No Revolution Ever Produced a Nobler or Purer Spirit
Smithsonian, November 1994

1) see also

2) see also

Aground in the Frisians, a modern sloop
awaits the tide amid "stick" channel markers. 
For a few sketches, click


EXCEPT FOR a faint, pencil-line smudge of sandspit islands off to the left, the boat is alone on an empty expanse of water. A sky exactly as gray as the sea has closed down around us. There is almost no horizon, and no conventional channel markers. Instead, we cling to a forlorn line of dark tree branches sprouting at intervals from the water.

What we're doing is known hereabouts as "sailing by the sticks," and any sailboat that strays more than a few yards from those sticks can be aground in an instant. As the tide falls, gray earth gradually shoulders the sea aside until, for miles, nothing can be seen except rapidly drying sands. By then your boat will be high and dry, usually heeled way over, but in any case stuck near a twisty trickle of water that was once the channel.

Any of the millions of readers who have fallen under the spell of a book called The Riddle of the Sands will instantly recognize this place as Erskine Childers country. The low sandspits to port are the German Frisians, barrier islands with spooky names like Borkum and Wangeroog. They guard some 50 miles of the German coast against batterings of the North Sea.

Childers was a Victorian Englishman who lived on into the brutalizing troubles of the 20th century. It is nearly a hundred years since he first explored these waters in a 30-foot sloop called Vixen. In the blustery fall of 1897 he took soundings all over this strange cruising ground, regularly running aground and kedging off as he meticulously made charts so detailed that when World War I broke out in 1914, they were gratefully put to use by the Royal Navy.

In due course Vixen's cruise was transformed into The Riddle of the Sands, a seagoing novel of mystery and adventure - with the boat herself renamed Dulcibella (after Childers' favorite sister). It is a tale so real in nautical terms, and so compelling, that many a reader has schemed for years (as I did) for the chance to retrace the course of Dulcibella, sure that he will find things (as I did) virtually unchanged since Childers' time.     

Riddle is that kind of book. To read it is to acquire a possession of the heart. Childers manages to combine a youthful, Conradian quest, a secret German plan to invade England, a British traitor in Teutonic clothing, an attempted murder by sail, a dash of sweet, silly romance, and a plunge, not only into the icy Baltic and the North Sea but into naval tactics and geopolitics (circa 1900) that would put Tom Clancy to shame. When you've finished, you want to shake the author by the hand. You know Dulcibella as if you'd sailed her, for the sturdy, double-ended lifeboat that she once was - in fact as in fiction - a boat like her owner, not much for show. The two main characters, Carruthers and Davies, are as real in memory as your favorite college roommates.

Childers has never been matched at conveying the spartan joys of cold weather sailing, the look and feel and sound of a small cruising boat at sea. "Cans clinked, cupboards rattled"; so begins a much-quoted passage describing Dulcibella's cabin on a windy night. "Small things sidled out of dark hiding-places, and danced grotesque drunken figures on the floor, like goblins in a haunted glade. The mast whined dolorously ... the centre-board hiccoughed and choked. Overhead another horde of demons seemed to have been let loose."

The story is a portrait of the evolving comradeship between two turn-of-the-century Englishmen. Carruthers, the narrator, is fashionable and worldly, a weanling diplomat out of the Foreign Office, initially appalled by the rigors of small-boat sailing. Davies, Dulcibella's owner, is rougher-hewn but of finer material, a man without guile who lives for sailing. He also yearns to do something that matters with his life. Uncovering the German invasion plan and waking England up to prepare for war becomes "his chance."

Carruthers at first patronizes Davies but finally becomes deeply admiring of the man's sailing skill, his courage and his zeal. "Once set on the road he gripped his purpose with childlike faith and tenacity," Carruthers notes. "To hear him talk was to feel a current of clarifying air blustering into a close club-room, where men bandy ineffectual platitudes."

Riddle makes clear that, like Carruthers, Childers was at home in the Gilbert & Sullivanesque upper-class world: London clubs, house parties and August grouse shooting, as well as the rough, knuckle-skinning challenge of sailing single-handed in treacherous waters. It is also clear that Davies is the character the author liked best and perhaps invested with his own real or imagined qualities. For anyone who has read the book and knows the author's later life at all, it is difficult not to brood upon the two men as two aspects of Childers' character. Most writers write; they don't do much else. Childers was different. As romantic tragedy, his life would make a great Victorian novel. Or a brilliant Merchant-Ivory film.

He was born in 1870, a product of Haileybury, one of Britain's great public schools. Well before the turn of the century, with an honors degree from Cambridge, he became an anonymous civil servant, a clerk of the House of Commons. For years a photograph on the Riddle jacket showed him as a slight, worried-looking man in a high, starched collar and a clerkly black suit. He had a bit of a limp. He wore wire-rimmed spectacles. He was patriotic and pro-Empire. Even the chamber pots in his office were embossed with the royal coat of arms.

He once described Riddle as "a yachting story, with a purpose." Because at the time, there was a new German plan for the invasion of England. Childers' tale actually helped convince the Admiralty to take heed of Germany's great new navy and to create a North Sea base and a North Sea fleet to protect the coast of England from it. The book came out in 1903 and has rarely been out of print since. It made Childers famous not merely as a wizard sailor and storyteller, but as an expert on naval preparedness and what later became known as geopolitics.

Despite his eyeglasses and his game leg, early in 1900 Childers volunteered for the Boer War. Even in British Empire terms, the war was a questionable affair, but he saw it as a great adventure. "Don't you think it would be splendid to do something for one's country?" he wrote sister Dulcie; "I feel this is a chance of useful action."

In 1914, by then 44 years old with a wife and two children, Childers volunteered for aerial reconnaissance work with the Royal Navy-because he knew the sea approaches to Germany. Later he served in the Middle East. A smallish, careful man who managed to take more than his share of dangerous missions, he was often cited in dispatches and won the Distinguished Service Cross, one of Britain's highest honors.

Unimaginable then, that before he was through this very English figure, this proper patriot and civil servant, would be buying guns in Germany and smuggling them to enemies of England. That in England and Ireland he would eventually be suspect as a traitor or double agent; a time came when no less a personage than Winston Churchill would describe Childers as a "murderous renegade," driven by a "deadly and malignant hatred of the land of his birth." Or that after Childers' death, John Buchan, Member of Parliament and peerless adventure writer, would declare, "No revolution ever produced a nobler or purer spirit."

Childers' tortuous progress would involve him in two events that have laid a mark on the 20th century. One was the decline of the British Empire. The other was the Irish Revolution, which helped set the modern world's style in terrorism - blackmail by bloodletting - as an accepted means of righting political wrongs.

The convulsion that marked the final separation of most of Ireland from Britain has been described as a "weird composite of idealism, neurosis, megalomania and criminality ... precipitated by men who had not cleared the blood from their eyes." There is a grim and Gaelic irony in the fact that the only word in the list that fits Childers at all is "idealism," and that the description was given by Kevin O'Higgins, a Cabinet member of the new Irish Free State, the man who ordered Childers' execution.

Childers possessed to a marked degree the official Victorian virtues: high seriousness, sense of duty, belief in fair play. At least in manner and accent, he remained to the end ineradicably (and to many Irish, offensively) English. He was diffident with women but deeply romantic. He had a horror of emotional showiness and political flourishes of style. Abstemious and disciplined, indifferent to creature comforts, he had a lifelong addiction both to civility and gentlemanly adventure.

The fates, however, had dealt him a divided heart.  He was orphaned at age 12. Thereafter, except for school, he spent his summers in Ireland at his aunt's estate, 2,000 acres in Count] Wicklow. Like most landed Anglo-Irish Protestants, Childers became a staunch Unionist. He believed that Ireland, like Wales and Scotland-and Ulster to day-was part of the United Kingdom and should remain so.

During a good deal of the 700 years of English control, the story of Anglo-Ireland was a story of blindness and cruelty marked periodically by evictions and famines and mass emigration, by bloody uprisings bloodily put down.  The people who worked the land were mostly poor and Catholic, legally hindered from acquiring property; the landowners - frequently absentee land lords at that - were often Anglo-Irish Protestants.

By the late 19th century, political reform, and land reform especially had set in. With Irish members elected to represent their country in the British Parliament acting as a voting block, home rule bills designed to give Ireland something like dominion status were fought over in the House of Commons. Each time a bill passed, it was cut down by the House of Lords. Still, after 1900, home rule seemed only a matter of time. But by then Irish nationalism and Irish anger burned hotter with each delay.

The pattern of escalating outrage and passionately non-negotiable demands that would soon characterize Irish revolutionary politics is familiar around the world today. Hundreds of Irishmen volunteered to fight against the British during the Boer War. Childers paid scant heed. But writing his sisters from South Africa, he expressed doubt that British forces could ever really put down the underdog Boers, an armed white population sure of its territorial rights and resolved to resist.

If he was slow to take up the Irish cause it was partly because for years his intellectual home remained military tactics. The first home of his heart was the sea. There, like Davies, he could escape the worldly world of feuding statesmen and obtuse generals, and complex parliamentary dealings that needed straightening out.

His other ruling passion was his magnetic American wife, Mary Alden Osgood. Slightly crippled and heroically used to pain, she was a strong-willed, breathtakingly idealistic Boston aristocrat whom he met by chance and swiftly married. As a New Englander, "Molly" Childers was anti-British and volubly anti-imperialist. She saw the Empire not as one of the useful organizing principles in a fragmented world but as an opponent of little nations and peoples, and the main roadblock on the way to inevitable progress. Gradually, Childers came to adopt that view.

After their marriage, he devoted any spare time and energy left over from sailing and his parliamentary job to writing highly praised books analyzing military affairs. In 1906 the Liberal Party swept into power, bringing with it social reforms and deep misgivings about the future of the Empire, and Childers grew discontented with his previous conservative politics.

Molly led the way. She studied econcomics and the suffrage movement and fashioned a new religion - a blend of all the world's religions - to replace Childers' Church of England faith, which had faded toward agnosticism. Only the fearless and the best, she counseled him, could hope to change the world, setting an example for smaller, feebler men. At one point, thanking her for "always holding up noble ideals," Childers remarked, "I have not grown as much as you this year. My fault and I must cure it."

With Molly's encouragement he quit his job in Parliament, turned against the Tory Party and by 1908 had begun to espouse home rule for Ireland. His fumbling efforts to win a seat in Parliament failed - he was too high-minded for politics.

Unionist friends were startled at the change in his positions. Some thought him besotted of his wife; a few began to think him rather a crackpot. In 1911 he published a remarkable book, A Framework for Home Rule. It exemplifies the kind of analytic clarity and fair-mindedness that almost to the end would mark his writing.

Fittingly, it was a sailboat that finally plunged Childers irrevocably into the maelstrom of Irish politics. After Childers' marriage to Molly, her father had given them a 49-foot ketch named Asgard after the citadel of Norse gods. Though crippled, Molly had gamely learned to sail and navigate. By 1914 (the House of Lords having at last been largely stripped of its veto powers) a home rule bill had finally become law. Passing it was one thing, implementing it another. The main problems then were the same ones that have so long caused Irish bloodshed: the ironbound refusal of largely Protestant Northern Ireland to give up its union with Britain, and the blind insistence of a few Irish nationalists on their right to entirely ignore that Protestant majority's views.

The Ulster counties armed themselves and began drilling. Abetted by the Conservative Party in England, they swore to fight any political compromise. When the Liberal government ordered British troops north to deal with this defiance, an astounding thing happened: the British officers refused to obey. They would resign their commissions, they said, rather than lead troops against Ulstermen who rejected any new British policy that might force Ulster to join the rest of Ireland.

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith backed off, merely placing a ban on importing weapons into Ireland, north or south. But when a private gunrunner brought 4,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition into the north, no action was taken. Radical leaders in the 26 counties of the south decided that they must have guns too. "Ireland unarmed will attain just as much freedom as it is convenient for England to give her," the poet Padraic Pearse wrote; "Ireland armed will attain as much freedom as she wants."

Childers was the man asked to smuggle in the guns. He was a celebrated sailor and navigator; his big white ketch was a familiar sight in English and Irish waters; he was not identified with radical Irish nationalism. If he was a reasonable choice, the plan seemed harebrained; suitable at best for a John Buchan hero. But win or lose, it was certainly yachting "with a purpose." Childers' only stipulation: Molly must be part of the crew.

War was looming in June 1914 as Childers and Darrell Figgis, the Irish contact man, banged around in Germany amateurishly got up as Mexican arms dealers, and finally bought hundreds of bolt-action Mauser rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. It was arranged to get the guns aboard a German tug and rendezvous off the coast of Holland (see map below). On July 10, 1914, Asgard set sail from Wales with a crew of six: two Irish fishermen as paid hands, Erskine, Molly, veteran sailor and Royal Flying Corps pilot Gordon Shephard, their young friend Mary Spring-Rice, a cousin of the British Ambassador in Washington.

Map shows location of cruising ground in Frisian Islands that gave Childers material for Riddle of the Sands, as well as Asgard's route during 1914 gunrunning.


Gales and headwinds held them back. Down around Lands End and along the south coast they went. On July 12, in the dark and fog, they could not find the tugboat. Molly finally spotted it, and Asgard drew alongside. Some 900 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition were loaded into her. The heavily greased guns were handed down in bunches, then broken out so they could be stowed separately. Shephard sawed up most of Asgard's bunks to make room. And still the guns came, piling up in the saloon and companionways. All six worked through the night as Asgard sank deeper and deeper with her load. At dawn they cast loose with a good reaching wind. It was July 13, 1914.

"We sleep, crawl over, sit on, eat on guns," Molly wrote a friend of the trip back. 'They catch us in our knees; odd bolts and butts and barrels transfix us from time to time but we are all so happy and triumphant, so proud of ourselves that we swear we are comfortable." Twice they found themselves surrounded by British warships. Once a destroyer came in close, only to turn away at the last minute. They had, in fact, sailed through the whole of the British Navy's Grand Fleet, ordered out for maneuvers on the eve of war. After sailing through the worst storm in the Irish Sea in 40 years, Childers made an exact landfall at Howth, north of Dublin, at 10 A.M. on July 26.  A motorboat was supposed to meet them, but the owner was too frightened. Childers decided to sail in anyway. Molly's red jersey was the agreed upon signal to Irish volunteers assembled ashore to gather in the guns.

In retrospect the cruise sounds like an upper-class English lark. They did not believe they were committing treason, only breaking a law to see fair play done. If caught, they thought, they might at worst be fined. Naively they resolved as a matter of principle not to pay. Two days after the guns were smuggled in, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On August 4, Britain went to war because Germany had invaded Belgium.

On Easter Monday 1916, Childers' guns were used in the famous Dublin uprising, when a handful of Irish militants captured and briefly held the General Post Office, taking an oath to an imaginary independent Irish Republic. Today in Ireland the event looms large, like the Battle of Lexington and the Declaration of Independence all in one. In 1916 the uprising, which fruitlessly wrecked the center of Dublin and led to looting, was at first seen as feckless by most Irish. During the war, more than 200,000 Irishmen fought against Germany with the British Army in France. The British, who soon would be taking as many as 60,000 casualties a day on the Somme, felt betrayed by the Easter uprising.

Some 1,300 Irish suspects were swiftly deported to England without trial for detention or long prison sentences. The ringleaders were put to death, notable among them Labor leader James Connolly who, though his legs had been shattered by gunfire in the uprising, was strapped into a chair and shot along with the others. Overnight the dead became martyrs in the imperishable cause of Ireland's freedom.

Childers was far away. A few days after war broke out he had joined the British colors and was soon mentioned in dispatches as the lead observer in one of history's first air raids, an attack from a seaplane carrier, on the German zeppelin base in Cuxhaven. By 1916, still an aerial observer, he had moved to the Middle East; his last duty, equally dangerous, was aboard a flotilla of motor torpedo boats.

When Childers heard about the Easter uprising, he wrote his cousin Robert Barton, who would soon join the Irish cause and go to jail for it: "The typical rebel is often half-crazy and half-starved, a neurotic nourished on dreams." But, he added, "Peoples denied freedom will rebel, the responsibility for the tragic results resting on those who deny the freedom."

By 1918 when the Great War ended, Irish opinion was changed utterly. In the first postwar Irish election, 73 Irish deputies elected to the British Parliament were nationalist Sinn Fein candidates, hating England and dedicated not to home rule but to independence. Once elected, they refused even to go to London. They would serve in Ireland, in a shadow parliament that they called the Dail Eireann. Thereafter they were part of an illegal underground government and cabinet, and began terrorist assaults on Anglo-Irish authority.

The third act of Erskine Childers' life took place in the Ireland of 1920 and 1921. By then it was a time of nightly killings by Irish nationalist gunmen and, in escalating reply, roundups, detentions, curfews and eventually martial law, tortures and executions by the Royal Irish Constabulary under British control. In Dublin the brilliant and redoubtable Michael Collins, the underground republic's minister of finance and director of intelligence, raised thousands of pounds to support Republican efforts, setting up clandestine bomb factories, negotiating with foreign arms dealers, organizing a band of youthful killers, "the Squad."

The result was something like a long-running gangland war. Early on "Bloody Sunday," November 21, 1920, for instance, the Squad tracked down 19 men suspected of being a British hit team and shot them, some still in their beds. That afternoon at a football match between Dublin and Tipperary, police and auxiliaries retaliated. When they were finished firing at the playing field and into the crowd, 14 people were dead and hundreds wounded.

Many members of the Royal Irish constabulary were simply shot down. Others resigned in fear, or in sympathy with the nationalist cause. To maintain order, the British turned the worst work over to "irregulars," most notably the Black and Tans. Named for their mismatched uniforms (half Army khaki, half Constabulary black) the Black and Tans' main purpose was intimidation. Like the bad guys in American Westerns, they would roll into a town and shoot the place up. Often when a Sinn Fein sympathizer was elected mayor, he would be found shot "by assailants unknown."

The British saw the IRA killings as cold-blooded murder. But for Irish nationalists the deeds were sanctified by the blood of past martyrs and the cause of freedom. Irish prisoners began to go on hunger strikes, the bravest and most publicized being that of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who went 74 days without food before dying in Britain's Brixton prison. Increasingly, the rest of the world saw the British as brutal oppressors. Increasingly, the selling of that view became the work of Erskine Childers.   On leave from the military in 1917 he had been named to sit in on an Anglo-Irish commission to work out compromises; neither the Ulster counties nor Sinn Fein would budge an inch. The next year, when World War I ended, he was almost 50, exhausted from years of combat and a bout of influenza that nearly killed him. He had a wife whom he loved deeply, two young sons and a career in England to return to. But friends remarked the changes in attitude that war and politics had worked in him. "No one dies for Home Rule," he wrote in 1919.

"Freedom is the thing men die for." In March of that year he walked into the Sinn Fein headquarters in Dublin. "My name is Childers, Erskine Childers, " he said. "I have come over to give a hand any way I can help."

As editor of the underground Irish Bulletin, he brought in journalists from England. Reporting on British outrages, he drove home his point to English readers by adding the words: "All this [done] in your name." He took Irish citizenship, was elected to the Dail and appointed a full member of the Cabinet as minister of propaganda, working alongside the three makers of the Irish Revolution: Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith, Eamon De Valera, who had been raising money in America during most of the fighting, and Michael Collins, the man who more than any other created what became the Irish Free State.

Childers' skill at propaganda was never clearer than in an exchange with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had declared that he would fight attempts at secession with all the "determination and resources" used by Lincoln against the South. "Lincoln's reputation is safe from your comparison," Childers shot back. "He fought to abolish slavery, you fight to maintain it."

The final act of Childers' tragedy began when, at last, a truce was agreed upon, and a series of Anglo-Irish talks were begun with a view to making some kind of treaty that both sides might accept. On October 11, 1921, he sailed to London as secretary to an Irish delegation that included Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, sent to bargain for Ireland's future with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.

Childers' old friend historian Basil Williams was shocked to see him. Erskine was "thin and deadly pale," Williams wrote sadly. His old sense of humor and of proportion had vanished. "He would accept no compromise," Williams noted. "When it came to means of achieving his end, he had become almost ferocious and pitiless."

Weeks passed. Concessions were made on both sides. The Irish finally won separation from England and a new name, the Irish Free State. They won their own flag, their own customs service and armed forces, and the withdrawal of all British soldiers from the 26 southern counties. But in the final version of the agreement there was still a watered-down oath to the British crown. And still no way to bring north and south together. A day came when Lloyd George held up two envelopes. One, he said, contained the announcement that both sides had agreed on the treaty text. The other was a notice to British forces in Ireland that negotiations had failed and a real, fighting war against the Republicans would begin.

Led by Collins and Griffith, the long-divided delegation finally signed. And in Ireland, at first, the public was wild with joy and relief. But there were those who insisted that Ireland could have been completely free if the delegates had refused to sign. One was Eamon De Valera. Another was Childers.

In the Irish debate over ratification, De Valera led the charge against the treaty, appealing to ultra-nationalists. Childers followed suit, predicting that the British could and would swiftly take back everything they had agreed to. The word "traitor" was freely cast about. But Griffith and, above all, Collins, pointed to all that had been gained. No longer part of England, with their own government and with the British Army gone, they declared, Ireland had won enough freedom to eventually achieve total independence.

When the country voted, De Valera lost, Collins and the treaty won. Then De Valera, expressing a standard extremist view (that the "majority has no right to do wrong"), walked out of the Dail, taking his followers with him. Childers was among them. Even as British soldiers began leaving their barracks and shipping home, IRA forces began a civil war-attacking those same barracks and burning the houses and valuables of treaty proponents.

All through the summer of 1922 Childers turned out propaganda for this tragic folly. But because he was an expert on military affairs - and widely perceived as English and sometimes even as an English agent - he began to be blamed in public as the mastermind behind bloody, erratic hit-and-run attacks by the IRA. He became a 'Wanted" criminal of the Free State government. His danger increased in August of 1922 when Michael Collins, the target of assassination plots by the men who followed De Valera, was killed in an ambush. Collins was a friend of the Childers; he had given Erskine a small, pearl-handled .22 revolver that Childers now illegally carried.

Novelist Frank O'Connor, then an 18-year-old with literary ambitions, served briefly with Childers near Cork in the late summer of 1922. O'Connor's descriptions of him are both funny and heartbreaking. "He came down the stairs of the Victoria Hotel limping and frowning," O'Connor writes, "a small, slight gray-haired man in tweeds, like a parson or a public school teacher, conscientious to a fault and overburdened with minor cares. The brows were puckered in a triangle of obsessive thought."

The fighting by then was sporadic, ill-organized and meaningless. Childers' little hand press got dropped into a bog by mistake. Still, he took his mission seriously. He had a bad cough, O'Connor remembered. At night, so as not to wake others, Childers would go out and sit in the cold hall, stifling his coughs and reading boyhood books like The Deerslayer and Alexandre Dumas' Twenty Years After.

Near the end, De Valera got a message to Childers that he was needed in Dublin. With David Robinson, who had lost an eye in World War I as a captain in the British Army, he made his way across half of Ireland, traveling mostly at night and dodging Free State soldiers. On the evening of November 10. 1922, Childers and Robinson reached Glendalough House, the estate where Childers had grown up. Exhausted, refusing a cot in a secret room, Childers trudged upstairs and fell into his own boyhood bed. Someone informed on him. After midnight, Free State soldiers arrived. Still drugged with sleep, he staggered out of his room. With their rifles pointed at him, he tried to raise his little revolver.

He was charged only with possession of the revolver, swiftly tried by a military court and sentenced to execution by firing squad - along with four other anti-Free State fighters also caught with weapons. Protests poured in from all over Ireland, England and the United States. They did no good. The Free State government was in a hurry to demonstrate its seriousness and to close down the civil war.

Childers wrote the courts a long, clear explanation of the moral logic that had led him to the position he was in. He wrote Molly, reassuring her that he loved her and bore no enmity to anyone: "I die loving England and passionately praying that she may change completely and finally towards Ireland." He was allowed to see his 16 year-old son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, and asked the boy to promise to "shake hands with each person who figured in my death." On the final morning he wrote Molly again. "It is 6 a.m. You will be pleased to see how imperturbable I have been this night and am. It all seems perfectly simple and inevitable, like lying down after a long day's work." In the courtyard of Beggar's Bush Barracks he shook hands with each rifleman. After the nervous firing squad had taken their positions he called out to them, "Come closer boys. It will be easier for you."

Under the headline "SOLDIER, WRITER AND TRAITOR" one English paper dismissed Childers as "only one of thousands of victims ... sacrificed in order to prove to the Irish that they are unfit to govern themselves." Others were either shocked, full of praise or inclined to puzzle over the riddle of Childers' life as "one of the most mysterious figures in Irish political history." Molly made a brief, curious statement to the press: "His sacrifice is as much a gift to me as it is to his comrades who serve Ireland's cause." A few days later, when Irish playwright Lady Gregory came to offer condolences to Molly and her sons, one of the boys cut her off with the chilling words: "It does not matter. The Irish Republic has triumphed."

As historian Burke Wilkinson has pointed out, there was no real riddle to Childers' life. In The Zeal of the Convert, the best book on Childers yet written, Wilkinson notes: "He was neither a devious nor a complicated man. The legends that have swirled about his name arose because his simplicity, his directness, taxed belief." The only real mystery is how a man so skilled at political analysis and experienced in parliamentary compromise, could have helped to devastate Ireland and abet Irishmen in killing other Irishmen when so much had been gained, when so much hope existed for the Irish Free State.

Collins was proved right, and De Valera and Childers were proved wrong - about the oath, about the treaty and what would become of Ireland under it. The British did not come back; the Free State thrived. De Valera arguably had political ambition to consider. The treaty had been signed against his wishes; he had been eclipsed as Ireland's real leader by the charismatic Collins. After Collins' death, the way lay open for him again. Eventually he took the oath, over which so much blood and rhetoric had been spilled, and doing so he referred to it as "an empty formula." Then, as prime minister of the Irish Free State, he proceeded, as Collins had planned to do, to use the freedoms of the new status to create an entirely free and independent Ireland.

Childers himself had no trace of personal ambition. At the end he was worn out, overwrought - and wrong. Yet in the manner in which he took leave of life he did as much for the living as high courage and ingrained civility could do.

Molly lived on for 40 years, the keeper of the flame. In 1973 their son Erskine Hamilton Childers was elected president of Ireland. Childers' ketch Asgard became a national monument and now sits in a courtyard at Dublin's Kilmainham prison.

During the months of the "troubles" and the civil war, there was neither the joyful energy nor the opportunity for sailing. One likes to think that if Childers could have gone out in Asgard, he might have eased up enough to see the great victory that the treaty was for Ireland, to know that the time had come to turn from sacred oaths and bloodletting to politics as the art of the possible-as the IRA has lately talked of doing in Northern Ireland.

When I sailed to the island of Norderney, where, in Childers' Riddle, Carruthers and Davies finally confront their enemies, I kept leafing back through the book. And was brought up sharp by a description of Davies, written in 1903. He had become, Carruthers says, "a zealot smarting under a personal discontent, athirst for a means, however tortuous, of contributing his effort to the great cause."

One of Davies' crotchets - along with a fondness for tossing outworn gear overboard - is his feeling that he and Dulcibella are blessedly safe and free only at sea. A moment comes, though, when he and Carruthers have to go ashore. Their whole mission seems in danger of collapse. And Davies wails, "It comes of landing - ever."


Sketch Book: 

These sketches were made by the writer in June 1988 when he and sons Colin and Andrew, sailing mostly  "by the sticks," explored  the Frisian Islands, following Childers' route in Ducibella.

Nienke was rented in Holland. At just over 33 feet,  she was a shade  larger than Dulcibella, and had an engine as well as twin keels, the better to settle evenly when the tide was out. Dulcibella started out as a decked-over lifeboat rigged as a sloop, but in The Riddle of Sands Davies has added a tiny mizzenmast, converting her into a small yawl.


From Foote's journal:  "The channels, which turn inside each other like a snails whorls, are marked as they were in Davies' time by trees trimmed at the top so that (in the fog at least) they look like little explosions of smoke trapped by the twigs."


"View out Nienke's porthole. Aground in rain between Emshaven and Nordeich."  June 25, 1988.


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Additional reading:

  • The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, VikingPenguin, 1978
  • The Zeal of the Convert by Burke Wilkinson, Robert B. Luce (Washington D.C.) 1976
  • The IRA: A History by Tim Pat Coogan, Roberts Rinehart, 1994
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan. Roberts Rinehart, 1993
  • The Riddle by Maldwin Drummond, Nautical Books (London) 1985