Robert Emmet

The Irish nationalist Robert Emmet (1778-1803) was executed after leading an unsuccessful revolution against British rule. His youth, passionate oratory, and courage in the face of death have made him a permanent symbol of romantic, revolutionary, Irish nationalism.

Robert Emmet was the youngest of 18 children born to a prominent Anglo-Irish Protestant family. His father, Dr. Robert Emmet, was state physician of Ireland. In 1793 Emmet enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin. He excelled in his studies and won a reputation as a fiery orator. Emmet was influenced by the liberal views of the Enlightenment and the conduct of an older brother who was a member of the Society of United Irishmen. In 1796 Emmet joined the radical group.

Inspired by the examples of the American and French revolutions, the United Irishmen demanded an Ireland free of English influence and governed by a reformed Parliament representing both Protestant and Catholic opinion, elected by a democratic franchise. Frightened by the increasing militancy of the United Irishmen, the intensity of Catholic discontent, and the threat of internal insurrection supported by French invasion, the Irish government adopted measures restricting civil liberties. The Earl of Clare, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, began to investigate student opinion at Trinity, and in 1798 Emmet was forced to leave the college.

Emmet maintained United Irishmen connections but apparently did not participate in the 1798 revolution. After the Irish and British parliaments passed the Act of Union, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1800) and completely destroying the legal existence of the Irish nation, Emmet and his friends considered revolution even more imperative. He left for the Continent to confer with Irish exiles. Napoleon and other French leaders expressed a willingness to assist an Irish revolution. In 1802 Emmet returned to Dublin to create an army of liberation, hoping for French assistance:

Emmet used his own funds to buy weapons, mostly pikes. He asked the Dublin proletariat to strike a blow for liberty. Unfortunately, he failed to establish effective communications with United Irishmen outside the metropolitan area and was unaware that the government had infiltrated his organization. When authorities discovered a cache of arms, Emmet decided to raise the standard of revolt. On July 23, 1803, he issued a proclamation establishing a provisional government for an Irish Republic; he put on a general's uniform of green and white with gold epaulets and led his band of about 80 men out to battle. No help arrived and the revolt was crushed by British soldiers. Emmet managed to escape but refused to leave for America, insisting on remaining close to his fiancée, Sarah Curran, daughter of the famous barrister, John Philpot Curran. On August 25 British soldiers captured Emmet.

On Sept. 19, 1803, the government brought Emmet to trial. Sadistic Lord Norbury was the judge, and Leonard MacNally, an informer, was defense counsel. The jury delivered a guilty verdict. Before sentencing, Emmet brilliantly defended his nationalism. He said that he was prepared to die for the future of Irish freedom, closing with the words: "Let no man write my epitaph…. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written." On September 20 he was hanged.

Emmet's image among Irish nationalists far exceeds the merits of his performance as revolutionary. He was naive, impractical, flamboyant, excessively talkative, and a poor organizer. British vengeance, however, converted a pathetic effort into a triumph of martydom. Thomas Moore's poems about Emmet enhanced the image of noble and tragic martyr. Irish exiles in America were particularly loyal to Emmet's memory, learning the words of his speech and naming their children and patriotic organizations after him. Emmet's example of blood sacrifice watered Irish nationalism, motivating Fenians and the men of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the Anglo-Irish war.

Further Reading on Robert Emmet

Helen Landreth, The Pursuit of Robert Emmet (1948), claims that British government spies and informers acted as agents provoking revolt to further William Pitt the Younger's Irish policy and that Emmet was an unknowing victim of British duplicity and tyranny. Owen Dudley Edwards in "Ireland" in Celtic Nationalism (1968) recognizes Emmet's contribution to the romantic myths of revolutionary nationalism but compares his total impact unfavorably when measured against Wolfe Tone's. See also Leon O'Broin, The Unfortunate Robert Emmet (1958), and R. Jacobs, The Rise of the United Irishmen (1937).