Simple view of complex Irish nationalist

The Zeal of the Convert, by Burke Wilkinson. Sag Harbor, N.Y.: Second Chance Press. 256 pp. $18.95. The life of Erskine Childers -- English-born author, British soldier, secretary to the English Parliament, and, finally, martyr to the cause of an Irish Republic -- offers sobering evidence of the complexities and fanaticism that have governed Ireland's troubled history.

Although born in London in 1870, Childers spent most of his youth, after the early death of his parents, in the Anglo-Irish Big House of his mother's brother in County Wicklow. The Boer War at the end of the 19th century found him proudly in British uniform, but 10 years later, after winning considerable fame as a novelist (``The Riddle of the Sands'') and serving as a secretary to the English Parliament, he was writing (in the Unionist confines of the family house in Wicklow) an influential tract

arguing for home rule for Ireland.

He was back in British uniform, however, in World War I, putting aside his increasing commitment to Irish independence until he had, as he said, ``faithfully fulfilled my contract with the British.'' He took up that commitment with new vigor and radicalism after the war, and by the time he was arrested in 1922, as a member of the militant Irish Republican Army during the Irish Civil War, his nationalism had reached the level of fanaticism and religious zeal. At the trial at which the Irish Free St ate government condemned him to death by firing squad, he defended himself by saying, ``I have fought and worked for a sacred principle.''

It is a dramatic story, and Burke Wilkinson's casual, unscholarly account of it (first published in England in 1976) makes the most of the drama.

But Wilkinson's method and style prevent him from coming fully to terms with the most interesting and far-reaching question raised by Childers's life: How did Childers go from the fierce loyalty toward England that characterized his early life to the radical Irish nationalism that led to his death? Wilkinson concludes his study of Childers's life by arguing that there was, in fact, no mystery to it; Childers simply was true to his own instincts and beliefs throughout his life. But that is too simple an answer to so complex a life.

There is a mystery in the story of Erskine Childers -- the mystery of the pull of nationalistic fanaticism at work in Northern Ireland today.

A more thorough study of Mr. Childers's life could provide some much-needed understanding of the Irish conflict, and of the whole process by which, as Yeats said, ``We had fed the heart on fantasies,/ The heart's grown brutal from the fare.''

Gregory A. Schirmer is writing a book on Irish author William Trevor.

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