Erskine Childers was born Robert Erskine Childers in London on June 25, 1870, the second son of Robert Caesar Childers, a distinguished English scholar of East Indian languages, and Anna Mary Barton, daughter of an Irish landed family from Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland. The early death of Childers’s father resulted in the removal of the family from England to the Barton family’s home in Ireland, and it was there that Erskine Childers was reared and ultimately found his nationality. He was educated in a private school in England and at Trinity College, Cambridge University. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1893, he was appointed a clerk in the House of Commons, serving there from 1895 until he resigned in 1910 to devote his efforts to achieving Home Rule for Ireland.
In 1900, Childers joined a volunteer company and served in action in the war against the Boers in South Africa. The daily letters sent to his sisters and relations, recording his impressions of the war as he was experiencing it, were edited by them and published without his knowledge as a surprise on his return (1900). The success of this volume of correspondence with the public led to Childers’s second literary work, a history of the military unit in which he served (1903), and ultimately a volume in the London Times’s history of the Boer Wars (1907).
During the long parliamentary recesses, Childers had spent his free time sailing a small thirty-foot yacht in the Baltic and North Seas and the English Channel. He had first learned to love the sea as a boy in Ireland, and he was to use his knowledge of these waters in July, 1914, to smuggle a large shipment of arms and ammunition from a German supply ship off the Belgian coast into the harbor of Howth, north of Dublin, to arm the Irish National Volunteers, a paramilitary organization formed to defend Ireland against the enemies of Home Rule. These arms were later used in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, which proclaimed the founding of the Irish Republic.
Childers’s experiences as a yachtsman were put to good use in his first and only effort to write a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903 and immediately making its author a celebrity. Shortly thereafter, while visiting Boston and his old military company, Childers met and married his American wife, Mary Alden Osgood, who was his constant companion in war and peace, on sea and land, until his death. She espoused his own enthusiasm for the freedom of Ireland, for republicanism, and for the joys of yachting.
When war between Germany and Great Britain erupted in the late summer of 1914, Childers became a naval intelligence officer with special responsibility for observing the German defenses along the Frisian coast, the scene of his 1903 novel. He learned how to fly aircraft and was among the first to engage in naval air...
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