The London-born son of a British scholar and an Irish mother, Childers is a lifelong Protestant, itself an anomaly since Irish nationalism maps strongly to Catholicism. In his early years his loyalty was with the British Empire. In his twenties, Childers volunteers for the Second Boer War, and he later says the rank savagery and underlying injustice of England’s war “changed the whole current of my life and made me a Liberal and a Nationalist.”
Laying down the sword, Childers takes up the pen and writes several books of military history. He also writes a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, that has a claim of being the first spy novel. The Riddle of the Sands has never gone out of print since it was published in 1903.
Both in fiction and nonfiction, Childers’ warnings against the German challenge to British hegemony are prophetic, but he is himself becoming a man divided. In 1914 he runs German guns to Irish nationalists aboard his yacht Asgard and then signs up for the royal navy when World War I erupts. The British crackdown on the Easter Rising during the war completes his radicalization. He moves to Dublin and turns his eloquence against the British.
Childers is swept into the tragedy of the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War that follows. Although both he and Michael Collins are in the delegation that produces the contentious Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers breaks with Collins over it and backs the Irish Republican Army (IRA) nationalists who fight the Irish Free State.
After Collins’s assassination, emergency laws promulgate the death sentence for anyone caught armed without authorization. Childers is a writer, not a partisan, but he is arrested in early November with a small sidearm, a gift Collins had given him back when they were on the same side. It is a time of bloody justice and they throw the book at him.
Childers knows as well as Collins had that the internecine conflict would have to end. He faces his execution with awe-inspiring forgiveness. Summoning his 16-year-old son to prison the night before his execution, Childers extracts a promise from the boy that he will find everyone who signed his death warrant and shake their hands. This son, young Erskine Hamilton Childers, eventually becomes President of Ireland.
Childers himself likewise shakes the hands of his own firing squad, one by one. His last words, reported in a number of slightly different variations, are lightheartedly addressed to them: “Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.”