Robert Emmet

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE peasants of Podolia, when no Russian myrmidon is nigh, chant aloud the national hymn of their captivity—"Poland is not dead yet." Whoever reads the story of this western Poland—this "Poland of the seas"—will be powerfully struck with the one all-prominent fact of Ireland's indestructible vitality. Under circumstances where any other people would have succumbed forever, where any other nation would have resigned itself to subjugation and accepted death, the Irish nation scorns to yield, and refuses to die.

It survived the four centuries of war from the second to the eighth Henry of England. It survived the exterminations of Elizabeth, by which Froude has been so profoundly appalled. It survived the butcheries of Cromwell, and the merciless persecutions of the Penal times. It survived the bloody policy of Ninety-eight. Confiscations, such as are to be found in the history of no other country in Europe, again and again tore up society by the roots in Ireland, trampling the noble and the gentle into poverty and obscurity. The mind was sought to be quenched, the intellect extinguished, the manners debased and brutified. "The perverted ingenuity of man" could no further go in the untiring endeavor to kill out all aspirations for freedom, all instinct of nationality in the Irish breast. Yet this indestructible nation has risen under the blows of her murderous persecutors, triumphant and immortal. She has survived even England's latest and most deadly blow, designed to be the final stroke—the Union.

Almost on the threshold of the new century, the conspiracy of Robert Emmet startled the land like the sudden explosion of a mine. In the place assigned in Irish memory to the youthful and ill-fated leader of this enterprise, is powerfully illustrated the all-absorbing, all-indulging love of a people for those who purely give up life on the altar of country. Many considerations might seem to invoke on Emmet the censure of stern judgment for the apparently criminal hopelessness of his scheme. Napoleon once said that "nothing consolidates a new dynasty like an unsuccessful insurrection;" and unquestionably Emmet's emeute gave all possible consolidation to the "Union" régime. It brought down on Ireland the terrible penalty of a five years' suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and a contemporaneous continuance of the bloody "Insurrection Act," aggravating tenfold all the miseries of the country. Nevertheless, the Irish nation has canonized his memory—has fondly placed his name on the roll of its patriot martyrs. His extreme youth, his pure and gentle nature, his lofty and noble aims, his beautiful and touching speech in the dock, and his tragic death upon the scaffold, have been all-efficacious with his -countrymen to shield his memory from breath of blame.

Robert Emmet was the youngest brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, one of the most distinguished and illustrious of the United Irish leaders. He formed the daring design of surprising the castle of Dublin, and, by the seizure of the capital, the inauguration of a rebellion throughout the provinces. Indeed, it was, as Mr. M'Gee remarks, the plan of Roger O'More and Lord Maguire in 1641. In this project he was joined by several of the leaders in the recent insurrection, among them being Thomas Russell, one of the bravest and noblest characters that ever appeared on the page of history, and Michael Dwyer, of Wicklow, who still, as for the past five years, held his ground in the defiles of Glenmalure and Imall, defying and defeating all attempts to capture him. But, beside the men whose names were openly revealed in connection with the plot, and these comprised some of the best and worthiest in the land, it is beyond question that there were others not discovered, filling high positions in Ireland, in England, and in France, who approved, counseled, and assisted in Emmet's design.

Although the conspiracy embraced thousands of associates in Dublin alone, not a man betrayed the secret to the last; and Emmet went on with his preparations of arms and ammunition in two or three depots in the city. Even when one of these exploded accidentally, the government failed to divine what was afoot, though their suspicions were excited. On the night of July 23, 1803, Emmet sallied forth from one of the depots at the head of less than a hundred men. But the whole scheme of arrangements—although it certainly was one of the most ingenious and perfect ever devised by the skill of man—like most other conspiracies of the kind, crumbled in all its parts at the moment of action. "There was failure everywhere;" and to further insure defeat, a few hours before the moment fixed for the march upon the castle, intelligence reached the government from Kildare that some outbreak was to take place that night, as bodies of the disaffected peasantry from that county had been observed making toward the city. The authorities were accordingly on the qui vive, to some extent, when Emmet reached the street. His expected musters had not appeared; his own band dwindled to a score; and, to him the most poignant affliction of all, an act of lawless bloodshed, the murder of Lord Justice Kilwarden, one of the most humane and honorable judges, stained the short-lived emeute. Incensed beyond expression by this act, and perceiving the ruin of his attempt, Emmet gave peremptory orders for its instantaneous abandonment. He himself hurried off toward Wicklow in time to countermand the rising there and in Wexford and Kildare. It is beyond question that his prompt and strenuous exertions, his aversion to the useless sacrifice of life, alone prevented a protracted struggle in those counties.

His friends now urged him to escape, and several means of escape were offered to him. He, however, insisted on postponing his departure for a few days. He refused to disclose his reason for this perilous delay; but it was eventually discovered. Between himself and the young daughter of the illustrious Curran there existed the most tender and devoted attachment, and he was resolved not to quit Ireland without bidding her an eternal farewell. This resolve cost him his life. While awaiting an opportunity for an interview with Miss Curran, he was arrested on August 25, 1803, at a house on the east side of Harold's Cross Road, a few perches beyond the canal bridge. On the 19th of the following month he was tried at Green Street; upon which occasion, after conviction, he delivered that speech which has, probably, more than aught else, tended to immortalize his name. Next morning, September 20, 1803, he was led out to die. There is a story that Sarah Curran was admitted to a farewell interview with her hapless lover on the night preceding his execution; but it rests on slender authority, and is opposed to probabilities. But it is true that, as he was being led to execution, a last farewell was exchanged between them. A carriage, containing Miss Curran and a friend, was drawn up on the roadside, near Kilmainham, and, evidently by preconcert, as the vehicle containing Emmet passed by on the way to the place of execution, the unhappy pair exchanged their last greeting on earth.[1]

In Thomas Street, at the head of Bridgefoot Street, and directly opposite the Protestant Church of St. Catherine, the fatal beam and platform were erected. It is said that Emmet had been led to expect a rescue at the last, either by Russell (who was in town for that purpose), or by Michael Dwyer and his mountain band. He mounted the scaffold with firmness, and gazed about him long and wistfully, as if he expected to read the signal of hope from some familiar face in the crowd. He protracted all the arrangements as much as possible, and even when at length the fatal noose was placed upon his neck, he begged a little pause. The executioner again and again asked him was he ready, and each time was answered: "Not yet, not yet." Again the same question, and, says one who was present, while the words "Not yet" were still being uttered by Emmet, the bolt was drawn, and he was launched into eternity. The head was severed from his body, and, "according to law," held up to the public gaze by the executioner as the "head of a traitor." An hour afterward, as an eyewitness tells us, the dogs of the street were lapping from the ground the blood of the pure and gentle Robert Emmet.

Moore was the fellow-student and companion of Emmet, and, like all who knew him, ever spoke in fervent admiration of the youthful patriot-martyr as the impersonation of all that was virtuous, generous, and exalted. More than once did the minstrel dedicate his strains to the memory of that friend whom he never ceased to mourn. The following verses are familiar to most Irish readers:

"Oh! breathe not his name; let it sleep in the shade
"Where cold.and unhonored his relics are laid.
Sad, silent, and dark be the tears that we shed,
As the night dew that falls on the grass o'er his head.

"But the night dew that falls, though in silence it weeps,
Shall brighten with verdure the grave where he sleeps;
And the tear that we shed, though in secret it rolls,
Shall long keep his memory green in our souls!"


[1] Madden's "Lives and Times of the United Irishmen."