The nondescript lane-way, tucked into a sharp bend, had always intrigued me. A short distance in from the entrance, the lane-way divided in two, one part leading straight ahead, emerging at the top road, leading to Lough Dan, the other veering to the right. The night in February 1990 that I first wheeled off the road and around to the right, I was on a mission: the deadline for an article for the local Historical and Folklore Society journal was close at hand and Glendalough House was the subject.
The long, tree-lined avenue stretched ahead. A pair of tiny lights flashed, then disappeared. I guessed it was a deer, eyes reflecting the car’s headlights. I parked in a flagged courtyard and when I rang the bell, the door was opened almost immediately by Bobby Childers himself. “Do come in, Imelda. You are most welcome,” he said. A fire burned brightly in a spacious living room off a wide hallway. My host immediately went to a drinks cabinet. “Whiskey? Vodka? Glass of wine?” he asked. I opted for a whiskey with water. The old house was silent, except for our voices reverberating around the room. The house had been sold and Bobby Childers, now a widower in his early eighties, occupied one wing where history oozed from every nook and cranny. He tended the fire and we talked late into the night.
Covering hundreds of acres of farmland, woodland and mountain, the estate, with ‘the big house’ at its core, was, in its heyday, a thriving hub of industry, employing a large workforce of farm hands, labourers, gardeners and craftspeople, overseen by a steward, and with a household staff of nannies, tutors, cook, a butler, waiters and housemaids to attend to the needs of the family. Two Barton sisters founded a school near Lough Dan to cater for the educational needs of the children of the tenants and workers on the estate. Growing up close by, my sketchy knowledge of the Barton-Childers estate was garnered from people who worked there, chiefly women who had worked in the house – and from Dan Rochford whose skills in stonework and gardening had been handed down from his father; their work still evident in the magnificent water garden and other features. At school, Erskine Childers’ name had cropped up in history class. I joined the dots, filing the information away in my mind where it languished until 1990. Now, with my own article on Glendalough House awaiting form, I soaked up information from the perspective of a family member who lived through the latest – and final – chapter of the rich and colourful history of the house and its famous owners of whom his father, Erskine and cousin, Robert Barton were probably the most luminescent.
Erskine went from an English public school to Cambridge to a desk job at Westminster. He joined the British Army in 1899 and marched off to South Africa and the Boer War. His passion for sailing, yachting around the rocky coastline of the North Sea, keeping an eye on Germany’s ever-growing naval might, crept into a best-selling thriller, “The Riddle of the Sands” in 1903, which, hailed as the first spy novel, made Childers a household name. Shortly after “The Riddle” was published, Erskine attended a dinner party in Boston where he met and fell in love with Molly Osgood. Molly had fractured both hips as a child and spent twelve years on her back. She was obliged to use two canes to support herself for the remainder of her life. Despite this disability, she shared Erskine’s passion for the sea and was an accomplished helmsman. Robert Barton was Best Man at their wedding in 1904. The newlyweds settled in London where their first son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, a future President of Ireland, was born in 1905.
In 1908, Erskine, Robert Barton and a friend, Horace Plunkett took a motor tour of Ireland and came face-to-face with British imperialism and its wrongs. As a result, and they became open supporters of Home Rule and, from 1913, of the Irish Volunteers. They met with a group at the London home of the historian Alice Stopford Green. The group included Barton, Childers, Sir Roger Casement, Lord Ashbourne, Sir Alec Lawrence, Lady Young and GF Berkeley. £1,524 was raised and a plan hatched.
In 1914, Bobby Childers was just four years old when his father, Erskine Childers and his mother, Molly sailed their yacht, The Asgard, into Howth Harbour, laden with guns for the Irish Volunteers. Asgard, an elegant 50-foot gaff ketch, was built in 1905 and named for an Old Norse word meaning “Home of the Gods”, it was commissioned by Dr Hamilton Osgood, a prominent Boston physician and his wife, Margaret Cushing Osgood as a wedding present for their daughter Molly and her new husband, Erskine Childers.
Nearly a week after the Howth landing, the remainder of the German armaments landed at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, on August 1st. The greeting party at Kilcoole included Cathal Brugha and future President of Ireland, Sean T O’Kelly. Three days later, Britain declared war on Germany and, as Lloyd-George put it, ‘the world slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war’. Erskine Childers affiliated himself to the Allied cause, as an intelligence officer for the Royal Navy and was awarded the DSO and promoted to the rank of Major.
Following an armed insurrection by the Irish Volunteers, in Dublin in 1916, several of the leaders were executed. Childers was appalled by the executions and subsequently joined Sinn Féin, Ironically, Robert Barton, a member of the Dublin Fusiliers was directly involved in the guarding of the 1916 Easter Rising prisoners. Soon after the executions, Barton resigned his commission and he too offered his services to the Irish Republic for which he was immediately given Shadow Cabinet ranking. He campaigned in the 1917 General Election in which Sinn Féin won three quarters of the seats and was elected on the Party ticket for Wicklow. Childers had become the de facto Director of Propaganda for the underground cabinet in 1920 and served as Chief Secretary for the delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 of which his cousin, Robert Barton was a signatory.
In February 1919, Barton was arrested for sedition and incarcerated in Mountjoy Prison. He escaped on St. Patrick’s Day leaving a note to the governor explaining that, owing to the discomfort of his cell, he “felt compelled to leave”, requesting the governor to keep his belongings until such time that he sent for them! He was recaptured in January 1920 and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but was released under the general amnesty of July 1921. Among his fellow prisoners were some of the men who worked for him on the Glendalough House estate.
The Treaty had divided allegiances and in 1922, at the height of the Irish Civil War, Erskine Childers was arrested at Glendalough House for possession of a firearm and taken first to Wicklow Gaol and thence to Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin where he was executed by firing squad. On the eve of his death, he had written a final letter to Molly and embraced his eldest son for the last time. Childers was 52 years old but looked much older – his hair white, his face gaunt, his body racked by a constant cough. When the firing squad took their positions in Beggar’s Bush Barracks later that morning, he called out to them: “Take a step closer, boys, it will be easier that way”. His youngest son, Bobby Childers was twelve years old.
As the first light of dawn crept through the long windows, Bobby Childers stood up. “I think I have something that might be of help to you,” he said. From a drawer in a large wall cabinet he took out a yellowed bundle of papers and handed it to me. ‘Annamoe, 1888-1900, Recollections of the Village’ had been written by Robert Barton in 1927 as a tribute to the people who had worked on the estate.
As I sat, happily enjoying the hospitality and growing friendship of my benign, forgiving and gentlemanly host, I was unaware that we shared a less palatable connection. Another twenty-five years would pass before the horrors of civil war reached across the best part of a century to establish a personal link to the tragic story of Erskine Childers and Glendalough House when, in 2014, I learned that a cousin of my mother’s had been the officer who, under orders, had arrested Erskine Childers at his home and taken him to Wicklow Gaol. The officer, who had known the Bartons and the Childers as ‘a lovely family’, would later tell his children that this heinous duty was ‘the biggest regret of his army career’. Is it any wonder that I tread very softly around what I recently heard a historian refer to as ‘the dark art of politics’?