Robert Erskine Childers


Biography of Robert Erskine Childers

Robert Erskine Childers (25 June 1870 – 24 November 1922), universally known as Erskine Childers was the author of the influential novel The Riddle of the Sands and an Irish nationalist who smuggled guns to Ireland in his sailing yacht Asgard. He was executed by the authorities of the nascent Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War. He was the son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers; the cousin of Hugh Childers and Robert Barton; and the father of the fourth President of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers.

Childers was born in Mayfair, London, the second son to Robert Caesar Childers, a translator and oriental scholar from an ecclesiastical family, and Anna Mary Henrietta, née Barton, from an Anglo-Irish landowning family of Glendalough House, Annamoe, County Wicklow with interests in France such as the winery that bears their name. When Erskine was six his father died from tuberculosis and, although seemingly healthy, Anna was confined to an isolation hospital, where she was to die six years later. The children, by this time numbering five, were sent to the Bartons at Glendalough. They were treated kindly there and Erskine came to identify himself closely with the country of Ireland, albeit at that stage from the comfortable viewpoint of the "Protestant Ascendancy".

At the recommendation of his grandfather, Canon Charles Childers, he was sent to Haileybury College. There he won an exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge, studying the classical tripos and then law. He distinguished himself as the editor of Cambridge Review, a university magazine. Notwithstanding his unattractive voice and poor debating skills, he became president of the Trinity College Debating Society (the "Magpie and Stump" society). Although Erskine was an admirer of his cousin Hugh Childers, a member of the Cabinet in favour of Irish home rule, he spoke vehemently against the policy in college debates. A sciatic injury sustained while hill walking in the summer before he went up, and which was to dog him for the rest of his life, had left him slightly lame and he was unable to pursue his intention of earning a rugby blue, but he became a proficient rower.

Having gained his degree in law, and with the vague intention of one day following cousin Hugh into parliament as an MP, Childers sat the competitive entry examination to become a parliamentary clerk. He was successful and early in 1895 he became a junior committee clerk in the House of Commons, with the responsibility of preparing formal and legally sound bills from the proposals of the government of the day.

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