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Graphic new account of Childers execution

(Marie Louise McCrory, Irish News)

One of the leaders of the Irish War of Independence, Erskine Childers, was shot in the face as he lay in his coffin minutes after being executed, a new eyewitness account has revealed.

The father of future president of Ireland – also Erskine – was one of the most famous names in Ireland's battle for independence and subsequent civil war.

English by birth, he was involved in the struggle from before the 1916 Rising when his boat, the Aud, was used to smuggle guns into Howth harbour. He was also an author of note, having penned the "Riddle of the Sands," accepted as the definitive spy novel.

While he signed the Treaty along with Michael Collins, as a close ally of Eamonn de Valera, he opposed the Free State army in the civil war.

A new account – believed to have been written by an associate from the IRA's First Battalion – tells how a Free State soldier ran up to the Childer's corpse five minutes after he was executed and shot him in the face.

Erskine Childers was captured in possession of a gun, on his way to meet rebel leader de Valera. The gun was given to Childers by Michael Collins some years earlier, before the men found themselves on different sides in the Civil War.

The account, which is included as a part of an article in the December issue of the BBC's History magazine, is believed to have been given by one of the soldiers present at the execution.

It presents a graphic description of how Childers suggested to his executioners that "perhaps the light was not right for the execution to be carried out properly" and how he went on to express his concerns that he might be "merely wounded or shot in the leg".

The description also includes details of how Childers, who was described as the eyes and ears of de Valera in London, pointed out to his executioners that military procedure was not being adhered to because there was no medical officer present.

Whilst the soldiers tried to locate a doctor, Childers stood, calmly smoking a cigarette and chatting to a Bishop who was present. He was eventually executed 75 minutes after being escorted from his cell at Beggars Bush Barracks.

The new account recorded: "When at last the Free State party had got something near military procedure they approached Erskine. He asked them not to bind or to blindfold him, they refused his request and, as soon as the bandage was tied across his eyes, he came to attention and died at attention one hour and a quarter after leaving his cell.

"After they removed the bandage from his eyes etc and placed his corpse in the coffin some five minutes after death or perhaps a little longer, Lt Murtagh, brother of Peadar Murtagh and brother-in-law of Major General Paddy Daly rushed from the bottom of the shed and, to their credit be it recorded, horrified everyone present by firing his "Peter" (name given to the .45 Webley revolver) into the face of the dead man."

Childers had been secretary to the delegation which signed the treaty with Britain in 1921 and was a propagandist for the IRA during the War of Independence. The document came to light after it was sent anonymously a publisher in the 1970's. It is one of only a few accounts of his life remaining after his wife destroyed much of the Childers archive shortly before her death.

November 19, 2002

This article appeared first in the November 18, 2002 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News