Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Standing in front of an Irish firing squad, Robert smiled, then shook the hands of each of his executioners. Unafraid, he said, “ take a step closer lads, it will make your job easier.” Robert refused the blindfold but as he was about to meet his demise, he got a promise from his 16-year-old son to “seek out and shake the hand of all those who signed his death warrant.” His son, Erskine, would fulfill that promise years later as the 1st Protestant President of Catholic Ireland. What follows is the complex story of Robert Childers, his son Erskine, and their impact on Irish, English, and in a small way, Belgian history.
Robert Childers (1870-1922), was born into an English family with distinguished political connections. Later he became an Irish loyalist, an acclaimed novelist, a war hero, a politician, a fugitive, and a militant. At age 12 after both his parents had died, young Robert was sent to his uncle’s home in County Wicklow, Ireland. There, he grew up loving all things Irish while at the same time subscribing to the dominant English sentiment known as Protestant Ascendancy. This viewpoint held the belief that English Protestant superiority was called upon to dominate the political, economic, and social realities in Ireland. This dichotomy of loyalties would become the trademark of Robert’s and his son Erskine’s lives.
Educated at Cambridge University, Robert distinguished himself as the editor of the university magazine and a member of the debate team. He often argued against the Irish Free State. After graduation, he took a job as a clerk in the House of Commons but sailing and adventure were his true passions. He often honed his sailing skills in the tricky waters of the English Channel and around the Frisian Islands off the coast of the Netherlands and Belgium. These were the adventures that Robert would fictionalize in his 1903 best-selling spy novel The Pillars of the Sands. The book was impactful as it later served as a literary model for the espionage spy thrillers of Ian Fleming (James Bond) and John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold).
In 1914, driven by either ideological passions or by his love of adventure, he used his yacht to smuggle a cargo of 900 Mauser rifles and 30,000 black powder cartridges to the Irish Nationalists who, for centuries had battled against British oppression in Ireland.
The weapons were loaded onto Robert’s yacht off the Belgian coast near Ostend in West Flanders. Behind the scenes Childers, posed as a Mexican partisan, pre-arranged the gun-running from an arms dealer in Brussels. The weapons were transported to Ostend by a German tugboat, offloaded at the Belgium port, and into Childers’ yacht. From there Robert was able to skillfully avoid and outrun any German detection. This incident has become known in Ireland as the infamous Howth Gun-running Episode. Robert Childers became an instant hero for the cause of Irish independence from England.
It would be a mistake however to assume that Robert Childers had abandoned his loyalties to the British in favor of his Irish sympathies. As World War I loomed, Robert moved back to England and joined the British Royal Navy. Boasting that he had “been on more secret service stunts (read: espionage, smuggling, gun-running, etc.) than any other officer,” he spent his military career in Operational Intelligence working on Winston Churchill’s contingency plan for the naval invasion of Germany. Churchill, then a Parliament Minister, later relied heavily on Robert’s knowledge of the North Sea in and around Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1915 Robert Childers was awarded the British Distinguished Service Award for his efforts.
World War I presented a curious dilemma for the Irish freedom fighters who sought to free themselves from the yoke of British rule. Some argued that Ireland should actively support Germany as it would be a “next-door” detriment to their long struggle against the English. Childers, now a recognized public voice, countered that the Irish Nationalists should fight alongside of their traditional enemy (England) because it might secure bargaining power in future Irish home rule negotiations. Childers often spoke of the example of smaller nations— specifically Belgium— that had their best chance of becoming an independent nation with England’s defeat of Germany. This was his hope someday for Ireland.
By the war’s end, Robert had made powerful enemies on both sides. The Irish Freedom Fighters became convinced that Childers’ loyalties were too steadfast, too suspicious, too British, and convinced he was a spy. Robert was executed (1920) in Dublin at the height of the Irish War of Independence.
Robert’s son Erskine Childers was able to keep his promise to his father. He did in fact meet with all those “who signed his father’s execution order.” Erskine did this while holding the highest elected office in the land— the 4th President of Ireland. He, like his father, was conflicted by a personal tension caused by an innate belief in English superiority but simultaneously with respect and a deep love of Ireland. Despite his British birth, his upbringing, and his very distinctive Oxbridge accent (he had trouble pronouncing Irish dialect), Erskine proved enormously popular with the Irish public.
Erskine’s 1974 diplomatic visit to Belgium— Irelands’ 1st state visit to Europe— was a historically symbolic event. After meeting with King Baudouin, Queen Fabiola, the mayor of Brussels, and other Belgium dignitaries, they toured Leuven University—an institution with Irish ties since 1607. They spoke at the Belgium/Irish Society and inscribed their names in the Book of Honors which celebrates the Irish influence in Brussels. But what was most germane about this historic visit was its lasting symbolism. Erskine not only celebrated Brussels developing role as headquarters for the European Community (later the E.U.) but also helped establish European recognition of the Irish Republic. In this—the 1st state visit to Europe by an Irish president— Erskine advocated for a European role for Ireland rather than the solely “English dependent” version of the past.
Robert Childers and his son Erskine were both steadfast British loyalists and Irish freedom fighters. This dichotomy runs counter to any ideological common sense, yet questions remain: Could it be that the Childers saw through the restraints of a “true believer” or those who dogmatically profess to an absolute belief in something? Could it be that father and son envisioned a future where Ireland and England ceased to argue their differences but rather discuss them in a forum such as the European Union? Could it be they were two of those rare individuals able to hold two opposing ideals at the same time?
The answers remain rhetorical….