Emmet, Robert (1778–1803), United Irishman, was born 4 March 1778 at 109/110 St Stephen's Green, Dublin, the seventeenth, but only fourth surviving child of Dr Robert Emmet (qv), the state physician, and Elizabeth Emmet (née Mason); his older brothers were Christopher Temple (qv) and Thomas Addis Emmet (qv) and his sister was Mary Anne Holmes (qv).
Education and early life
Baptised on 10 March 1778, Robert was educated first at Oswald's School in Dapping Court, near Golden Lane, and then at the ‘English grammar school’ of Samuel Whyte (qv) at 75 Grafton St., where his studies included classes in oratory, fencing, astronomy, and music. After this he was taught by the Rev. Mr Lewis at Camden St., before entering TCD on 7 October 1793, at the age of fifteen. In his second year he came first in the class in each of the quarterly examinations, winning a premium and three certificates. On 2 November 1795 he entered the King's Inns, and it seems his ambition was to follow his brothers in a legal career.
From an early age Emmet was encouraged by his father to love the principles of liberty and freedom as represented by the American war of independence, and his ambition was to become an Irish George Washington and lead a similar revolution. In 1796, when his friend, Thomas Moore (qv), was playing a melody on his piano, ‘Let Erin remember the days of old’, he fell into a reverie before waking to exclaim: ‘Oh, that I were at the head of twenty thousand men marching to that air’ (Russell, i, 58). Joining the United Irishmen sometime in 1796, even though it was then a proscribed organisation, he became secretary of one of the four United Irishman committees in TCD. He also attended meetings of the executive with his brother Thomas Addis and helped design the seal of the directory. On 21 October 1797 he published a political poem calling for Irish independence in the United Irish newspaper The Press under the name ‘Trebor’; he delighted in word-games and chose a name that was the reverse of his own.
There were two debating societies in TCD, and Emmet established himself as a leading speaker at both. At the smaller society he excelled, and at one debate answered brilliantly the arguments of Thomas Lefroy (qv), the future judge. In December 1797 he joined the College Historical Society and was soon given responsibility for choosing the questions for debate. At this time students were forbidden from discussing current events, but Emmet found ingenious ways of avoiding this restriction, much to the chagrin of the board of the university. His maiden speech on 7 February 1798 won much praise for its power and eloquence. Determined to prevent the radical contagion from affecting Trinity, the board began attending the debates and persuaded a former student to return to answer the students’ arguments. At the debate of 28 February Emmet was comprehensively defeated and sat down humiliated after losing his self-control and having his self-confidence shattered. Worse was to follow when he was one of nineteen students expelled following the visitation of the college in April. Emmet had asked in advance for permission to withdraw, but this was refused and the lord chancellor, the earl of Clare (qv), declared at the visitation that he was one of ‘the most active and wicked members’ of the United Irishmen (TCD, MS 1203).
United Irish emissary
With Ireland on the brink of open rebellion Emmet continued to serve as an agent and messenger for the United Irishmen in the summer of 1798, though he saw no fighting. After the suppression of the rebellion he became a key figure on the reformed directory and was given responsibility for preparing a report as to why it had failed and what precautions should be taken in future. Many of these recommendations formed the basis of the plan for the 1803 rebellion, especially the central principle that the smallest possible number of conspirators should be aware of the details. In the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion the government decided to introduce a legislative union; according to Lord Cloncurry (qv), Emmet attended the debates in the public gallery of the house of commons and vowed that one day he would overturn the settlement. In the summer of 1800 he was appointed secretary of a United Irishman delegation to France, under Malachy Delany (qv) who was sent as ambassador, and travelled to the Continent, meeting contacts at Hamburg before entering France in 1801.
At Paris he became increasingly disillusioned with French politics and avoided French society whenever possible, preferring the company of Irish and English visitors. He met Matilda Tone (qv), the widow of Wolfe Tone (qv) on a number of occasions, and came to know Katherine Wilmot (qv), who left an account of his withdrawn and sullen behaviour. He received letters of introduction to the American president Thomas Jefferson from the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and the American ambassador at Paris, Robert Livingston, and he also befriended the scientist Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin, and the inventor Robert Fulton. There is some dispute as to whether he actually met Napoleon Bonaparte, but what is clear is that he grew deeply suspicious about French intentions towards Ireland. The United Irish mission to the Continent seems to have split over the question of French aid, with the newly released state prisoners also dividing on the issue; Thomas Russell (qv) sided with Emmet, while Arthur O'Connor (qv) pressed the case for French involvement. Robert visited his brother Thomas, who had been recently released from prison, in Amsterdam, and spent some time considering his future. Unsure about whether to return to Ireland or emigrate with his brother to America, he made his decision to return to Ireland in the autumn of 1802. Meeting with leading United Irish figures, he later denied any knowledge of a new conspiracy but it seems clear that he was involved in the planning of a new rebellion from the beginning. His father died 9 December 1802, leaving him with a legacy of £2,000 which he invested in the insurrectionary plans. Visiting the home of his university friend, Richard Curran (qv), the son of the celebrated lawyer John Philpot Curran (qv), Emmet fell in love with Sarah Curran (qv). The relationship was kept secret and the Curran family was unaware of it until it was revealed after the rebellion.
Leading the insurrection
Active planning for the insurrection began on 24 March 1803. Emmet began renting depots at strategic points in the city. Seven or eight thousand pikes were made at the Thomas St. depot, while rockets and explosives were developed at Patrick St. Emmet also ordered the construction of 600 hinged pikes, so that they could be folded in two and hid from sight. This was all evidence of Emmet's predilection for innovation, but many of the more practical aspects of the insurrection were neglected. As a result, the men he had hoped would join him were not ready to fight in the summer of 1803, and this contributed to the unenthusiastic response to Emmet's rallying cry. During this period Emmet met the Wicklow rebel leader, Michael Dwyer (qv), who agreed to join in the conspiracy if Dublin castle were captured. Dwyer was not impressed with Emmet's youthful idealism, and his description is telling: ‘If Emmet had brains to his education, he'd be a fine man’ (PRONI, T.3030/12/1). The date chosen for the rebellion was 23 July, but although it was later argued that the date had been moved forward, Emmet himself insisted afterwards that ‘to change the day was impossible, for I expected the counties to act, and feared to lose the advantage of surprise’ (NA, HO 100/113, ff 203–5).
As the date approached it seems that everything that could go wrong did go wrong. There was an explosion at the Patrick St. depot on 16 July, and although the official investigation did not expose the plans for the rebellion it increased the pressure on the conspirators. Emmet himself remained supremely, indeed boyishly, overconfident. On one occasion he put on his elaborate green military uniform and regaled the men with stories of what he planned to achieve in it. But nothing went according to plan on 23 July. The fuses for the rockets were misplaced, removing one of Emmet's most innovative weapons. Guns which were made specially for the rebellion were never collected, and an aide who was given money to purchase supplies absconded. Men arriving from Kildare were not impressed to discover that their leader was only a ‘boy’, and went home when they discovered the state of disarray. Emmet expected 2,000 men at the Thomas St. depot. He got eighty. And worse, many of them were drunk, having stopped at local taverns to fuel their courage. The rebellion was scheduled to start at 11 p.m. but was brought forward by two hours because of a false alarm that the government was going to raid the premises. Emmet went to his desk and got dressed in the green military uniform he had commissioned for the rebel officers. He also read the proclamation of the provisional government to the men, a document which called for lenient treatment of prisoners and for discipline to be maintained at all times. The rebels gathered were not impressed with its content and jeered him, and Emmet received a harsh lesson in the realities of trying to organise a major insurrection. His elaborate plan for a sophisticated rising – blocking off streets, ambushing the British soldiers from different sides, and seizing strategic locations – unravelled and was quickly abandoned. Instead he attempted to lead the men in a direct assault on Dublin castle, rallying the men with a cry of ‘Turn out my boys, now is your time for liberty!’ (NAI, Reb. papers, 620/11/129/14). But few of the rebels followed him, and he decided to abort the entire attempt. Dejected and demoralised, he fled with a handful of men to his safe house at Rathfarnham, and from there to the Wicklow mountains. In his absence the rebellion degenerated into a drunken street riot in the course of which the widely respected Lord Kilwarden (qv) was murdered; Emmet afterwards insisted that he would have done everything in his power to prevent it.
Arrest, trial, and death
Hiding in the Wicklow mountains, Emmet appears to have suffered from a fever, and he struggled to come to terms with his abject failure. Instead of attempting to leave the country he returned to Dublin to liaise with his men, renting a room at a house at Harold's Cross, under another alias. During this period he communicated regularly with Sarah Curran, through Anne Devlin (qv), and also met some of the rebels who were still at large. The house was searched by Maj. Sirr (qv) and his men on 25 August, and Emmet's suspicious behaviour attracted attention. He attempted to flee the house, knocking-out a guard, but he was chased by Sirr, captured, and arrested. When Sirr apologised for the rough treatment Emmet nonchalantly responded that ‘All was fair in war’ (Emmet, Memoir, ii, 198). He was brought to Dublin castle, where he volunteered his name, and immediately attempted to escape by bribing a jailer he thought was sympathetic to him. Interrogated by leading government figures, including the chief secretary and the lord chancellor, Emmet refused to give up any information. However, his entire demeanour changed when two unsigned love letters from Sarah Curran were produced. Fearing that she had been arrested and wishing to protect her, he began pleading for a deal. Unknown to Emmet, however, the government mistakenly believed the letters were coded rebel communications, and was surprised by his distress. No deal was struck, and Emmet returned to his cell, where he wrote a letter of apology to Sarah Curran, which he gave to the jailer he trusted; the letter was brought straight to Dublin castle, and the next morning the Curran house was raided by Sirr and his men.
The disclosure of his relationship with Sarah Curran had a number of consequences. Her father, John Philpot Curran, refused to represent Emmet and, furious at having his family embroiled in scandal, seemed anxious to do a deal with the government. Sarah Curran was forced out of the family home, and Emmet was tormented by the knowledge that he had implicated her. His new legal counsel were Peter Burrowes (qv) and Leonard MacNally (qv), the latter a key government informer, but although it has been suggested that Emmet's defence was compromised by the fact that one of his defence lawyers was passing information to the other side, thus invalidating the trial or making it a show trial (Hardiman, 25), it seems clear that Emmet had no intention of challenging the charges in any case. Instead he decided to vindicate his actions in his speech from the dock, and in so doing give some semblance of respectability to the rebellion and rescue it from the massive criticism it had received.
His trial took place at Green St. courthouse on 19 September and throughout it all Emmet prevented his barristers from making any kind of defence; he was determined to accept all the responsibility for what had happened. A verdict of guilty was returned by the jury, and before the sentence of death was pronounced Emmet was invited to speak from the dock. His oration would become one of the great set-piece speeches in Irish history, and win fame internationally. It, rather than the failed rebellion, became the greatest part of his legacy and ensured his place in Irish history. Emmet attempted to vindicate his character from the charges that had been made against it, while also denying that he had been a pawn of the French. During the speech he was interrupted on several occasions by the judge, Lord Norbury (qv), and was prevented from delivering the speech he had intended. Cut short, the speech ended with the famous and inspirational lines which ensured his immortality: ‘When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not until then, let my epitaph be written. I have done’ (Geoghegan, 254). Although some historians have challenged whether these words were actually said, there is now general agreement about their delivery. Nevertheless, no definitive version of the speech exists. John Angell (d. 1827) and William Ridgeway (qv) were both present and recorded different versions, and these formed the basis of subsequent reworkings and revisions.
After finishing his speech Emmet was brought back to Kilmainham jail, and spent the night preparing a detailed plan and vindication of his rebellion, as well as letters to his brother and Richard Curran and, through him, Sarah. Reflecting on the collapse of his plans, Emmet noted that there had been ‘failure in everything – plan, preparation and men’ (NA, HO 100/113, ff 203–5). On 20 September, as he was led out of his cell to be brought to the gallows, he asked for permission to write one final letter. His request was granted and he wrote a letter to the chief secretary William Wickham (qv) in which he thanked him for his lenient treatment and drew a distinction between the government in Britain and the administration in Ireland. The letter affected Wickham greatly and brought about his resignation and withdrawal from British politics. On the way to the gallows Emmet discussed politics and theology with two clergymen, arriving at 2 p.m. at St Catherine's church, Thomas St., where the gallows had been erected. Prevented from speaking from the gallows, Emmet made the short statement: ‘My friends, I die in peace and with sentiments of universal love and kindness towards all men’ (Madden, United Irishmen, 467). He shook hands with the men guarding him, helped the hangman put the noose around his neck, but hesitated when asked if he was ready for the sentence to be executed. Three times he paused, and at the final time the hangman kicked the plank from under his feet and he fell to his death. A journalist from the London Chronicle, who was reporting on the hanging, commented that Emmet ‘behaved without the least symptom of fear . . . I never saw a man die like him’ (ibid.). The body was taken down from the scaffold after thirty minutes, and the head was removed by the executioner, who held it up to the crowd, saying: ‘This is the head of a traitor.’ Brought back to Kilmainham jail, where a death mask was made by James Petrie (qv), his body was briefly interred at Bully's Acre, Kilmainham, and then removed and buried elsewhere; despite myriad theories, claims, and counter-claims, the final resting place of Emmet has never been satisfactorily proved. W. B. Yeats (qv) suggested that if the British had removed his body to prevent his grave from becoming a shrine to nationalist pilgrimages, then they had failed, ‘because by doing so, they have unwittingly made all Ireland his tomb’ (Frayne & Johnson, ii, 319).
Despite the abject failure of his rebellion, Robert Emmet quickly gained a place in the pantheon of Irish nationalist heroes. His youthful idealism, his doomed relationship with Sarah Curran, the brilliance of the speech from the dock, and the very fact that so little was known about him, all contributed to his deification; W. B. Yeats later described him as the leading saint of Irish nationality. Within three years the speech from the dock was being performed on the American stage. Emmet's fate affected the romantic poets and he was the subject of poems by Robert Southey and Percy Bysshe Shelley and also influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge who compared Emmet's to his own early life. But the most famous verses about his death were composed by Thomas Moore who immortalised him in verse with ‘Oh breathe not his name’ and ‘When he who adores thee’. The former inspired the composer Hector Berlioz to write an Elégie (1830), which he dedicated to Harriet Smithson (qv), and which was later rededicated to Emmet. Henri Duparc also composed an Elégie (1874) based on Moore's verse, and translated by his Irish wife Ellen MacSwiney. The most popular and influential piece of music was the ballad ‘Bold Robert Emmet’ (c.1900) which portrayed an heroic Emmet dying with a smile, and this became an integral part of the legend. The Emmet story was also told on stage, with plays by Dion Boucicault (qv) and Brandon Tynan among others reimagining the details of his life for a popular audience. The old lady says ‘no!’ (1929), by Denis Johnston (qv), was an expressionist, complex satire, and it was rejected for the Abbey by Lady Gregory (qv), before winning critical praise at the Gate. Walter McNamara's film Ireland a nation (1914) and Sidney Olcott's Bold Emmett: Ireland's martyr (1915) brought the Emmet story to the screen, but neither was much concerned with historical accuracy or the known facts about Emmet. Emmet was now being recast and reimagined to suit the requirements of a different generation, and his cult was satirised in Ulysses by James Joyce (qv), set in 1904, the year after the Emmet centenary, when Leopold Bloom breaks wind while examining a picture of Robert Emmet and reciting the final lines of the speech from the dock.
When Patrick Pearse (qv) delivered two lectures on the subject of Emmet in New York in 1914, he declared that Emmet had won a victory which was greater than that of Brian Boru (qv) at Clontarf or Owen Roe O'Neill (qv) at Benburb, for it was ‘Christ-like in its perfection’ (Pearse, 9). Pearse believed that there needed to be a new rebellion in Dublin to erase the guilt of the Dublin people for not rising with Emmet in 1803, and it seems that Emmet's example helped shape his own involvement in 1916. The 1916 proclamation was directly inspired by Emmet, and when Pearse put on his green military uniform and read it outside the GPO he was consciously imitating Emmet's example. Uneasy about this influence, W. B. Yeats noted that ‘Pearse was half-cracked and wanting to be hanged. He has Emmet delusions same as other lunatics think they are Napoleon or God’ (Foster, 62). When Roger Casement (qv) visited the US in 1914 he was greeted by a deputation in Philadelphia as the new Robert Emmet, because (he said) they were anxious for a protestant hero. On 4 March 1916, while waiting in Germany to set sail to Ireland, he was sent a copy of the speech from the dock and responded: ‘Alas, I know it far too well’ (Doerries, 187). At St Enda's Pearse displayed a butcher's block on which he believed Emmet had been beheaded, and this was used during the war of independence for a short propaganda film in 1919, with Michael Collins (qv) signing war bonds on it.
Four identical statues of Robert Emmet, designed by Jerome Connor (qv), exist. Three are in the US: at Emmetsburg, Iowa (a settlement named after him), at Washington, DC (which was unveiled by President Wilson in 1917), and at the Golden Gate Park in California (where it was unveiled by Éamon de Valera (qv) in 1919). The fourth statue stands since 20 January 1968 opposite Emmet's birthplace in St Stephen's Green, Dublin; TCD had been considered as a location, but was rejected by the government because the college had expelled Emmet. A portrait of Emmet, by Maurice MacGonigal (qv), is on display in Leinster House. On the 150th anniversary of Emmet's death the taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, spoke in the dáil about how ‘the reputation of Robert Emmet, like that of the other patriots who gave their lives in efforts to secure the freedom of our country, is safe in the affections of the people’ (Dáil debates, cxxxvii, col. 2; 11 Mar. 1953). The bicentenary of Emmet's death in 2003 was commemorated by a number of major events. The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, paid generous tribute to Emmet's legacy and claimed that Ireland's ‘position in the EU and the UN today are visible demonstrations of our place “among the nations of the world”, as alluded to by Emmet in his speech from the dock’ (Ir. Times, 21 Sept. 2002). For the bicentenary TCD renamed a major lecture hall in the Arts Block the Robert Emmet Theatre, and on 21 April 2004 the College Historical Society, where Emmet had honed his skills as an orator, voted him the greatest Irish person of all time.
Emmet's life and his legacy remains contentious. Despite attempts to recast him as a realistic conspirator, he continues to be seen as an idealistic and somewhat foolish revolutionary who became a romantic hero despite his own failings. An enigmatic figure, his contribution to Irish nationalism and Irish history remains elusive. Emmet's place in the pantheon of Irish heroes is assured not despite, but rather because of, the discordance between his extraordinary aspirations and his dramatic failings. His story – romantic, tragic, pathetic – serves as an apotheosis of the Irish heroic ideal and continues to inspire, infuriate, excite, and provoke.