Robert Emmet: revising reputations

Despite his elevated position on the pantheon of Irish nationalist and republican heroes, Robert Emmet is one of the misunderstood figures in Irish history argues Limerick-based historian Ruán O'Donnell

HIGHLY REGARDED in the 1900s by Irish nationalists for his idealism, intellect and the pathos of his fate, Robert Emmet and the rising of 1803 nonetheless remain enigmatic topics.

Connecting the chaotic scenes in Dublin city in July 1803 with the sophisticated plot developed by Emmet’s coterie in Ireland, Britain and France has proven difficult. To a far greater extent that the rebellion of 1798, the government was taken by surprise.

The Act of Union, operative from 1 January 1801, had lulled the authorities into a state of complacency regarding the potential of domestic insurgency which had been dealt a heavy blow in the summer of 1798.

Much of the often severe post-rebellion violence, which afflicted all four provinces simultaneously, was incorrectly attributed to the flaring of traditional, agrarian tensions. The intelligence deficit vis a vis United Irish activities blinded Dublin Castle in 1802 and 18O3 and has compounded the difficulty of researching the period at a remove of two centuries.

More than any other rising in modern Irish history, the events of 1803 are associated with one personality, the extraordinary Robert Emmet. From his early teens Emmet honed the skills that would serve him well as a revolutionary. He practised writing with both hands and indifferent styles, used invisible ink and avoided signing his name. His known aliases include Ellis, Hewitt and Cunningham, and, when writing political verse, 'Trebor'. In 1796-8 Emmet's considerable artistic skills were utilised by the United Irishmen for whom he designed at least three seals.

As a speaker of English, Irish, Latin and French, Emmet was well suited to function as a United Irish emissary on the continent in 1802-3. He decision to embark on this highly dangerous course, however, was untypical of persons of his social background.

Emmet's ancestors hailed from Lancashire, England, and arrived in Ireland in the early 1600s. They were established in Tipperary, Limerick, Waterford and Kildare by the late 1700s and intermarried with many landed families of Gaelic-Irish descent. Dr. Robert Emmet, father of the revolutionary, was born in Tipperary in November 1729 and practiced medicine in Cork city. He married Elizabeth Mason of Ballydowney (Kerry) in November 1760 and moved to Dublin in 1770 when appointed State Physician of Ireland. The Emmets supported the cause of the American patriots who rose in revolt against perceived English tyranny and Dr. Emmet was a well known figure on the fringes of the Irish pro-reform patriot movement.

By early 1777 the family lived at St. Stephen’s Green West where Robert Emmet was born on 4 March 1778. He entered Trinity College Dublin in October 1793 as a precocious fifteen year old and excelled as a student of history and chemistry.His contemporary and friend Thomas Moore recalled: "Wholly free from the follies and frailties of youth ... the pursuit of science, in which he eminently distinguished himself, seemed, at this time, the only object that at all divided his thoughts with that enthusiasm for Irish freedom which in him was an hereditary as well as national feeling".

These political convictions, formed in a home full of radicals, brought him into the United Irishmen in December 1796 when a French invasion fleet lay off Cork and his elder brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, was a member of the organisation's executive directory. The younger Emmet helped form four United Irish cells in the college whilst writing radical poetry for the republican press and antagonising conservative elements at student debates.

In April 1798, as the security crisis deepened, Emmet realised that he could no longer escape government scrutiny. A 'visitation' to the college by Lord Clare that month led to the expulsion of nineteen students but Emmet pre-empted the decision of the Board of Fellows in his case by withdrawing his name from the student lists. With no hope of entering the professions, Emmet played a low key role in the south Dublin United Irishmen as the chances of a national uprising increased.

When the rebellion commenced prematurely on 23 May 1798, Emmet was dodging an arrest warrant in Dublin and associating with city-based leaders who soon supplied fighting rebel units in south Leinster with armaments, ammunition, intelligence and recruits. His stature in the organisation increased in August 1798 when he helped negotiate an arrangement between senior United Irish prisoners and the Castle. Emmet was described by Surgeon Wright in 1799 as 'a young man with military talent' who evidently sponsored his admission to the reformed Dublin-based Directory by January of that year.

Having eluded another arrest warrant in April, Emmet travelled to Scotland in early 1800 where he visited United Irish leaders interned for the duration of the French War at Fort George. This consultation preceded a lengthy tour of Europe which brought him to every major centre of Irish intrigue. Emmet met Tallyrand and Napoleon in Paris as a United Irish representative to ascertain likely French support for a co-ordinated republican uprising in Ireland, England and Scotland. The temporary Peace of Amiens, March 1802, stymied this plan but it was held by Emmet, and Napoleon, that war with Britain would be resumed in the near future.

In October 1802 Emmet returned to Dublin and learned that 19 of Ireland’s 32 counties would participate in a rising. Unsurprisingly, anticipation of the renewal of war in March 1803 accelerated the flow of experienced United Irish operatives from the continent to their native country and to Britain. The uncovering of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard’s London-centred rising plans between November 1802 and February 1803 was a major setback, although it was hoped that the thousands of republicans in the English capital, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin would yet strike with effect.

Emmet was the key link man between the exiled United Irish leadership on the continent and the new cadres which had coalesced after 1798 in Britain and Ireland. He was convinced that a French invasion would take place in August 1803 and his adherents, notably Thomas Russell, James Hope and Despard's associate, William Dowdall, commenced preparations to raise a substantial United Irish force to act as auxilaries. They concentrated their efforts on recruiting rebel veterans of 1798. Consequently, the cumbersome, doctrinaire and vulnerable mass-based format was eschewed in favour of a tighter body of proven militants.

This devolved much greater authority on the labouring and manufacturing men who, inevitably, would be required to venture their lives for the cause. A corollary of this policy shift was to lessen the influence of the middle class elements which had hitherto dominated affairs and had proved unreliable in 1798. The workers of Dublin's Liberties and outstanding rebel bands, such as that commanded by Michael Dwyer in Wicklow, were brought on board. Miles Byrne, William Hamilton, Mathew Doyle, Michael Quigley and Arthur Devlin worked full time from early March 1803 to open communications with regional republicans and to stockpile weapons. Operating from rented houses in Harold's Cross and Rathfarnham, Emmet developed a comprehensive plan to paralyse the capital city when the time came and to pin down army garrisons across the country.

Arms depots were established in hired premises around the capital where munitions were made and stored for the use of elite rebel assault groups. The plan was thorough and feasible but, contrary to popular belief, never implemented.

Disaster struck on 16 July 1803 when powder used to propel signal rockets ignited and blew up the Patrick Street depot. One man was killed, another wounded and the secret of the depots fatally compromised. Emmet feared that the element of surprise had been lost and, with great reluctance, decided to mount a unilateral uprising without waiting for the French.

Fermanagh, Cavan, Cork, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary were all deemed likely to take part in the rising along with counties which had risen five years before. Indeed, over-optimistic reports of United Irish militancy in the north of Ireland may have convinced Emmet that he might succeed where his brother's coterie had failed in 1798. The date of the insurrection was set for 23 July, a Saturday and festival day, which would provide cover for the gathering of thousands of Kildare, Wicklow and county Dublin rebels.

Crucially, Emmet's inadequate financial resources made it impossible for him to provide the firearms promised to rural networks by his emissaries. To a large extent this reflected middle class nervousness at what was envisaged and several prospective backers refused to furnish funds at the moment of truth. The unexpected dearth of muskets and pistols precipitated a significant, if not decisive, fall off in support for the rising when it was too late to turn back.

Emmet was obliged to think in increasingly modest terms as the day of the rising approached. Many of the Kildare men who entered the city on the morning of the 23rd refused to act without firearms and were disconcerted by false reports that their city comrades would not fight. Hundreds of county Dubliners, meanwhile, were disturbed by the sight of their erstwhile Kildare allies heading home.

Discipline gradual broke down in the streets around the south city rallying points: several soldiers were shot and a provocative raid on the Lord Mayor's residence added weight to the rumours reaching the Castle of an impending revolt. Incredibly, a series of misunderstandings between the Castle and army headquarters in Kilmainham ensured that security contingencies were not put into action until the crisis had subsided.

Unaware of government confusion and ill-placed to calculate his real chances, Emmet pinned his hopes on attacking the Castle. Even this went awry when key operatives became embroiled in clashes with off duty soldiers. Disciplined rebel bands gathered around Dublin at Irishtown, Ballsbridge, Chapelizod, Clontarf, Drumcondra, Lucan, Broadstone, Phibsborough, Donnybrook and Condalkin. They were partially armed and stood ready to act when the anticipated rocket signals were observed. Emmet, however, had decided that it was not worth risking these men in a doomed effort and did not send off the rockets.

On hearing an incorrect report that the army were marching on the Thomas Street depot where he was located, Emmet ordered those in his company onto the streets to put up a fight. As no organised military presence was detected, he hastily read out part of a proclamation of the provisional government of the Republic of Ireland and led around 200 followers towards the Castle.

If there was any serious intent to storm the complex this was abandoned when part of the motley column halted to pike Chief Justice Lord Kilwarden to death. Matters appeared hopeless and the much reduced, partly countermanded rising, frittered away into a series of skirmishes as Emmet returned to Rathfarnham with his officers. In his absence clashes in the Coombe and along the Liffey quays caused a few dozen casualties but the vast majority of the United Irishmen in Dublin lived to fight another day, as Emmet intended. By 11.00am the army had belatedly turned out of their barracks to restore order.

Minor unrest in Kildare, Westmeath, Down, Antrim, Limerick, Queen's County and Mayo on 23-4 July testified to the potential geographic scope of the Emmet plot had the necessary equipment and local leadership been available.

The main lesson of 1803 was that the United Irishmen were not prepared to venture all or nothing without substantial French assistance. Getting this help pre-occupied Emmet until his capture at Harold's Cross on 25 August. He was tried for high treason on 19 September and hanged outside St. Catherine's Church, Thomas Street, the following day. Emmet's stirring speech from the dock, dignified, cogent and persuasive, ensured his place on the highest pantheon of Irish heroes. As MJ Whitty wrote in 1870, "Fenianism set up Emmet's example for 'imitation' and more than one generation of republican revivalists attempted to create the conditions outlined by Emmet for commemoration. Namely, that Ireland must first 'take its place amongst the nations of world'".

Ruán O’Donnell lectures in history at the University of Limerick. He visited England recently to speak on Emmet at an event organised by the Irish Democrat as part of the Sheffield Irish Festival. His book on Robert Emmet will be published next year by Cork University Press.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-03 16:04:00.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2001 Ruan O'Donnell