Released file casts light on Childers’ last days

Free State army correspondence relating to the execution of Erskine Childers will add intrigue to one of the most controversial deaths in the Civil War.

By Niall Murray, Irish Examiner

Free State army correspondence relating to the execution of Erskine Childers will add intrigue to one of the most controversial deaths in the Civil War. He was shot dead on November 24, 1922, having spent the early phases of the fighting over the Anglo-Irish Treaty issuing publicity and propaganda for the anti-Treaty IRA out of the Coolea district in west Cork.

The execution of the author of spy novel The Riddle of the Sands sparked global headlines.

A fortnight before his own death in west Cork, Michael Collins, as commander-in-chief of the Free State Army, wrote to his director of intelligence in relation to information that Childers was believed to be in Liverpool, trying to escape to the US.

Childers had served as secretary to the Irish delegation that negotiated the treaty signed in London the previous December, but he had opposed the outcome that was backed by Collins.

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“The idea that would be most suitable would be that he should be arrested as a stow away,” Collins wrote shortly before midnight on August 7, 1922, in a document being seen publicly for the first time.

Childers was arrested in Glendalough, Co Wicklow, on November 10, and later charged with being in possession of a revolver, which had become a capital offence in late September. Ironically, the gun described in the charge is said to have been a gift from Collins.

One newly released file casts light on the circumstances of and during his detention, including allegations — denied by officers in Portobello Barracks — that he was beaten while in custody.

A captain on behalf of the Army’s director of intelligence wrote to the Adjutant General on the same day as Childers’ arrest: “I am instructed by the [director of intelligence] to enclose you File and Papers in connection with Erskine Childers, and to state from him, that in his opinion, neither the File nor the Papers supply anything which would form the basis of a charge.”

Childers was behind the Howth gun-running that helped arm the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and he was key in the international publicity campaign for Irish independence before the Treaty.

The execution of the author of spy novel The Riddle of the Sands sparked global headlines. Correspondence in his files includes telegrams from various organisations warning against the intended killing, including one received by army chief of staff Richard Mulcahy days before the execution.

“We delegates to American Convention of American Association [for the] Recognition of the Irish Republic for State of California would look upon the killing of Erskine Childers or any other Republican prisoner of war as murder and hold your Free State junta responsible,” telegrammed its secretary.

The files also reveal the outcome of an Army investigation into the handling of Childers’ possessions, some of which were never returned to his widow. Among the missing items were a gold watch inscribed with his initials, cuff links, cigarette case, a pocket book, and a leather bag with spare clothes.


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