Chapter 7. – COLLINS’ ESTIMATE OF ERSKINE CHILDERS –
COLLINS’ ESTIMATE OF ERSKINE CHILDERS
As so frequently happened during the feverish nine months of my association with Collins, his plan to have me meet Sean McGarry the following evening miscarried.
At that time McGarry was in charge of the detachment of National troops guarding the Amiens Street railway station. When I arrived at the place appointed for the meeting, I found Collins with his ear to a telephone receiver and a broad grin on his face. He motioned me towards another telephone instrument and with a gesture invited me to listen.
The amusing part of it was McGarry’s deadly seriousness. For he was explaining in as technically correct military language as he knew how to use addressing himself to the Commander-in-Chief of his army that Irregular snipers were at the moment making exit from the station ” inadvisable.” Only to one who appreciated that for ten years or more Collins had been ” Mick ” to Sean McGarry could the humour of the conversation become fully apparent.
Eventually Collins had me meet McGarry and it proved one of the most interesting and informative sessions of any at which I was present. And it was not until afterwards that Collins determined to go on record himself regarding the chief figure of McGarry’s tale Erskine Childers.
When Collins finally decided to expose Childers, whom he regarded as the evil genius of Ireland, he imposed the condition that it was not to be made public until every effort to effect a truce had been exhausted. He was planning then a last attempt to induce De Valera to end the senseless
campaign an effort which, it will be recalled, he announced officially the day that Griffith died.
To the very end he clung to the hope that De Valera would have the moral courage to call a halt, to disperse the brigands and turn over their arms to the Provisional Government ; but the night he took me into his confidence regarding Childers he promised that it would be a short time only before either peace came or I should be free to let the world know the truth about the man Collins held primarily responsible for Ireland’s tragic plight.
Collins’ murder has removed that restriction as I see it and more than justifies my setting down here his denunciation of the man who, Collins believed, cared for no country and served none, but was consumed with a maniacal lust for destruction.
” Of all the many men who for hundreds of years have done Ireland grievous harm,” Collins began, ” none has managed to deal the Irish people such an overwhelming blow as Erskine Childers. This Englishman may be sincere in all that he professes, and so far as I am concerned it makes little difference what his actual motives are. The fact remains that he has worked steadily since 1912 inflicting damage on the Irish cause. The pity of it is that those of us who have known the facts have felt that it was inadvisable to make them public. The time has come when the truth must be told.
” It may be recalled that Brugha in the last session of the Dail eulogised Childers and declared he had done more for Ireland than any other living man the eulogy accompanying his motion calling on the Dail to pass a vote of censure on President Griffith for having called Childers a ‘ damned Englishman.’ Brugha is dead, but Childers is very much alive. My own feeling is that Childers not only never worked any good to Ireland ; he consistently and continuously has done Ireland harm. Ten years ago, Childers then in the English Civil Service, and with more or less influence among a certain coterie in the House of Commons was urging in every way at his command that the British Government should grant the Irish people a measure of freedom that was as unthinkable from an English view as it was greater and more radical than the most advanced Irishman dreamed of getting.
” Then, as at all times since, this Englishman was damning any chance Ireland might have had of winning reasonable concessions from England by advocating an extreme course of action which must inevitably heighten English hostility against us.
” Down through the years, Childers’ record shows he never once deviated from his set purpose always to be more extreme than the most extreme of the Irish Radicals. I have said it makes little difference whether he is sincere the fact that every proposal of his has been impracticable when it has not been positively damaging being enough in itself ; but that does not mean that I have not a very definite opinion as to his sincerity. Twenty years ago Childers wrote a book in which he made out a perfect case for an astounding kind of super spy the agent provocateur. His ingenious scheme was nothing less than having the spy join the extreme faction in an enemy country, and lead them to excesses that would eventually bring about the desired war. That was the Childers of twenty years ago. Let us look into his activities as a champion of the cause of Irish freedom, keeping in mind this scheme he sponsored.
” Darrell Figgis went to Belgium in June 1914, and bought two thousand rifles and ammunition at Liege. A Belgian seagoing tug carried the purchase to an agreed rendezvous in the North Sea, where the cargo was transhipped to Childers’ yacht. Eventually we got possession of the guns and ammunition and the whole world presently learned of the gunrunning at Howth. Would anyone suggest that Childers’ part in this exploit is inconsistent with his professed belief in the efficacy of his super-spy system? What practical good could be realised from our getting possession of a relative handful of weapons ?
” On the other hand, the widespread publicity given to the exploit furnished England with a new and substantial ground for dealing sternly with the impossible Irish malcontents. But even more than this Childers may have had in mind.
” At that time Carson’s armed forces in Ulster were drilling and preparing to wage war upon us at least, that is what many Irishmen honestly believed. What could suit England’s wishes better than such a war ? How could it be precipitated more surely than by furnishing arms in discreetly inadequate quantities to the side which, unarmed, had no choice except passive acceptance of the Ulster menace ? Fortunately, for once we avoided making the error of doing what Ireland’s enemies fully expected. It was for Easter Week those guns were intended, and it was in Easter Week only that they were used.
” The English zealot in Ireland’s cause what do we find him doing next ? Within less than a month after the Howth gunrunning, Childers was enlisting in the English Secret Service in the world war, repeating the services he had rendered his Empire in the South African war. Many times in the past few years Childers has attempted to explain in conversations with me his reasons for voluntarily aiding the nation he swore he loathed always emphasising the fact that he had done no more than tens of thousands of born Irishmen had done, and, as he tried to put it, for the same reason his natural love of a fight and adventure. Always he finished by saying that he was sorry, but better men than he had made mistakes.
” Then in 1917 Childers met De Valera.
” It was an unhappy moment for Ireland when this illogical, incompetent, inexperienced schoolteacher came under the spell of Childers a genius as brilliant as De Valera is guileless. It was Childers who wrote the famous Document No. 2. It is Childers who has guided practically every action of De Valera the past five years. I was strongly opposed to Childers’ presence in the delegation of treaty plenipotentiaries, even as a secretary, but De Valera would not listen to my objections. There was no room for doubt that De Valera firmly believed that Childers was the only man upon whom he could depend.
” And what did Childers do in London ? I risk the charge of being indiscreet in revealing what I am about to reveal but considerations of that kind cannot weigh with me when the fate of the Irish people depends, as it does, on their knowing the truth about this man. He had told De Valera, Brugha, Stack and others in Dublin that he had a great scheme by which he could argue the British Government into recognising that there was no danger in her granting Ireland’s demand for a republic. Griffith and the rest of us plenipotentiaries had no such scheme, wherefore, in due course, it was decided that Childers should have a chance of putting his scheme into execution.
” He had been most secretive about it all along, and I had no idea what it was when we went together by appointment to the Colonial Office one day last November, and there met Winston Churchill and Lord Beatty. The latter had a huge map brought over from the Admiralty at Childers’ request. It showed Britain, Ireland and the European coast.
” ‘ Now, gentlemen,’ began Childers, ‘ I mean to demonstrate that Ireland is not only no source of danger to England, but, from a military standpoint, is virtually useless.’ This announcement staggered me probably more than it did the other two. It was such ridiculous balderdash, I felt like wanting to get out of the room, but I naturally realised that I must make a pretence of standing by my colleague. Churchill and Beatty exchanged glances, and then gave Childers their attention again. ‘ Take the matter of Irish bases for English submarine chasers,’ the latter continued. ‘ From the viewpoint of naval expediency Plymouth is a far better base than any port on the Irish coast.’
” ‘ You really think so ? ‘ asked Beatty.
” Childers insisted he did, adding, ‘ For instance, supposing Ireland were not there at all ? ‘
” ‘ Ah, said Beatty, with a smile, ‘ but Ireland is there.’
” ‘ And how many times,’ interjected Churchill, ‘ have we wished she were not ! ‘
” And that was Childers’ great idea, and it was all of it ! The argument with which he was going to persuade the British Government to recognise the Irish Republic got no further. I never felt more a fool hi my whole life. Yet to this day De Valera and others believe that Childers’ scheme failed only because we of the delegation did not back him wholeheartedly.
” From my own experience in dealing with British Ministers I am convinced that nothing could more surely weaken any cause in their eyes than ridiculously stupid espousal of the cause. Lloyd George, Mr. Churchill all of them were responsive and reasonable so long as we put forward our points with rational argument, but Childers was a member of the secretariat, and well known by Lloyd George to be De Valera’s personal representative.
” Was this merely another instance of Childers’ doing Ireland grievous damage unwittingly ? For my part, I find it difficult to believe that Childers ever did one unwitting act in his life, but, having said this,I repeat that it makes little difference. The only important fact that the Irish people must fully appreciate is that Erskine Childers wittingly or unwittingly has already done, and is now doing, his utmost to effect Ireland’s ruin.”
Had Collins lived he might have extended the prohibition regarding the release of this interview, but now that he is dead and who will say that it was not Childers’ brain which conceived and organised the Bandon ambush ? I take upon myself the responsibility of showing up the man Michael Collins counted worse than despicable.