Robert Emmet: enigmatic revolutionary

Historian Ruán O’Donnell assesses the real significance of one of Ireland’s most iconic and misunderstood national heroes, the United Irishman Robert Emmet, who was executed 200 years ago in the wake of the failure of the 1803 rising

JULY 2003 marks the bicentenary of the rising with which Robert Emmet is widely associated. Emmet’s personal fame, fanned by his rousing ‘speech from the dock’, has ensured a lasting place in the folk memory of Ireland and he was unquestionably the premier nationalist hero figure of the 19th century.

A corollary of this ascendancy, however, has been the eclipsing of many important United Irishmen who fought and died in 1803, not to mention those who escaped detection.

As the series of United Irish commemorations since 1991 draws to a close later this year, it is perhaps appropriate to consider the position of Emmet.

Emmet remains something of an enigma 200 years after his execution in Dublin for high treason. His claim to prominence in the complex historiography of Ireland rests in the first instance from his leadership of the failed rising of 23 July 1803.

This attempt to remove Ireland from the United Kingdom by force of arms was far more serious than the government admitted. Persistent calls for a parliamentary enquiry were strenuously resisted as this would have revealed that the rising had surprised the Dublin Castle regime and exposed the weakness of British security. Britain was then in the grip of an invasion scare as the interminable war against France showed no signs of favourable resolution.

The rising, therefore, undermined the Act of Union which, from 1 January 1801, had incorporated Ireland into the UK. Emmet’s role in re-cementing the United Irish-French alliance had not been anticipated and was poorly understood at the time of his death in September 1803.

Emmet’s father was the State Physician of Ireland, and, ironically, the man responsible for the health of King George III in the unlikely event of a royal visit to Dublin.

The Emmets were wealthy and the future revolutionary graduated with ease from the socially elite academies of the capital, where he was born in 1778, to Trinity College, aged fifteen. Robert Emmet’s youth coincided with the rise of the reform movement in Ireland when pro-American ‘patriotism’ gripped his family.

By December 1796 a French invasion fleet lay off Cork and Emmet was a United Irishman pledged to establish an independent Irish republic with their assistance.

His elder brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, was a member of the organisation’s executive directory from 1797 but had played a key role in shaping its ideology from its inception in six years previously.

Although poorly documented, the younger Emmet’s seditious activities in Trinity resulted in de facto expulsion in April 1798 but he remained in situ when the ‘Great Rebellion’ erupted the following month.

What is known of Emmet’s actions in 1798 points to his close workings with the rump leadership built around Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s highly influential military committee. This coterie was, for all intents and purposes, the Dublin based headquarters of the United Irishmen. Its members included Philip Long, surgeon Thomas Wright, Walter Cox and others who connected the conspiracies of the United Irishmen in the mid-1790s to the rising of 1803.

Robert Emmet advanced to the executive directory in January 1799 by which time several of the original incumbents had been executed and many others jailed. Consequently, the August 1800 arrival of an emissary warning of concern in Paris as to the commitment of the United Irishmen disposed Emmet to accompany Malachy Delaney on a mission to brief Napoleon Bonaparte.

He first travelled to Fort George in Scotland to meet the high-ranking United Irishmen interned there before sailing from Yarmouth to Hamburg. General P F C Augureau received the fiery Emmet/ Delaney petition and forwarded it to Bonaparte.

Arrangements were made to receive the Irish plenipotentiaries in Paris. Foreign minister Tallyrand introduced them to the staff officers drawing up plans for an Irish invasion and Emmet later met Napoleon.

Peace overtures from Britain, however, temporarily stalled these preparations and from March 1802 the treaty signed at Amiens postponed French assistance. Thus thwarted, Emmet waited for the resumption of war by touring centres of Irish emitters on the continent.

He returned to Dublin in October 1802 and assumed the position of chief military strategist of the United Irishmen. Associates arrived secretly from France and England to reactivate dormant cadres ahead of the predicted resumption of the Anglo-French War during the spring.

Co-operation was initially envisaged with British based republicans led by colonel Edward Marcus Despard and this had been discussed in Paris and London in talks attended by Philip Long and William Dowdall.

Any chance of simultaneous strikes was quashed by Despard’s arrest in November 1802, although Dowdall and other militants based in Britain realigned with Emmet.

The conspirators hired numerous premises in Dublin where war material was manufactured and stored. Sophisticated improvised ordnance such as rockets and mines were to be used against the garrison of the capital during the critical mobilisation phase.

This surprise onslaught was to be seconded by an influx of rebels from counties Kildare, Wicklow and Meath. Emmet believed that capturing or isolating the executive would gravely hinder its ability to repel a large-scale French invasion in the provinces.

Supporting uprisings were intended to assist the advance of the French in what was essentially a more efficient reworking of the strategy of 1798.

The majority of United Irish veterans in contact with Emmet’s circle had undertaken to fight alongside the French, or without foreign assistance, if provided with modern weaponry. Failure to deliver either the French or muskets, therefore, was the fatal flow of the rising of 1803.

This was not intentional as the hand of the leadership was forced by the accidental destruction of the Patrick Street depot when loose powder ignited on 16 July 1803. Fearing that all the crucial dumps were in danger of discovery, Emmet unwisely backed those who argued for an immediate insurrection in the hope that the French would sail to their aid without delay.

The date was fixed for 23 July with no provision for cancellation and insufficient time to acknowledge the concerns of regional leaders. Thomas Russell, James Hope, William Hamilton and other senior long standing radicals went to Ulster to warn their allies, while Dublin residents such as Miles Byrne and Arthur Devlin primed their fellow Leinster men.

Their reception was decidedly uneven and exceptionally so when the moment of truth arrived. It must be presumed that the whole effort would have been cancelled had Emmet realised sufficient forces to capture Belfast, Downpatrick and Ballymena would not be fielded on the 23rd.

The first wave of attacks in Dublin was entrusted to cells of heavily-armed men who gathering in private houses close to their objectives. The Castle, Island Bridge artillery barracks, the Pigeon House and other complexes were earmarked for assault. These sudden strikes were to be assisted by around 2,000 auxiliaries hidden in Costigan’s distillery on Thomas Street.

The reserve consisted of thousands of rank and file followers from Kildare and Dublin who were told to mass in Thomas Street to await final instructions at 6.00 pm. A series of ill-disciplined attacks on army officers, magistrates and loyalists, however, threatened to alert the government in the early evening.

Remarkably, misunderstandings between the civil and military command in the capital left Dublin more vulnerable than anyone realised. No troops were deployed. Nevertheless, by 9.00 pm Emmet decided to dismiss rebel units blocking the suburban roads and launched a solitary signal rocket to countermand his previous orders to rise.

The vast majority melted away unchallenged. Emmet then hastily read extracts from the Proclamation of the Provisional Government to ensure that those who had already turned out would be treated as political prisoners if captured.

He then headed a feint on the Castle with a view to bringing his exposed junior associates into the Dublin mountains. The veteran groups were deliberately not deployed and in their stead were low-level activists, unfamiliar with Emmet’s rank and authority.

He and the senior officers present very quickly abandoned Thomas Street for Rathfarnham and the mountains beyond.

Several hundred organised rebels, however, refused to disperse without a fight and confronted companies of the 21st regiment in three linked and bloody skirmishes. Soldiers inflicted far more casualties than they sustained but, nonetheless, retreated to barracks where they remained until the danger had passed.

The rising of 1803 petered out in the capital long before the garrison flooded onto the streets to restore order. Even then, the military response was chaotic and undertaken without specific orders from CIC lieutenant-general, Henry Edward Fox. Rebel movements occurred in several counties, most notably Kildare (where two villages were captured), Antrim and Down but very little of the potential of the United Irishmen was manifested in 1803.

Stunned by the post-Union strength of the United Irishmen, the government shouldered the political embarrassment and considerable expense of remilitarising Ireland. Contrary to the ostensible objective of Union, the country remained (and to a degree remains in the North) a garrisoned colonial entity rather than an equal member of the United Kingdom.

Thomas Russell was one of the more prominent fatalities in the round of judicial executions which followed but over thirty men perished in the treason trails of the Special Commissions.

Emmet, captured in Harold’s Cross on 25 August, refused to make terms and was executed in Thomas Street on 20 September.

Thousands of his comrades then languished in the jails, provosts and prison tenders of the thirty-two counties where many were held until the spring of 1806 when the more liberal incoming government of Charles James Fox restored habeas corpus.

Emmet was already a hero-martyr and his demand to be vindicated by the sole means of Ireland taking its place ‘amongst the nations of the Earth’ has resonated with periodic vigour ever since. His name, for this reason alone, will be associated with the final resolution of the national question in Ireland.

Professor Ruán O’Donnell is a lecturer at the University of Limerick and the official historian of the Robert Emmet Association. He is also a member of the organising committee of the Desmond Greaves Summer School. His two volume biographical study of Emmet is published by Irish Academic Press on 17 July 2003, priced £20 pbk

The Robert Emmet Association/Emmet 200 is promoting a major programme of commemorative, cultural and historical events throughout 2003. For details visit the Robert Emmet Association website at or write to Emmet 200, Pearse Family Home, 27 Pearse St, Dublin 2 Ireland or email

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