loyal friend and a loving husband. So why do I find him so insufferable?
I can be rational about it, if this is rational: Childers was also self- righteous, fickle and arrogant. He seems, in the conduct of his own life, to have had every social and personal advantage but to have shown very little judgement or common sense in employing them. But I also feel towards him what may be an atavistic anger, which all the measured advocacy of this book could not overcome. Knots formed in my viscera as I read and every now and then I found myself cursing the man. This part is not rational; it is unforgiving and harsh. It is civil war politics.
Childers' fame rests on two contradictory achievements. The first is The Riddle of the Sands, a sort of grown-up Swallows and Amazons. A thriller anticipating Frederick Forsyth and Len Deighton (it was published in 1903), it plunges its readers boldly into technicalities and detail, in this case nautical and geographical, and yet it never loses pace. And it carried a clear warning of the danger of German invasion across the North Sea, a warning heard in the highest reaches of the Admiralty.
The second pillar of Childers' reputation is his heroic and fatal involvement in the cause of Irish independence. The English patriot became a gun-runner for Irish rebels and subsequently died before an Irish firing squad, condemned as a hardline republican too extreme for the state he had helped to create.
But that is only the beginning of the paradox of Erskine Childers. From 1900 to his death in 1922, he bounced between causes and adventures like an idealistic pinball. At 30, a high Tory imperialist, he volunteered to fight the Boers. At 33, through the Riddle, he was trying to redefine British naval strategy. Then it was cavalry strategy. Then - hold tight now - it was Home Rule; he wanted dominion status for Ireland by constitutional means. By now he was a passionate Liberal, and briefly the Liberal candidate for Devonport.
In 1914 Childers, having become a little more hardline, agreed to run guns for Sinn Fein in his yacht, the Asgard. And barely was this task complete before he found himself summoned to fight for King and country against the Kaiser. He flew seaplanes for the navy in the North Sea and at Gallipoli, and pioneered motor torpedo boat warfare. Then it was back to Ireland, where he became chief propagandist for Sinn Fein, sat in De Valera's revolutionary cabinet and took part in the fateful treaty negotiations with Churchill and Lloyd George. To cap it all, half a century after his death his son and namesake became president of the Republic of Ireland.
With such a man, a biographer must impose order and identify consistencies; there has to be some rationale behind all this quixotic dashing about. Jim Ring is generous and tolerant but maintains a thoughtful scepticism almost to the end, where he at last reveals a qualified sympathy.
The consistent thread in Childers' thinking is - as he himself suggested before his death - a respect for the rights of small nations learned in his early encounter with the Boers. That respect he transferred to Ireland, and he had genuine Irish connections to justify an interest: his mother was Irish, and a fair part of his youth was spent in Co Wicklow.
His views on Irish nationalism certainly altered in character over the years, but no more, it might be argued, than the views of many Irishmen. To have become more radical and extreme in the years from 1912 to 1921 was the norm in Ireland, not the exception. And in rejecting the treaty he did no more than De Valera and thousands of others who felt that they, and those who had given their lives in the struggle for a republic, had been betrayed.
And yet it all sticks in my craw. Childers was resented by some in Sinn Fein for being an Englishman, and he was even suspected of acting as a British agent. Neither was fair or right, but there is something provocative in the man's fastidious patriotism. It is one thing to adopt a cause, foreign or half-foreign, with passion and flair. It is quite another to barge in, lay down the rules, and when you don't get your way, to complain that you have been let down. Childers made a more effective Irish patriot than most Irishmen, but surely in such frenzied circumstances an outsider should retain a measure of humility about his own views and ideas?
This question of hubris arises again when you consider that, at the age of 30, he was still a passionate English Tory. The change of heart came to him in his mature years. A man is free to change his mind; but the experience should leave him with a little self-doubt. He had been wrong once; he ought to have acknowledged, however tacitly, that he could be wrong again.
Childers undoubtedly saw himself as principled and high-minded. His friends and admirers, including De Valera, thought him so, and Ring, with some reservations, agrees. "If ever there was a man who justified the phrase 'the courage of his convictions', it was Erskine Childers," he writes.
But Ring is at his best on the pivotal moment of his subject's career, when the high-mindedness seems suddenly utterly hollow. The Easter Rising horrified Childers - it was, he wrote "pitiful and in some respects hateful". That he himself had contributed to it seems to have eluded him. With his merry gun-running jape in 1914, he had provided weapons for the Volunteers (forerunners of the IRA). Against whom did he expect them to be used? British soldiers? Irishmen? Ulstermen? Which, I wonder, would he have thought right? None, perhaps. He seems, by some accounts, to have imagined that they would not be used at all. This is taking high-mindedness to absurd extremes.
I found myself sympathising with the Buchanesque Colonel Pipon of the Royal Fusiliers, whom Childers tried and failed to recruit for the Asgard voyage. "I recognised Childers as a crackpot," Pipon wrote afterwards. "Something always happens to crackpots."
As a young man, Childers was concerned not to miss what he called his "chances". From the South African war, he had written home to his sister: "Something impels me here and I feel it's right. Yet it's no good dwelling on the serious side. It's after all a splendid adventure."
It would be unfair to impose the thoughts of the 30-year-old on the man of 40 or 50, and yet the suspicion never leaves you that Childers lived life to the full precisely because that was what he set out to do, and felt he had a right to do. Blessed with so much ability, he could pick his thrills like apples from a tree.
When we come to the final chapter of his life, I must place my cards upon the table. I am (or I imagine I would have been) a Home Ruler; how far this colours my view of Childers I cannot judge. To me, the Easter Rising was a squalid and marginal affair, all terror and no beauty. Sinn Fein had a mandate to fight the war of independence after 1918, and the treaty that followed was a sensible deal, endorsed by the electorate.
For Childers to have opposed the treaty may have been high-minded, even if it was less than realistic. For him to have taken off into the Munster countryside, producing fly-sheets from barns in support of anti-treaty guerrillas who were killing their fellow-Irishmen, seems to me nothing short of fanatical. Whatever it was that the revolutionaries of 1918-1921 had fought and died for, it was not to usher in another war.
Childers did not deserve to be shot. If the British could spare De Valera in 1916 on the grounds that he was American, then the Irish could spare this Englishman in 1922. But the manner of his death should not obscure his role in the civil war.
If this seems unforgiving towards a man who has been dead 73 years, then it may be because, for reasons all too obvious, the question of when it is right for Irishmen to take up arms is still a live one. But it may also be the tug of the civil war, a conflict forgotten outside Ireland but which, as Roy Foster has written, was both more traumatic and more influential than the "Anglo-Irish war" that preceded it. It defined Irish politics for decades, and only now are the lines being redrawn.
Jim Ring has written a fine and fluent biography of an extraordinary man, navigating these angry waters with a sure hand but dodging none of the difficulties. He is fair to Erskine Childers - perhaps to a fault.
! 'Erskine Childers' by Jim Ring is published by John Murray at pounds 19.99Reuse content