The French Revolution of 1789 inspired many with its ideals of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The United Irishmen was established with aim of achieving Catholic emancipation and independence for Ireland. At that time an Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy lorded it over the Catholic peasantry.
As it happens, many of the leaders of the United Irishmen were well-to-do Protestants. The United Irishmen led by Wolfe Tone hoped to convince France to use Ireland as a staging post to invade England. As always, England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity. He hoped Irish independence would be a by-product of Napolean's determination to subjugate old Blighty. In 1798 an attempted rebellion was repressed due to the French failing to land a significant force and bad coordination between the rebels.
Robert Emmet was another born, in 1778, into the Protestant elite. The son of a Dublin doctor he studied at Trinity College (which barred Catholics) and joined the United Irishmen. Following his older brother Thomas Addis Emmet, Robert fled after the doomed 1798 rebellion to Paris. Despite their earlier failure, the United Irishmen endeavoured to enlist French help again. Believing that French troops would be forthcoming, Emmet sailed back to Ireland in 1802 to raise a militia that would rebel against the redcoats upon the Gallic invasion.
He enlisted men in Dublin and was involved with the organisation in nearby Wicklow, Wexford and Carlow. Disaster struck on June 16th, 1803 when an arms depot exploded in Patrick Street. Emmet was sure his plans would soon be exposed and so set an early date for the rebellion, July 23rd, 1803. He was assured by his followers that if his group in Dublin rose up, the rest of the country would follow.
On the appointed day, farce ensued. Many men didn't turn up and most areas failed to mobilise. Undeterred, Emmet decided to march on Dublin castle anyway. His motley group happened upon a coach carrying the Lord Chief Justice (Lord Kilwarden) and his nephew. They were brutally piked to death. Emmet was dismayed by the conduct of his followers and fled to the the Wicklow mountains. The rebellion was at a premature end.
The story of Robert Emmet is also a love story. He was deeply infatuated with the beautiful Sarah Curran, daughter of a Rathfarnham lawyer sympathetic to the cause of the United Irishmen. He was unable to stay away from her and came down from his mountain lair to see her. They made plans to escape together to America. They were secretly engaged since her father disapproved of her seeing the revolutionary idealist. Unfortunately, their affair was doomed when Robert was arrested. Robert refused to reveal the author of the unsigned love letters found in his jacket. He wrote a letter to Sarah from prison (which revealed her idenitity) and entrusted it to one of the guards, who betrayed Emmet by handing it over to the authorities. With investigators scouring the Curran household, Sarah's maid just in time managed to burn letters from Emmet.
Robert was tried for high treason that August and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. However, in deference to his pedigree as a member of the upper class, this was changed to hanging and beheading (a doddle in comparison). On the 20th September that year, young Robert Emmet (he was 25) was executed. During his trial Emmet made a valedictory speech which would secure his place in history. It was a speech that would lay the seeds for the cult of martydom that inspired latter revolutionaries such as Padraig Pearce. Blood sacrifice as a means to achieving Irish freedom was exalted by Emmets speech. The closing lines are the most famous-
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 dares now vindicate them,
let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity
and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, 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 done.
What of poor Sarah? She fled to Cork
where she married a British soldier
. They moved to Sicily
but by all accounts she never got over the death of her lover.
"She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers around her are sighing,
But coldly she turns from their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying."