Reclaiming Robert Emmet

As his bi-centennial year draws to a close, the image of Robert Emmet remains as shrouded in mystery and romance as ever. But thanks to the exhaustive work of one historian, Emmet is finally being viewed by the world at large as not just a great romantic, but a great revolutionary as well

"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."

I was very young when I first came across those words in a book taken from my father's bookshelf. It was Speeches from the Dock by T.D., A.M. and D.B. Sullivan, first published during the 1890s. The words were, of course, from Robert Emmet at his trial in September, 1803. They moved me. Being young, I felt an affinity with Emmet as he had taken the name of 'Mr Ellis' as his nom de guerre while trying to organise his uprising against England's imperial power.

Arriving in London in 1964, I became involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. I shared an apartment with South African exiles (see this column, April, 1990). Imagine my surprise when I found that a recording of Emmet's speech, put out on commercial record, had been banned by the South African regime at that time. Incidentally, the song Danny Boy was also on their banned list.

That made me start reading more about Emmet.

James Connolly, of course, exalted Emmet as one of the great democrats of Irish history.

Sadly, however, most of the accounts I turned to depicted the twenty-five year old Emmet as a romantic figure. He was painted as a young, rich, cosseted, naïve quixotic person, misled and misguided.

Indeed, it seemed that Robert Emmet had received the same make-over as Padraig Pearse after 1916. He was turned into some sort of mystic Byron character; a dreamer, out of touch with reality. Much has made of his engagement to Sarah Cullen and the devoted, romantic figure of his housekeeper Anne Devlin.

It was true that he was from the middle class and what one might see as 'privileged. He was the youngest son of the physician to the English Viceroy in Ireland and was educated a private schools. He went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he distinguished himself as an orator. But was expelled when his republican views became known.

With a warrant for his arrest, he went to France and, with his brother Thomas and other Irish leaders, he canvassed the support of Napoleon and Talleyrand. But he doubted Napoleon's sincerity in helping the Irish cause.

The popular concept is that Emmet returned to Ireland, led a half-baked plan to capture Dublin Castle with a company of half drunk scallywags. Meeting Lord Kilwarden, the Lord Chief Justice, and his nephew in their coach, Emmet's companions dragged them out and murdered them. The young Emmet fled, and was eventually captured and tried.

Ruth Dudley Edwards proclaimed it as a "pathetically ineffective rebellion'. But she would, wouldn't she?

This idea is as far from reality as that stupid 'blood sacrifice' theory of Pádraic Pearse and the 1916 uprising.

We are told that Emmet's sole contribution to Irish independence lay posthumously in his stirring trial speech - an oration that has reverberated down the generations.

I find, to my horror, a certain Dublin newspaper diarist going beyond the ridiculous convolutions of 'revisionism' and even questioning the authenticity of Emmet's speech. Who recorded it? demands the diarist as if there were neither literate Irishmen nor women around at the time that could write forms of shorthand.

I am aquatinted with at least four accounts of the speech published within a few days of the end of the trial and all agree on the text of the speech, including The genuine speech of Robert Emmett, esquire, who was tried and found guilty of high treason, on Monday, Sept. 29, 1803, before Rt. Hon. Lord Norbury, which was carefully taken in short hand by a professional gentleman and published in Dublin in 1803.

It was inevitable during the bicentenary of Emmet's execution that a plethora of new books would appear. History Ireland issued a special edition devoted to him and RTÉ screened a documentary. I recall that Emmet asked for silence at his trial. Remember his words?

"I have 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 motive dare 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."

The appeal has not prevented the production of more than forty biographies over the years. Emmet has even appeared as a subject for films. But I think Emmet had in mind the distortions of our 'revisionist' friends when he asked to be ignored and certainly charity is not a commodity they are prepared to offer.

The alarm bells started to ring when I heard that Marianne Elliott was busy writing a biography of Emmet. After she had produced her amazingly prejudiced biographical destruction of Wolfe Tone, I knew that Emmet had little chance. But, not wishing to prejudge the matter, I waited patiently to see what she produced. I can now allow her the charity of silence as attempts by myself and this publication to obtain a review copy of Marianne's biography have met without response from her publishers.

Thankfully, there is a bright side among all this gloom.

There has appeared an historian who 'dare(s) now vindicate' Emmet's motives and 'can do justice to (his) character'. Dr Ruán O'Donnell, of Limerick University, has just published the definitive two-volume biography of Emmet with the Irish Academic Press. Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798 and Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803 were published in July paperback and hardcover.

O'Donnell has specialised in the 1798 period as his previous books demonstrate and he has fronted an RTÉ documentary on Emmet.

O'Donnell's knowledge of the United Irish movement is unsurpassed. This is one of the most important studies of the period to have been produced and certainly this is going to be the seminal study on Emmet; a study that will be considered as such for generations to come. I do not give such praise lightly.

He treats his subject chronologically and shows there was no 'break' between the United Irish uprising of 1798 and that of 1803 - it was a continuous process. Some reviewers have already wondered why the publishers split the study into two volumes. True, it would have made a rather big book.

The important lesson from the books that I find is the 1803 was not simply 'Emmet's Rising' as if one man had been involved in a scuffle at Harold's Cross as many have often tried to make it sound.

Robert Kee's irritating trilogy, The Green Flag, actually dismissed 1803 as a 'conspiratorial failure'. But then this is the same Robert Kee whose Ireland: A Television History (BBC 2) was one of the most irritating pieces of television it was my burden to sit through and review back in December, 1990. On the subject of knowing about conspiracies Kee assured viewers that 1916 had "come out of the blue" at a time when Ireland was "idyllically happy" under the English monarchy.

However, Kee's attitude is fairly typical of denigrators of the Irish struggle for independence.

Emmet was not a young, vain and naive romantic. He was an exceptionally talented organiser and he was supported by many of the veterans of the 1798 uprising who were determined not to commit the same mistakes as happened before. However, as history tells us, spies and informers were always the curse of the insurrectionary movements.

Reading Emmet's own plans for the insurrection, given as an appendix by Ruan, were clear, straightforward and well thought out. In his prison cell he summed up the weakness and why he did not proclaim a country-wide insurrection:

"Had I another week - had I one thousand pounds - had I one thousand men, I would have feared nothing. There was redundancy enough in any one part to have made up, if complete, for deficiency in the rest, but there was failure in all - plan, preparation and men. I would have given it the respectability of insurrection, but I did not wish uselessly to shed blood. I gave no signal for the rest, and they all escaped."

What is fascinating is reading the Proclamation of 'The Provisional Government to the people of Ireland' drafted by Robert Emmet and his colleagues in 1803.

"You are now called upon to show the world that you are competent to take your place among nations, that you have a right to claim their recognizance of you, as an independent country, by the only satisfactory proof you can furnish of your capability of maintaining your independence, your wresting it from England with your own hands."

We learn from the thirty decrees issued in connection with the Proclamation by the Provisional Government that they were in fact a democratic and populist body. Important actions from the first day of them taking power would be the abolition of tithes and that all church lands would become the property of the nation.

All transfers of landed property would have been prohibited until a proper national government had been set in places and courts of justice organised. Likewise all transfer of bonds, debentures, public securities would be declared void for the same period. The Irish House of Commons would be reinstated and elections from towns and counties would be held with 300 parliamntary seats apportioned.

Pro tem rules and instructions were issued as to the running of the country.

Fully aware of the tens of thousands of Irish men, women and children who had perished at the hands of the English troops in the bloody aftermath of 1798, Emmet also issued orders to commanders of the United Irish to seize partisans supporting England as hostages and that English commanders be warned that a strict retaliation would take place if they contravene the laws of war or allowed the troops under them to do so.

This was a practical matter for Emmet and his Provisional Government stated: "We will not imitate you in cruelty; we will put no man to death in cold blood, the prisoners which first fall into our hands shall be treated with respect due to the unfortunate; but if the life of a single Irish soldier is taken after the battle is over, the orders thence forth to be issued to the Irish army are neither to give nor take quarter."

Decree 30 enjoined: "The Provisional Government strictly exhort and enjoin all magistrates, officers, civil and military, and the whole of the nation, to cause the laws of Morality to be enforced and respected, and to execute as far as in them lies justice with mercy, by which alone liberty can be established, and the blessings of divine providence secured."

While the 1803 uprising was less bloody in military terms than 1798, and its suppression did not cost the same vast number of lives of men, women and children as followed its predecessor's suppression, nevertheless, the peculiar popular concept that only Emmet paid the ultimate price is corrected here. Dozens of executions followed and imprisonment and transportation continued for years afterwards.

What is important about O'Donnell's forensic de-mythologising of Emmet is the copious footnotes and source references. If I wore a hat, I would doff it in respect to a first class historian who, with this work, marks himself out as the foremost authority on the United Irishmen.

But, when all is said and done, there is a sad caveat. The country that Emmet wanted to see take her position among the nations of the world has not yet done so in the manner that he envisaged. The Irish nation still waits the time when Robert Emmet's final epitaph can be written in good faith.

Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798 and Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803 are published in paperback and hardcover editions by Irish Academic Press priced £39.50 (hbk), £20 (pbk)

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