Ireland’s Wars: Robert Emmet’s Riot

If there is one Irish revolutionary whose legacy and memory long outlasted him, out of all proportion to the actual success of his attempted deeds, it is Robert Emmet. The young Dubliner was only 25 when he died, but some of his last words would resonate down the years, and provide a great deal of inspiration for those that followed in the wake of the United Irishmen.

But what of Emmet himself? Younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, we’ve touched briefly on his life already, in reference to his fleeing from Trinity College in 1798, shortly before the rebellion broke out. A son of a prosperous doctor, Emmet had been studying law at Trinity, where he first began to dabble actively in radical politics, with his brother, and the regular visits of Wolfe Tone to his family home, probably potent inspirations. Emmet joined the United Irishmen in 1796, and in the final hectic days before May 24th 1798, Emmet had seen enough of the increased persecutions of Catholics, and left the college of his accord, before he could be expelled.

He fled to France and spent the next several years there, attempting to rally support for more French invasions of Ireland, with partial success. By 1802, Emmet had decided to return home, to pave the way for a new uprising that would allow a French expedition to land. It was the same old dream, but was, in reality, as far away as ever.

Returning to Ireland in October of 1802, Emmet soon went about trying to reorganise the near fatally damaged United Irishman structure. The organisation had obviously been reeling since the end of 1798, but as we have seen various branches of its armed members had remained in the field up to 1804. Emmet hoped that his own plans would encapsulate these guerrilla groups, nearly all of which were operating only a day or two from the capital, which he aimed to make the epicentre of his own revolution.

For the purposes or organising things, Emmet relied a lot on the likes of Thomas Russell and James Hope. Russell had been one of the co-founders of the United Irishmen, and had been one of the organisation’s chief writers, espousing a vision of radical social and economic reform in Ireland within the pages of the Northern Star and in his own pamphlets. Arrested in 1796 and imprisoned until 1802, Russell took no part in the 1798 rebellion, and was only released on condition of a voluntary exile to the continent. Meeting Emmet in Paris, he was swept up in the idea of a renewed rising, and returned to Ireland in order to try and organise a rebellion in the north.

Hope, a Presbyterian linen weaver from Antrim, descended from Covenanters, had joined the United Irishmen in 1795, and quickly proved himself an expert organiser who had success in increasing the size of the society in both the north and in Dublin. A noted egalitarian and advocate for major social change, in 1798 he found himself part of Henry Joy McCracken’s ill-fated attempts to rouse Antrim and Down. At the Battle of Antrim, Hope was a vital part of the “Spartan Band” that fought the successful rear-guard action in the churchyard that prevented a bloodier rout than might have occurred, but it wasn’t enough to save the United Irishmen in the north. With the fragmentation of the northern army and the capture of its leaders, Hope went on the run, and spent several years moving from place to place, and refusing to contemplate any government offer of clemency. He was in Dublin in 1803, and quickly came within Emmet’s circle.

With others like them, Emmet attempted to put his plans into motion, basing himself in Rathfarnham in the south of Dublin. Unlike before, his would be a more secret build-up, with stockpiles of arms and gunpowder to be assembled discreetly. He famously even drew up a design for a hinged pike, that could be concealed underneath clothes. Emmet’s personal aim would be to stage a sudden and overwhelming uprising in the streets of Dublin, taking Dublin Castle, destroying the heart of the British administration in Ireland and seizing its infrastructure: this would then be a signal for surrounding counties, and their United elements, to rise anew, in conjunction with those guerrilla bands already in arms. Further, Emmet hoped that such an action would be a potent signal fire for the French, once again at war with the United Kingdom after a brief period of peace.

We will never know how Emmet’s plan would have worked out if it had gone off without a hitch, but it is unlikely it would have been the grand success that so many pro-nationalist writers have fervently claimed it would be ever since. Lacking sufficient arms for enough troops, Emmet struggled to get the wholesale support of people like Michael Dwyer, and placed a great deal of faith in everyday men from County Dublin, who had neither the training nor the experience necessary to take on the British administration. It would have required an extraordinary coup de main type success in the capital to get the rest of the country up in arms as Emmet hoped: as it was, Emmet could only organise depots of arms and ammunition in secret, and pray that everything went smoothly when the rising began in the summer

On the 16th of July, one of these depots caught fire and exploded, killing a man, in circumstances that have never rightfully been explained. Such an event was bound to arose the curiosity and then suspicion of the authorities, and Emmet suddenly felt pressured to rush his rising, aiming for it to occur one week on from the explosion, on the 23rd. The suddenly quickened nature of the preparations, before Emmet had roused enough support through an enthusiastic campaign of meetings and letter writing, drastically lowered the possibility of success.

Emmet, with a proclamation declaring the formation of a provisional government, and dressed grandly in a green coat and cocked hat, took to the streets of Dublin that day, backed by a hundred or so followers. Though the countryside rebels and guerrilla bands failed to support him, he still read out that he and his “Band of Patriots, mindful of their oath, and faithful to their engagement as United Irishmen, have determined to give freedom to their country, and a period to the long career of English oppression” adding “We war not against property; we are against no religious sect; we war not against past opinions or prejudices; we war against English dominion”. That evening, the group advanced towards Dublin Castle.

What resulted was essentially a riot in the area of Thomas Street. Emmet’s group was far too small to be a real danger to the Castle or to the authorities, with the “army” made up of undisciplined men, many of whom were likely drunk, and who Emmet was unable to keep under any sort of control. Looting and violence against civilians soon occurred, and then Emmet heard the horrifying news that Lord Kilwarden, the Chief Justice of Ireland,  had been dragged from his carriage by the rear of the group, and piked to death, along with his unfortunate nephew. Kilwarden was a hated figure due to his role in the trial of United Irishman William Orr in 1797, but then somewhat oddly was the same man who granted habeas corpus to Wolfe Tone the following year. The 64-year-old had been on his way to a Privy Council meeting. Emmet, horrified by the violence and realising that his rebellion was still-born, fled to the south of the city. Some small-scale fighting occurred between his men and British troops in the city, and a few on either side were killed before the entire affair fizzled out with the arrival of additional British units and the institution of martial law. To the north, Russell’s efforts to get a rising going never got anywhere, and on the 23rd he was obliged to flee the area, ironically ending up in hiding in the capital.

Robert Emmet would probably have faded into the background of history after that, more Cahir O’Doherty redux than a proto-Pearse, but for two critical events that played out in the aftermath of his attempted rising. The first was the manner of his arrest. Emmet spent nearly a month on the run in Dublin evading the authorities but refused to leave the city, wanting to stay close to his fiancée Sarah Curren. It was while clandestinely visiting her on the night of the 25th of August that Emmet was finally discovered and captured, adding a romantic sheen to his life, a feeling enhanced even more when some of the love letters exchanged between the two came to light. Curren’s father had never approved of Emmet, and he had courted Sarah in secret. She would be essentially disowned by her father in the aftermath, and would die from tuberculosis in 1808.

The second, and much more important, event was Emmet’s “Speech From The Dock”. Tried for treason in September, the result was largely a foregone conclusion, though the state still attempted to bribe Emmet’s defence team to act in their favour. Pronounced guilty on the 19th of September, Emmet was allowed the opportunity to speak freely before his sentencing.

His resulting words have since been regarded as one of the pivotal speeches of modern Irish republicanism. He began by rejecting any idea of pleading for clemency from execution, and continued with a severe criticism of the British government, an outline of his hopes that he would soon be considered a martyr from the republican cause and a sincere declaration of his desire for others to follow after him, in opposing the “superinhuman oppression” the Irish had had to endure. He vigorously defended his character against any of the claims made against him by the courts, and, rejecting the idea that he had attempted to “sell” his country to France, insisting that he would have fought an uninvited French invader as much as he would any invader, comparing his efforts to forge an alliance with the French to that of the still young United States and France over 20 years previously: “I would not have submitted to a foreign oppressor, for the same reason that I would resist the domestic tyrant.”

Emmet closed with some of the most powerful moments of oratory in the history of Ireland:

“I have but a few words more to say. I am going to my cold and silent grave; my lamp of life is nearly extinguished; my race is run; the grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom.

I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world; it is—the charity of its silence! Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

Emmet was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, the standard punishment for treason, though by then it was nearly always diminished in practise. On the 20th, Emmet was hanged in Thomas Street and beheaded afterwards. His body vanished in mysterious circumstances – buried first in hospital grounds near Kilmainham Gaol, but secretly removed from there afterwards, to where, no one is sure for certain – and this, along with the manner of his arrest and the emotional nature of his final speech, helped to make Emmett a key figure of Victorian Romanticism, commemorated by people like Washington Irving and Percy Bysshe Shelly. Russell would join Emmet on the scaffold shortly afterwards, but Hope survived into the 1840’s.

Emmet’s rebellion – barely deserving of such a title – was a disastrous mess of an affair, that never stood an adequate chance of succeeding. But in everything that happened afterwards, Emmet became an idyllic figure for the next generation of Irish republicans, and for generations to come afterward. His willingness to die for the freedom of Ireland, his flamboyant and heart-racing words when declaring a provisional government, and his refusal to be cowed by a victorious government administration: all of these things would make for potent inspiration for men like Padraig Pearse over a century later. From being the man who led a disorganised and violent rabble into a riot in central Dublin, Emmet became a legend, whose acts and words resonate still. His epitaph has yet to be written.

We have just a little bit to cover before we call a stop to look back over the 1798 rebellion in its entirety. But first I want to take a brief look at a very different part of its aftermath, going across to the far side of the world, and a rebellion that would take the name of a 1798 battlefield.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Robert Emmet’s Riot

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