Sunday, 13 November 2011

Robert Emmet

Robert Emmet in Ireland



Robert Emmet

The British government received information that yet another rebellion was in the planning.  There was an ongoing attempt to reorganise the United Irishmen.  It was lead by a young Protestant from Dublin, called Robert Emmet.  Robert Emmet was the youngest son of a physician and the brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, then a state prisoner in Scotland.

He had been a brilliant scholar at Trinity College but had been expelled for his radical political views.  He did however have the opportunity to visit his brother, McNeven and O’Connor in Kilmainham jail before they were transported to Scotland.  Having gained their knowledge he then left for France.

Emmet had returned to Ireland from France and used his own money to procure arms for the rebellion.  He was also of the belief that he would receive help from Napoleon in France.  The more likely truth was that Bonaparte liked the idea of England thinking an invasion may come, rather than actually planning one.  When in France Emmet met with an American engineer, Robert Fulton who was a specialist in armaments.  The chances of France helping the Irish became remote when the French and English concluded a peace agreement in Amiens.

The previous uprisings had been thwarted by informers and this one was kept to strict scerecy.  However that created its own set of problems, in that insufficient information was not made available to those involved.  This simply created a short burst of confusion and chaos.



The plan it seemed was a reasonable one but the implementation was initially surrounded by bad luck and this in turn made the entire event border on the farcical.  Emmet had planned to attack Pigeon House Fort, the Artillery Barracks at Island Bridge to get arms and then to take Dublin Castle.  Care had been taken to hide pikes and also to have explosives hidden and ready for use.

On the 16th July 1803 an accidental explosion took place in one of the hidden depots at Patrick Street Dublin, which quickly caught the attention of the police.  Despite this, such was the secrecy Emmet had organised, the police were not able to find out what had been in the planning or to what extent the rebellion had been organised.  Emmet decided to go ahead with the rebellion date of Saturday 23rd July 1803.

An old friend of Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell had joined Emmet on his release from Fort George in Scotland and he was tasked to go to the North and prepare them to rise up on the agreed date.

What is interesting is that part of Emmet’s strategy was not to try and organise that much outside Dublin.  He was afraid of informers and hoped that if he could take Dublin Castle this would be signal enough for the country to rise up.  Emmet also expected the Wexford rebels led by Michael Dwyer to join them along with other rebels from Kildare.


The messenger sent to Dwyer was not communicated properly so the Wexford men didn’t arrive in Dublin.  They had waited on the outskirts for a rocket to be fired, something which never happened.  The Kildare men did arrive but only to confusion as to whether they should wait for the French and Emmet spent hours arging with them to join in.

The Kildare men were also worried about the lack of weapons and hours that should have been spent planning were lost trying to locate and buy arms.  Then there was a huge mix up with the explosives and scaling ladders were not ready on time to be used.

Dublin Castle had also got to hear about something being planned as informers had overheard men talking about a rising in a pub.  Emmet had hoped to have over two thousand men assembled but by nine o’clock on the Saturday moring there were only 80.  Emmet dressed in his General’s uniform of green and wearing a feather cocked hat read aloud his proclamation.  It began,

“You are now called upon to show the world that you are competent to take your place among the nations, that you have a right to claim their recognisance of you as an independent country”. It went on, “We therefore solemnly declare that our object is to establish a free and independent republic in Ireland”.

Emmet went on to list how this would come about. Emmet and around 100 men went out into the night to begin their rebellion. On its way to the castle they met a well respected judge, Lord Kilwarden who they dragged from his carriage and killed.

Emmet was horrified by this and other incidents and realising that his attack on Dublin Castle could not happen, called it all off, the rising lasting less than a day. Emmet fled to Rathfarnham and in reality the only thing he had managed to achieve was that he had managed to plan a rebellion without anyone at Dublin Castle being aware of such a plot.

Emmet remained at large for almost a month under the name of Mr Ellis and went to Sarah Curran, who he had been engaged to in secret. Emmet and 26 of his associates were captured later and executed. Robert Emmet was hung, drawn and quartered in Thomas Street Dublin.

His famous speech from the dock is well known and often quoted today.

“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 rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb 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”

I have but one thought on this myself, why did such a dramatic failure become so historic?  Why for the next 200 plus years is Robert Emmet held in such high esteem by nationalists?  I believe that such tragic failure is actually part of Ireland’s identity.

If the Act of Union 1801 were to be a success then it needed to bring about change in Ireland.  This change never materialised and social discontent prevailed.  Poverty and hardship remained for many and there was simply no sense of hope or a better tomorrow.

In the more rural areas of Ireland the secret societies continued with their attacks and included the Molly Maguires, Caravats and Ribbonmen.  A civil police force was formed freeing up soldiers from garrison duties to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Many thousands of Irishmen signed up trying to earn money and many lost their lives in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The only people who benefited from this were the absentee landlords who made a lot of money exporting food to help the war effort.

I would now recommend that you read about Daniel O'Connell