Oh that I were at the head of twenty thousand men marching to that air

In the year of 1803, 200 years ago this year, a young Irishman by the name of Robert Emmet saw his dreams of leading a successful rebellion against foreign tyranny fall to pieces and knew that his own life would be the price for that failure.

Emmet had studied the tactics of the 1798 leaders and the sad results of their lack of control and proper planning when both were vital, such as at New Ross and Bunclody. This also could apply to Arklow and Vinegar Hill but to a lesser extent as had the first two been managed corectly. It is amazing how many Irish unrising’s were lost before they were fought because of lack of co-operation and forward planning.

Even the Easter rising of 1916 was doomed before it commenced through lack of proper communication and the old curse of command and counter command. At no time were the Irish going to overthrow the might of the British Empire in a single action, only by negotiation and patience, so although the 1916 rising may have failed at the time, it eventually led to the treaty and finally to the declaration of the Republic of Ireland and the freedom we have in the twenty six counties today.
A question often asked is “Was Emmet a dreamer”. It is hard to answer that question, he probably was to a certain extent, but then so was Pearse. Without such men in countries all over the world there never would be a republic, never would be freedom for small nations.

By this we do not mean the dictatorships which sprang up in so many countries after the World War of 1914 - 1918. We all know the Emmet’s rising failed, but let us go back over the years and take a look at Emmet in his younger days.

A fellow student at Trinity and a great friend had been the well known writer of Irish melodies and airs Tom Moore. Indeed it is said that it was his association with Emmet that influenced Moore to write some of his Irish Airs. While in college Emmet had been making plans for Irelands freedom from England. One of Moores first melodies was “the Little Red Fox” which Moore later took a slower tempo and it became “Let Erin Remember”. When Emmet first heard this song he is reputed to have said “Oh that I were at the head of twenty thousand men marching to that air”. Emmet and Moore were members of the Historical Society at the University where although it was forbidden to make political speeches Emmet was adept at bringing the Ireland of the day into many debates.Phipps, Tom Moore’s tutor, told Mr and Mrs Moore that it was unwise for their son to become involved with Robert Emmet because of his subversive activities.

Tom Moore was never told of Emmet’s plans to organise a rising with his fellow republicans against British rule in Ireland, yet he admired Emmet’s patriotism and sought his approval by writing an article signed. “A patriotic Freshman”. Emmett, instead of praising Moore, told him the letter attracted too much attention. It is understood that Moore was questioned on his involvement at a later date but did not give any names or speak of the feelings of his friends, nor did he loose his place in the college. Later he wrote “ although placed in the very current of so headlong a movement I escaped all share in the wild struggle in which so many far better than myself fell victims”.

Robert Emmet early in the year 1803 took possession of a house in Butterfield Lane that was in close proximity to a house owned by the Devin family who had a dairy business and kept horses for hire. Emmet took this house in the name of ‘Mr Ellis’ and it was noticed that he had a lot of visitors calling especially at night time. (In fact one of the callers was none other than Myles Byrne of Monaseed, Co. Wexford, who had fought with Fr John Murphy in 1798. In order to keep up appearances Mr Devlin gave Emmett a cow and a horse and cart and his daughter Ann became housekeeper in Emmets house and assumed the name of Emmet. From now on things began to hot up as far as the rising was concerned. Arms were collected and delivered to the city centre and it was also about this time that Myles Byrne was sent to France to seek the often promised but seldom delivered French aid. (It is amazing how often the Irish waited for the French aid that never came in time) Myles Byrne never returned from Paris and died there at the age of 82. He is buried in Mortimer and a Celtic Cross marks his grave.

As for the rising, things went from bad to worse, orders were given and then changed, men were sent to the wrong places, and some of the assembled troops deserted and were never seen again. On the morning of July 23 1803 Emmett assembled his troops, just over 100 men and nothing like the numbers he had expected, and headed for Dublin Castle. His troubles were not over yet, on their way along Thomas Street they met the carriage of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Kilwarden and instead of allowing it to pass and continuing on to the castle, the unruly mob, for that was all they were, halted the carriage, ripped open the door and killed the Chief Justice and his nephew and to make matters worse scattered down the side streets. Realising his rebellion was a failure Emmett escaped and fled to the Wicklow mountains.(There is a story that he stopped near where the ‘lamb Doyle’s pub is at present and looking back wept bitterly).

This was not the end of the trouble for Anne Devlin as her and her eight year old sister were questioned roughly by a number of yeomen on July 26 and later the whole Devlin family were arrested. Anne was identified by a stableman from the White Bull Inn in Thomas Street as being a friend of Emmet’s. Major Sirr, who now realised the importance of his prisoner tried to bribe her with the offer of £500 a fortune in those days, but she refused to talk. The Governor of Kilmainham Jail also questioned her but got nothing. Unknown to her Emmet was arrested in a house in Harolds Cross. Major Sirr now had a warrant issued against her for high treason, this could mean death for her it she were convicted. Anne was transferred to Kilmainham and it was here that she met Emmet for the last time. He begged her to give information about him as he was already a dead man, but she refused, saying that she could not bring herself to be an informer.

Every school goer has heard of Emmet’s speech from the dock but not all have knowledge of how he died. Just after one o’clock on September 20 1803 he was executed publicly on a platform in front of St Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street, Dublin. His last words were “My friends, I die in peace and with sentiments of universal love and kindness towards all men’. He then gave his watch to his executioner Thomas Galvin, who then bound his hands and pulled a black hood over his head.

He was then placed upon the gallows where he took half an hour to die. Because he had been convicted of High Treason he had to be beheaded. He was now placed on a deal block from a local butchers and the head was severed from the body with a blow from a broad bladed axe.

Then the hangman grasped it by the hair and holding it high and shouted “This is the head of a traitor, Robert Emmet”. It is told that his blood seeped into the gutter and was lapped up by dogs. The head and body were brought back to Kilmainham and left where the prisoners could see for themselves what happened to a so-called traitor.

So died Robert Emmet, in the eyes of the Government a traitor, in the eyes of those who believed in Irelands freedom a martyr.

Courtesy of the Nationalist
By Willie White
October 5th 2003