9 APRIL 1977, Page 18


A patriot for me

Brian Inglis

The Riddle of Erskine Childers Andrew Boyle (Hutchinson £6.95) The riddle is simply stated how did it come about that Erskine Childers, English by birth and schooling, a House of Commons clerk, a volunteer member of the British forces in the Boer War and in the First World War, should appear in London in 1921 as the Secretary to the Irish delegation ?; by this time a republican so uncompromising that he all but wrecked the negotiations leading up to the Treaty—and later so unyielding in his hostility to the Free State, when it was set up, that when he was caught he was promptly executed ? Was he, as Churchill described him, a 'mischief-making murderous renegade' ? Was he, as some people in Ireland still believe, an English spy, employed deviously to preserve the United Kingdom by discrediting the independence movement ?Or was he a sea-green incorruptible, led by the logic of his inquiring mind?

It is only now that Andrew Boyle has been able to provide the answers because Childers's widow—on the pretext that half a century should be allowed to pass before disclosure to allow time for old wounds to heal—kept all his letters and papers locked up in trunks. Some time in the early 'fifties, I was brought out by one of her grandchildren to meet her at Glendalough, in the house where Erskine had spent his holidays as a child, and where he had eventually been caught by the Free Staters, Molly Childers was bedridden, but her scheming mind was considering a biography, and also a film of The. Riddle of the Sands, which a British company wanted to make. What did I think of the film idea ? I said I thought it would make a marvellous film. But it soon became clear that nothing would appear on the screen in her lifetime. She knew that no director would leave the girl Clara in the modest, chaste role she played in the book ; and Molly was not going to sacrifice her fantasy of herself as the only woman in Erskine's life to any Rank young hussy.

A biography would have been a different matter. The reason why it was not com missioned long ago can be gauged from Andrew Boyle's remark that, when he came to examine the trunkfuls of papers, he found that Molly had taken care 'to excise or otherwise delete from the record as it stood certain parts which seemed to detract from the immutable image she had formed of him.' She must have realised that no biographer of the standing she would have liked would have accepted the censorship she would have certainly imposed. But apparently she was an inefficient bowdleriser. Boyle has had no trouble in assembling the material required to answer the riddle, in this very satisfying book.

Erskine Childers turns out to be a more remarkable man than even his admirers could have expected. Anxious though she was to concentrate attention on his record as an Irish patriot, Molly could not disguise the fact that he had fought in the Boer Wat, because he had written a book about it: In the Ranks of the CI V. What I was entirely unprepared for, though, was the account Boyle provides of his work as a navigator in reconnaissance and bombing operations over Germany, and over Turkish territory in the Middle East. It was not simply that in his mid-forties—he was too old, by that time, to be conscripted—be flew on many hazardous missions, and was involved in a number of crashes. He was also, it transpires, one of the pioneers of aerial navigation, a forerunner of Francis Chichester and St Exupery.

There is also the inside story, as it were, of The Riddle of the Sands. Messing about in boats under 20,000 tons is my idea of hell on earth; but if anybody could reconcile me to it, it would be Childers (just as if anybodY could reconcile me to hunting, it would be his near contemporaries Somerville and Ross). Re-reading it a few months ago I found it, apart from rare lapses into BOPery (`Not so loud, you fiend of mischiefr) as riveting as ever. What Boyle does is remind us how influential the book was: not merely in exposing Britain's unpreparedness to deal with any invasion front the Continent, but also in actually getting something done about it: 'The artfully conveyed message was received, understood and endorsed by influential men like Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord.'

And the answer to the riddle of Erskine Childers? Wisely, Boyle has let the story tell itself, wherever possible, through Childers's letters; leading to the conclusion that Childers's 'idealism, tempered by the fearsome logic which has converted many Byronic dreamer into a remorseless part!. san, helped to unmake him.' There was nothing strange in Childers's ability to hold a passionate love of Ireland in heart and head at the same time as he was loyal to Queen and country. Many of his contemporaries had similar divided loyalty. Nor was it surprising that a man of his high standards of honour should have been appalled by Asquith's feebleness in 1914' and Lloyd George's deviousness in 1921. But Childers had little insight, and little sense of humour. He could not see how absurd it would appear to friends as well as enemies that he, the one-time British agent. should be laying down the Republican law. The Republicans could not trust him: the Free Staters feared and loathed him; hls presence in Ireland did only harm. I doubt whether anybody could have done a better job than Boyle, save in one curious respect. In his prologue he deals wit.h, Childers's execution, reasonable enough it Sean O'Faolain's remark that 'the shadoW of his doom was over him from the first is to be part of the riddle's answer. But BoYle does not content himself with setting the scene. The prologue also gives long extracts from Childers's last letters, vivid descriptions of his last hours and his death from the bullets of a firing squad. This turns the last chapter into an anti-climax. It is almost as if, after writing a successionc of biographies of men whose last chapter.c were anti-climaxes, Boyle felt uneasy aboua milking the death scene for its drama for lump in the throat. A pity, because the leaving of life not merely became Childers, it redeemed him.