November 24th, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1922, Robert Erskine Childers was shot by the Irish Free State for carrying a gun its founding colossus had gifted him.
Many Irishmen were executed on either side in this terrible time, but Childers cuts a unique figure among them.
To begin with, he wasn’t all that Irish — “that damned Englishman,” fellow Republican turned Civil War enemy Arthur Griffith called him. The London-born son of a British scholar and an Irish mother, Childers was a lifelong Protestant, itself an anomaly since Irish nationalism mapped (and still maps) strongly to Catholicism.
You’d think he’d be a loyal man of the empire. Early on, that’s just what he was.
In his twenties, Childers volunteered for the Boer War, and he would later say the rank savagery and underlying injustice of England’s war “changed the whole current of my life and made me a Liberal and a Nationalist.” (Source.)
Laying down the sword, Childers took up the pen and wrote several books of military history. (Long since into the public domain, at least two can be read free online: War and the Arme Blanche, German Influence on British Cavalry.) He also wrote a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, that has a (debatable) claim as the first spy novel. Riddle has never gone out of print since it was published in 1903, though it is also available free online.
Both in fiction and nonfiction, Childers’ warnings against the German challenge to British hegemony were prophetic, but he was himself becoming a man divided. 1914 saw him running German guns to Irish nationalists aboard his yacht Asgard … and then signing up for the royal navy when World War I erupted.
The British crackdown on the Easter Rising during the war completed his radicalization; he moved to Dublin and turned his eloquence against the British.
Here, Childers was swept into the tragedy of the Irish War of Independence, and the civil war that followed it; though both were in the delegation that produced the contentious Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers broke with Michael Collins over it and backed the IRA nationalists who fought the Irish Free State.
After Collins’s assassination, emergency laws promulgated the death sentence for anyone caught armed without authorization. Childers was a writer, not a partisan, but he was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gift Michael Collins had given him, back when they were on the same side. It was a time of bloody justice, and they threw the book at him.
Childers knew as well as Collins had that the internecine conflict would have to end. He checked out with awe-inspiring forgiveness; summoning his 16-year-old son to prison the night before his execution, Childers extracted a promise that the boy would find everyone who signed his death warrant … and shake their hands. (Young Erskine Hamilton Childers eventually became President of Ireland.)
Childers himself likewise shook the hands of his own firing squad, one by one. His last words (reported in a number of slightly different variations) were lightheartedly addressed to them:
Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.
Also on this date
- 1964: Glen Sabre Valance, the last hanged in South Australia
- 1879: Phra Pricha
- 1868: Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti, by the Papal guillotine
- 1933: Earl Quinn, forgiver
- 2009: Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, for tainted milk
- 1326: Hugh Despenser the Younger, King Edward II's lover?
- 1740: Not William Duell
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1920s, 1922, anglo-irish treaty, beggar's bush barracks, boer war, dublin, erskine childers, erskine hamilton childers, forgiveness, imperialism, irish civil war, irish republican army, irish republicanism, irish war of independence, literature, michael collins, nationalism, protestant, robert erskine childers, sinn fein, world war i