First in a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.
A century ago, a defining moment – the defining moment for many historians – helped set the stage for the future for Ireland. As January 1916 dawned, the inevitable collision between Irish nationalists and the British government was unfolding en route to the Easter Rising in April. The impact of the coming rebellion would resound not only up and down the island of Ireland but also in the Irish wards of Boston and all of Irish America.
Fittingly, perhaps, a blow for the forces of the Rising had already been struck in Boston, but not from its Irish neighborhoods. An ex-British Army officer named Erskine Childers and his Brahmin socialite wife, Molly Osgood Childers, had crafted a daring gun-running scheme to aid the rebels.
The years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had given rise to Irish nationalists who loathed the failed Irish Home Rule bills that had died in Parliament. Idealistic Irish men and women embraced the age-old dream of an Ireland free from Westminster’s grip. Imbued with Ireland’s Gaelic culture, they formed such organizations as the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, as well as a cultural movement guided in large part by William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory. In the newspaper Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith exhorted his fellow Irish to link their homeland’s identity to a future Gaelic nation and culture – independent of British rule.
When yet another Home Rule Bill, the third, was proposed by British Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith in 1912, Northern Irish Unionists, led by Sir Edward Carson, branded the bill a move toward a Roman Catholic-dominated Dublin government. Carson and his supporters organized the Ulster Volunteer Force on Jan. 13, 1913; it was the first armed paramilitary group of the Home Rule crisis; it would not be the last.
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) followed suit on Nov. 25, 1913, with the formation of the Irish Volunteers, whose self-stated mission was “to secure and to maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland.” Eoin MacNeill was appointed commander, and the Volunteers attracted a wide array of members from disparate political, social, and religious backgrounds.” Adding to the rise of armed groups was the creation later of the Irish Citizen Army, composed of trade unionists who had been victimized by the so-called Dublin Lock-out of 1913, a months-long, jobs-costing conflict between employers and workers mainly over the latter’s right to unionize.
Then, in August 1914, the outbreak of World War I overshadowed the turmoil in Ireland.
Masses of Irishmen enlisted in Irish regiments shipped off by the British to the Western Front. Between the carnage caused by the stalemated battles and the growing possibility that Parliament would impose conscription on Ireland, opposition to the war seethed throughout the island except among Unionists.
On Sept. 5, 1914, the IRB’s Supreme Council made a momentous decision; The Brotherhood would launch a rebellion before the war’s end and accept the aid of Britain’s chief foe, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Two IRB leaders, Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott, were ordered to plan the revolt; meanwhile, the Irish Volunteers created a command staff of Patrick Pearse, Director of Military Organization; Joseph Plunkett, Director of Military Operations; and Thomas MacDonagh, Director of Training. Later, Éamonn Ceannt was selected as Director of Communications. The seeds of rebellion had been planted.
Into this volatile scene stepped Erskine and Molly Osgood Childers and their sleek Boston yacht (and Ireland’s most famous gun-runner), the Asgard. Without the ship, the Easter Rising might never have materialized.
The Asgard saga began with the marriage of the Boston socialite Molly Osgood, the daughter of one of Boston’s most prominent surgeons, to Childers, author, ex-British officer, and world-class yachtsman. He was a thin, meticulously groomed man whose face and bearing seemed haughty and aloof. His bride hailed from a class that typically treated the local Irish with contempt.
Few among Molly Osgood Childers’s social set would have ever envisioned her husband standing in a photograph alongside Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, and other Irish nationalists; yet in a group shot of the Irish delegates during the controversial Treaty talks, Childers appeared behind the shoulder of Collins himself, the rebel whose name elicited rage among Molly’s former Beacon Hill friends.
Although Childers achieved a bit of literary immortality with his seagoing thriller “The Riddle of the Sands,” his chief fame would come in a real-life maritime feat and pivotal event for Ireland. The vehicle for the exploit was a wedding gift. Molly Osgood’s parents, well aware of their son-in-law’s passion for sailing, had commissioned a gifted shipbuilder in Larvik, Norway, to build the couple a world-class yacht. Named the Asgard, after the mythical residence of the ancient Norse gods and of Vikings slain in battle, the 51-foot-long ketch could navigate open ocean and narrow coastal inlets with equal ease. For a talented sailor such as Erskine Childers, the Asgard offered a perfect blend of national form and function. For a would-be-gun-runner, the ketch’s speed and maneuverability were equally ideal for losing pursuers in a squall or along a shoreline. Erskine and Molly Childers embraced the prospect.
Molly Osgood Childers shared her husband’s love of the sea and had become such a fine sailor herself that she often took the Asgard’s helm. In July 1914, with Europe a proverbial powder keg ready to erupt into World War One, the Childers tacked the Asgard into waters off the Belgian coast and sailed to a rendezvous with another vessel, a German tug with some 1,500 rifles and at least 45,000 rounds of ammunition. A second yacht, the Kelpie, had arrived with the Asgard.
The crews crammed 900 rifles and crates of bullets into the hold of Childers’s craft and the rest aboard the Kelpie. Both yachts set course for Ireland without benefit of radios or any power except that of sail. Off the coast of Wales, the Kelpie transferred her lethal cargo to another yacht, the Chotah, for the final run to the Irish coast.
On Sun., July 26, the sixteenth day of the Asgard’s voyage, she and the Chotah dropped anchor off Howth, on the northern rim of Dublin Bay. Waiting on the jetty were up to a thousand Volunteers and a fleet of taxis. The Asgard had slipped into the bay right on time and right under the nose of the Royal Navy.
The Volunteers and the crew, Molly Osgood Childers included, unloaded the German rifles and crates of ammunition from the yachts to the taxis in a mere half-hour. As Volunteers lugged away the rest on their backs and shoulders, the Asgard and the Chotah sailed from the bay before any British vessels could intercept them.
Although outdated compared to the rifles of the British Army, the weapons smuggled aboard the Asgard would peal across Dublin in April 1916 during the Easter Rising. Without them, Pearse, Collins, Eamon De Valera, and the rest of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army might have been unable to launch the fury of the 1916 Easter Rising and the fierce rebellion that would follow.
Erskine Childers remained a key figure in Ireland’s struggle for freedom, serving as one of the reluctant architects of the controversial Treaty. By 1922, however, he was hated by both the British, who deemed him a traitor to the crown, and by Ireland’s Free State government, against which Childers fought alongside de Valera.
On Nov. 14, 1922, Childers was captured by Free State forces, dragged in front of a military court, and summarily sentenced to death. Before a legal appeal could be filed, he was shot and killed. The man who had brought in by sail the rifles for the Rising was executed by his ex-comrades. Of the yachtsman and rebel, historian Giovanni Costigan lamented: “Perhaps the saddest episode of all was the vindictive killing of Erskine Childers, a most courageous and honorable man.”
After her husband’s death, Molly Osgood did not seek solace in the drawing rooms of Beacon Hill. She remained in Ireland until her death in 1964. Erskine Childers’s old comrade, De Valera, the longtime president of Ireland, had promised Molly Childers “that the great event in which she and her husband took such a memorable part will never be forgotten by the Irish nation.”