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."


I wish that my memory and name may animate those who survive me, while I look down with complacency on the destruction of that perfidious government which reigns amidst the cries of the orphans and the widows it has made

When the notorious hanging judge, Lord Norbury, pronounced the death sentence on Robert Emmet on 19 September 1803, he came to the standard formula, ‘what have you to say why judgement and death should not be awarded against you?’ He was taken aback by one of the most powerful speeches of a condemned person, a speech that despite the frequent interruptions of the judge succeeded in its aim of setting on record the views of Robert Emmet to the public of his day and inspiring revolutionaries of the future.

On 23 July a rising had taken place in Dublin, the last effort to wrest the government of Ireland out of the hands of the British authorities to take place in the stormy years ushered in by the French Revolution of 1789. The rising was financed and led by Robert Emmet, and while supporting the goals of the United Irishmen, whose own efforts had been crushed in 1798, it was different in two important ways which were to anticipate future, successful, strategies of national revolution – it did not rely on the possibility of a French invasion and it looked to the poor, the working class and the peasantry, to carry through the insurrection.

With the uprising of the United Irishmen, Ireland had come very close to successful revolution. Victory in 1798 would have meant that the country’s development would have been very different to experience under the Empire. With a population of 8 million and rapidly expanding economy there is no reason why Ireland could not have become a powerful modern nation, a prospect that appealed to merchants and business owners north and south. Their movement, inspired by the model of the American revolution of 1776 and the republican ideas of the French Revolution, consciously strove to set aside sectarianism in a bid to create a united independent country.

Despite creating a mass organisation with a huge following the United Irishmen failed, and in the view of Robert Emmet one of the main reasons for this was that by waiting for French aid they had allowed the initiative to pass to the British authorities. The postponement of action based solely on Irish considerations had meant that by the time they called out their followers, the movement had been considerably disorganised by repression. As Emmet wrote in the Manifesto of the Provisional Government which was issued during his rising, ‘that confidence which was once lost by trusting to external support, and suffering our own means to be gradually undermined, has again been restored.’

Secondly, Emmet looked to the peasantry and the urban poor of Dublin to be the insurrectionary force he needed. The Manifesto contains 30 decrees, mostly concerned with the structure of government and administration of Ireland. But before them all comes decree number one:

1. From the date, and promulgation hereof, tithes are forever abolished, and church lands are the property of the nation.

The demand to end the tithes was immensely popular and had been central to peasant agitation, especially in Munster, for the previous two generations. Whilst the social conditions for socialist ideas had not yet matured, as James Connolly noted, Emmet showed no scruple in openly advocating the taking church property into control of the nation. Elsewhere in the Manifesto Emmet makes clear that he is not advocating a challenge private property, but expropriation of the church lands and ending of the tithes was a demand that would have appealed to the poor more than any other class.

In practical terms, it was the working class that Emmet counted on to do the fighting. Again the working class in 1803 was a far cry from the huge force it was to become. A typical workplace in Dublin or Belfast would have one master craftsman and three or four journeymen. Production often still took place in the home. But that was changing rapidly, mills with spinning jennies were opening up, particularly in Belfast where by 1800 an estimated 13,500 people were employed in the cotton trade.

The working class in England and Ireland had begun to organise independently for themselves – in Dublin from 1762. Although risking jail and deportation corresponding societies had grown up to press for better wages and conditions. This independent working class movement had surfaced in 1792 in the form of a very successful series of wage strikes, much the concern even of the well-to-do rebel leaders who saw such a movement as undermining the prospect of competitive Irish industry.

By contrast with the United Irishmen, whose relationship with independent working class organisations was hostile, Robert Emmet relied upon them completely. Emmet’s base was the Coombe district of Dublin, the oldest working class area, inhabited by weavers, tanners and shoemakers. He was connected with Edward Despard of the revolutionary London Corresponding Society, whose own insurrectionary plans were ended with his arrest and execution in November 1802.

In 1802 Emmet was given a legacy of £3,000 following the death of his father. He immediately put every penny at the disposal of revolution, purchasing the materials to make pikes, and premises to store them in.

It was in the Patrick Street depot that the first in a series of accidents took place that was ultimately to collapse Robert Emmet’s plans before they could be tested in any serious way. On 16 July an accidental explosion led to the authorities investigating the building. They failed to find the hidden weapons, but convinced that the incident would lead to further investigation and a clampdown, Emmet accelerated the timetable for an uprising and called his supporters out for the 23 July.

That Friday, a series of mishaps overtook the insurrection – but they all had a underlying cause. Fearful of the informers that had so deeply penetrated and destroyed the United Irishmen, Emmet had kept his plans confined to tiny numbers of people. He was successful in surprising the authorities, but at the cost of the links of his movement being very thin. One by one they broke.

Mick Byrne, a leader from 1798, was still at large in Wicklow and capable of mobilising some 300 rebels, but he was not convinced of the credibility of the enterprise. While being ready to move on the basis of seeing a green flag over Dublin Castle or a similar sign of a serious rising underway, he kept his forces out of the city.

Similarly, a delegation of Kildare revolutionaries, who came some in advance of the main mobilisation failed to be convinced that real forces would materialise and they left Dublin, turning back other rebels as they met them.

One reason for the alienation of such crucially important bodies of experienced rebels was that they were unimpressed that the fuses for the explosives, grenades and – an innovation – rockets, had been mixed rendering them inoperable. Similarly the blacksmiths had bungled the scaling equipment that they thought would be required for the walls of the castle. Again, a plan to enter the castle by subterfuge using six hired carriages, splendidly dressed but packed with hidden rebels went astray when the curious sight of the carriages caused a solider to investigate, and as soon as a shot was fired, the drivers, who were not part of the movement, dispersed.

Robert Emmet was left with his core base of support in the Coombe, and while a few hundred people eventually roamed the streets of the area armed with pikes, it was not the well-focused movement that he had anticipated on paper. By the following day he realised his rising had failed and Emmet left the city for the relative safety of the Wicklow mountains.

Not wishing to leave the country for romantic rather than political reasons, Emmet was betrayed by an informer while staying in Harold’s Cross. There was no question as to what his fate would be, so Emmet resolved to use the subsequent show trial to his own ends and leave a statement that would aid the cause of national revolutionaries for the future.

He devastatingly refuted the core of the argument that he was a traitor in the service of France, pointing out that while willing to gain arms from France, that country had succumbed to slavery under Bonaparte and indeed was imposing slavery on other countries despite claims of bringing liberty.

It was Emmet’s total confidence in the future independence of Ireland and his dignified bearing in face of death that most impressed those in court and inspired future generations of rebels. His closing words are famous: when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.

The day after this speech, Emmet was taken to the scaffold, where he showed total composure. Hooded and given a handkerchief to drop to indicate his readiness, he refused to let it fall.

Exasperated the executioner kicked the plank away. It took thirty minutes for the weight of his slight build to lead to his suffocation, after which the executioner struck of his head with a butcher’s axe to show it to the crowd, while at the same time shouting ‘Robert Emmet, traitor!’

If the British authorities hoped in this way to discredit Robert Emmet, they failed miserably, for he instantly entered the canon of Irish national heroes.

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