His father Robert Erskine Childers, a leading Irish republican and author of the espionage thriller The Riddle of the Sands, was executed during the Irish Civil War.
Childers was born in the Embankment Gardens, London, to a Protestant family originally from Glendalough, Ireland. Although also born in England, his father, Robert Erskine Childers, had had an Irish mother and had been raised by an uncle in County Wicklow, and after the First World War took his family to live there. His mother, Mary Alden Childers was a Bostonian whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. Robert Erskine Childers and his wife, Mary, later emerged as prominent and outspoken Irish Republican opponents of the political settlement with Britain which resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State. Childers was educated at Gresham's School, Holt, and the University of Cambridge, hence his striking British upper class accent. In 1922, when Childers was sixteen, his father was executed by the new Irish Free State on politically inspired charges of gun-possession.The pistol he had been found with had been given to him by Michael Collins. Before his execution, in a spirit of reconciliation, the older Childers obtained a promise from his son to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed the death warrant. After attending his father's funeral, Childers returned to Gresham's, then two years later he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge.
After finishing his education, Childers worked for a period in a tourism board in Paris. In 1931, Éamon de Valera invited him to work for de Valera's recently founded newspaper, The Irish Press, where Childers became advertising manager. He became a naturalised Irish citizen in 1938. That same year, he was first elected as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála (TD) for Athlone–Longford. He would remain in the Dáil Éireann until 1973, when he resigned to become President.
Childers joined the cabinet in 1951 as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the de Valera government. He then served as Minister for Lands in de Valera's 1957–59 cabinet; as Minister for Transport and Power under Seán Lemass; and, successively, as Transport Minister, Posts and Telegraphs Minister, and Health Minister under Jack Lynch. He became Tánaiste in 1969.
Erskine's period as a minister was controversial. One commentator described his ministerial career as "spectacularly unsuccessful." Others praised his willingness to make tough decisions. He was outspoken in his opposition to Charles Haughey in the aftermath of the Arms Crisis, when Haughey and another minister, both having been sacked, were sent for trial amid allegations of a plot to import arms for the Provisional IRA. (Haughey and the other minister, Neil Blaney, were both acquitted.)
Fine Gael TD Tom O'Higgins, who had come within 11,000 votes (1%) of defeating de Valera in the 1966 presidential election, was widely expected to win the 1973 election when he was again the Fine Gael nominee. Childers was nominated by Fianna Fáil at the behest of de Valera, who pressured Jack Lynch in the selection of the presidential candidate. He was a controversial nominee, owing not only to his British birth and upbringing but to his Protestantism. However, on the campaign trail his personal popularity proved enormous, and in a political upset, Childers was elected the fourth President of Ireland on 30 May 1973, defeating O'Higgins by 635,867 votes to 578,771.
Childers, though 67, quickly gained a reputation as a vibrant, extremely hard-working president, and became highly popular and respected. However, he had a strained relationship with the incumbent government, led by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave of Fine Gael. Childers had campaigned on a platform of making the presidency more open and hands-on, which Cosgrave viewed as a threat to his own agenda as head of government. He refused to co-operate with Childers' first priority upon taking office, the establishment of a think tank within Áras an Uachtaráin to plan the country's future. Childers considered resigning from the presidency, but was convinced to remain by Cosgrave's Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald. However, Childers remained detached from the government; whereas previously, presidents had been briefed by taoisigh once a month, Cosgrave briefed President Childers and his successor, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh on average once every six months.
Though frustrated about the lack of power he had in the office, Childers' daughter Nessa believes that he played an important behind-the-scenes role in easing the Northern Ireland conflict, reporting that former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill met secretly with her father at Áras an Uachtaráin on at least one occasion.
Prevented from transforming the presidency as he desired, Childers instead threw his energy into a busy schedule of official visits and speeches, which was physically taxing. On 17 November 1974, just after making a speech to the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin, Childers suffered a heart attack. He died the same day at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital.
Childers's state funeral in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, was attended by world leaders including the Earl Mountbatten of Burma (representing Queen Elizabeth II), the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Opposition, and presidents and crowned heads of state from Europe and beyond. He was buried in the grounds of the Church of Ireland Derralossary church in Roundwood, County Wicklow.
Childers's widow, Rita, shared her late husband's widespread personal popularity. Upon his death, when she issued a press statement pleading for the nation to keep the office above politics in choosing a successor, Cosgrave reacted by suggesting to the Opposition Leader, Jack Lynch, that they appoint Mrs. Childers to the presidency by acclamation. Lynch agreed four days after Childers' death to bring the suggestion to his party. However, when members of Cosgrave's Fine Gael disclosed the plan to the press on their own initiative, Lynch, believing his Fianna Fáil party was being denied a public voice in the decision, withdrew his support.
All parties instead agreed to appoint the former Attorney General and Chief Justice, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, as Childers' successor.
Childers married Ruth Ellen Dow in 1925. They had five children, Ruth Ellen Childers, born in July 1927, Erskine, born in March 1929, followed by Roderick Winthrop Childers in June 1931, and in November 1937 twin daughters, Carainn and Margaret Osgood Childers. After the death of Dow in 1950, Childers married again, in 1952, to Rita Dudley. Together they had a daughter, Nessa, a former Labour Party MEP who currently sits as an independent member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. Childers is survived by children from both his marriages. Rita Dudley died on 9 May 2010.John N. Young, Erskine H. Childers: President of Ireland