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.