“Because we are white men”
ERSKINE CHILDERS, JAN CHRISTIAN SMUTS, AND THE IRISH
QUEST FOR SELF-GOVERNMENT, 1899–1922
The war between the white races will run its course and pass
away… But the Native question will never pass away; it will become
more difficult as time goes on.
—Jan Christian Smuts, January 1902
Ireland is now the only white nationality in the world… where the
principle of self-determination is not, at least in theory, conceded.
— Erskine Childers, May 1919
THE THEME OF “equal rights for all white men the world over” reemerged as a major motif of the campaign for self-determination that accompanied and followed the Great War.1 At a moment when newly independent states were arising out of the collapse and military defeat of historic empires, some Irish nationalists were eager to place themselves and their aspirations within a “white” and European framework. Perhaps the most vivid representative of this trend is Erskine Childers, the English-born veteran of the South African War and the Great War and the principal architect and hero of the dramatic Howth gunrunning of 1914, which provided rifles and ammunition for the Irish Volunteers. “Without the guns landed at Howth,” Martin Mansergh has asserted, “the 1916 Rising would not have been possible.”2 Childers went on to become one of the leading propagandists for the Irish Republic. In June 1919 he characterized Ireland as “a lonely, symbolic figure” that was “tragically isolated” from other European nations. Why? Although “the future of some Asiatic races is still undecided,” he wrote, “Europe… now consists of free peoples, with the one solitary exception of Ireland.” “But that is not the full extent of the anomaly,” he continued. “White peoples in the rest of the world, all of them offshoots of Great Britain, ha[ve] already made good their right to self-determination, so that Ireland survives as the only white community on the face of the globe where… ‘government by consent’… is not established.”3
Childers becomes important for our purposes precisely because he spent much of his adult life coming to terms with thorny, and bitterly contested,