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From the NS archive: The execution of Erskine Childers

2 December 1922: Why I would not sign the petition to save my friend from the firing squad.

By Desmond MacCarthy

Erskine Childers, author of the fabled adventure yarn “The Riddle of the Sands”, was a complicated man who acted according to his own beliefs. English-born but an Irish nationalist, he served in both the Boer War and First World War but, prompted by the suppression of the Easter Rising in 1916, was also determined to win Irish independence. He acted as secretary of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British government in 1921, which created the Irish Free State, but loathed the compromises that resulted. During the Irish Civil War that followed he threw in his lot with the anti-treaty side, smuggling arms aboard his sailing boat. He was finally arrested and executed by firing squad on 24 November 1922. In this poignant piece for the magazine, Childers’ friend Desmond MacCarthy, the writer and Bloomsbury Group figure, mourned his death while lamenting the traits in Childers that had made it inevitable.


Erskine Childers met his death as those who knew him foresaw he would. There is no reason to doubt the report of that last scene: that the morning was dark at seven, that he asked his executioners to wait an hour till it was light, and that he shook hands with them before they bandaged his eyes, having chatted with them and others present, while the sun was mounting in the sky, and the morning changing from dusk to day.

It was not hope of reprieve, nor, we may be sure, a thirst for an hour more of life that prompted that request. He had the self-mastery which exempts a man even from impatience to get over an ordeal. He was of a noble temper. It is said that some of those present asked him to sign his name as a remembrance. I knew him; I can see the smile with which he would grant such a request.

He was a very obstinate man, and not devoid, it seems to me, on looking back, of spiritual pride, but remarkably modest; one who could easily dispense with rewards and recognitions; to whom it was no gratification to rouse histrionic sympathy, to whom fine gestures or fine words were foreign, and who bore calumny and ingratitude with singular patience.

Of calumny he had his share in Ireland. No incident which lowered the dramatic intensity of that long hour’s wait would trouble him; no panache, however magnificent, is more decorous and memorable than simplicity at such moments. On the day of his trial Childers said: “Whether I am to live or to die, it must help Ireland.” He was thinking that a dead man is a spoon to stir the boiling pot. Alas, that I, to whom he gave help and kindness, should have to read another meaning into those words; that it was essential for Ireland that his life should not be spared.

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Better than most I know what his executioners and those who sentenced him must have felt, and feel the weight of his magnanimity. I could not sign the petition for his pardon, though I knew he had done much, very much, to win freedom for Ireland, knew the worthlessness of all the charges and jeers levelled at him by Irish and English, had often been received into his home as a friend, played with his children and talked round his fire, I could not beg that a friend should be spared.

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The horror of civil war – and Ireland is in a state of civil war ­– is that men must kill not only those they do not hate but those they love. Many a republican has wept the death of Michael Collins, and many a Free State Irishman mourns Childers; brothers have shot at and killed each other. The republican rebels have appealed to the court of death and violence to decide between them and the great majority of their countrymen. It was not the Free State that challenged that arbitrament. No gratitude for past services to Ireland, no admiration, no personal affection, have restrained republicans from shooting men; no consideration for the happiness of those who differed from them has prevented their making the lives of other Irishmen and women a hell.

They have said, let us rather have anarchy and its horrors than this settlement to which the nation has agreed. They cannot even hope to win. And, inevitably, they have collected in their train rascals who like brutality and batten on a disorganised State. It is a battle of martyrs and blackguards against sensible men, who believe in unity and happiness. As usual, the sensible men have done everything to prevent a struggle to the death. But there is only one chance for Ireland now: that the voice of the people as expressed in law and government should be respected. The alternative is terrorism.

Childers and De Valera chose terrorism. Whatever they have done for Ireland in the past they have done also their best to destroy her; to make “nationality”, which means nothing but an instinctive fellow-feeling between men of the same race, a humbug catchword, and Ireland a desert in which only hunted dreamers could live. They have loved Ireland, true. Yet how often is the recognition of love most bitter in the mouth of a loved person who has been made miserable by it!

When the facts are revealed, I have no doubt it will be clear that both De Valera and Childers did everything – everything but the essential thing – to stave off civil war; that when they had failed they strove with might and main to conduct an honourable war, though then their only weapons were, perforce, brigandage and murder. I have no doubt they were stampeded by O’Connor and his men in the Law Courts. While the Treaty was under discussion they found themselves precisely in the position of high-minded Cabinet Ministers in England, during the Black and Tan oppression; every word they uttered was encouraging others to actions which they, themselves, abhorred.

Nevertheless, like the Englishmen, they would not compromise. England at last bethought herself; but they went on, haggling over verbal expressions, seeking to make the offer of freedom seem less substantial than it was, putting their own consistency and consciences before the welfare of the Irish people, protesting that the only true patriotism lived in the hearts of those who would rather die than accept the Treaty, though they themselves were ready to accept something short of a Republic, as document No 2 showed. At last, after terrorising the Free State Press, individual persecution and the seizure of property, their followers openly declared themselves belligerents, when, as men of honour, they were compelled to fight with those they had inspired. That I believe to be the history of the events which have led to the execution of Erskine Childers by men whom he regarded as his fellow-countrymen.

In this issue of the New Statesman there is a letter which expresses the emotions of those to whom clemency seemed beautiful and wise. Cannot a patriot’s errors be forgiven, even if they have led to national disaster? No one approves of the execution of the late Greek ministers because they led their country into a fatal war. Should not Erskine Childers’ great services to Ireland have saved his life? If there are men in England whose judgment is swayed by these considerations, think how many there must be in Ireland who feel this whenever such a case arises, and what strong emotions and moving memories must plead in every case against severity. There lies the difficulty of the Irish Government’s position. This sordid rebellion – for sordid it is in deeds, however self-sacrificing those who promoted it – would have been stamped out long ago, if these emotions working upon the Irish people, and combined with fear, had not paralysed indirectly the arm of the State which the Irish people themselves have created. The desperateness of the position in Ireland is due to the fact that the small rebel minority has inherited in part the “good will” of those who carried on the struggle against England, and the Irish Government, by analogy, part of the “bad will”, so to speak, which has been associated for centuries with all government in Ireland.

Through force of association, Irish people cannot help fancying at times, though they may curse the rebels under their breath, that the good Irishman must be the Irishman who is “on the run”, or in gaol, or shooting from behind a wall. Indeed, a short time ago, many of these men were fighting in Ireland’s true interests. A public opinion which condones terrorism and the casual shooting of rebels – Black and Tan methods, in fact, at which Englishmen grin sardonically – but shrinks sentimentally from governmental severity, is fatal to the birth of a nation or the existence of civilisation.

The writer of the letter I referred to does not – like many Irish unfortunately – understand that there is something more important, and in the end more merciful, now at stake, than loyalty to individuals or gratitude – namely, the life of the State which Irishmen themselves have ratified. The rebels are out to destroy this State. Their plan is to reduce the country to such destitution that Irishmen in their misery and starvation shall cease to think, or to remember that the Government is now the Irish people. The Irish have been governed for centuries by England, and they have come to feel that government per se is anti-national; they have to learn that there can be no nation without loyalty by a people to its chosen government; and only those who are controlling the machinery of government can teach them.

They alone can teach them that the one unforgiveable political crime is to attempt to destroy by force a State which Irishmen by their votes have set up. They must brush aside sympathies, admirations, romance (for this enters in, too) and personal feelings when these emotions conflict with that loyalty. If it was hard for the friends of Erskine Childers not to plead for his life, depend upon it it was harder for those in authority to stamp his action as the one unforgiveable political crime. But they were right. It is the one chance for Ireland that no recognition of past services, or of splendid personal qualities, should be permitted to hide from the Irish people the nature of that crime. Only thus can a state of things be brought to an end in which any Irishman who has got hold of a revolver and chooses to call himself a republican, is conceded, by a vacillating public opinion, the right to shoot, rob or threaten with impunity.

I have read most of the obituary notices of Erskine Childers which have appeared, and I wish to correct an impression most of them conveyed. He has been represented as a man animated by passionate hatred of England. That is not the impression he made on me. He struck me as a man who seldom felt the emotion of hatred, and never violently. He was disgusted with England; for several years, as one of the compilers of the Irish Bulletin, he had his nose held over her worst actions. He profoundly distrusted her, but he did not hate. Indeed, his nature was singularly gentle and magnanimous. He was extremely obstinate in argument, but tolerant of differences. He would roll his head from side to side and smile wanly, “No, no, you don’t understand”; but he did not hate one for not seeing eye to eye with him.

During the last few years he looked like a man sick and weighed down with disgust. There was always some deep trouble smouldering in his eyes; if he was roused at all by his surroundings, he seemed to wake out of some oppressive preoccupation into which he again immediately sank, as though he were saying to himself over and over again, “The horror of it, the loathsome horror of it.”

He has been represented as the man who inspired De Valera. I do not think it would be accurate to say that. De Valera found in him a brain to express in words the casuistries and glosses by which he endeavoured to adapt compromises to his conscience, an organ which I conceive to be as hypertrophied in De Valera as his judgment is weak. He found, too, in Erskine Childers a hero-worshipper, a fearless supporter, and one in whom personal devotion was intensified by a sense of the ex-Irish leader as head of the Irish State.

Erskine Childers was a neck-or-nothing man; his whole career, which by its diversity has perplexed people, shows that. He was once a British Imperialist, he enlisted in the Boer War; he was once a Home Ruler, he wrote the most laborious and constructive book that has been written on such an Irish solution; he believed in the Irish Volunteer movement, and he smuggled in arms for them; he believed in England’s cause against Germany, and he earned a gallant war record; he believed that an Independent Republic could alone satisfy the national aspirations of Irishmen, and he has died for that mistaken idea.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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