Emmet takes his place in the republican pantheon

Unlike in other countries, Irish republican heroes often don't get the respect and remembrance they deserve.

One such is Robert Emmet, executed by the British 200 years ago. Brendan Vaughan makes amends by outlining Emmet's motivations an the brilliant revolutionary campaign that almost succeeded.

Recently while in France, I noted the enthusiasm an conviction of the French for honouring the concepts of the Revolution (1789 - ‘94) and those who ended tyrannical government and introduced new political structures.

This is very well illustrated by their postage stamps, picturing one of the revolutionaries and the words (in French), Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

How unlike the mentality displayed here in revisionist Ireland. Requests were made to the Government and An Post to commemorate the bi-centenary (1803) of the Rising. A decision was taken to issue three stamps to honour three of the best known heroes involved: Robert Emmet (41c), Thomas Russell (51c) and Anne Devlin (57c).

Not one of these stamps could I get though - I enquired at Newmarket, Ennis and Limerick post offices - nor have I seen any in circulation. For the last 30 years all such commemorate anniversaries have been deliberately low-key, face-saving efforts.

The United States also, like the French, have the confidence and maturity to commemorate and honour in many high profile ways their patriots of the War of Independence and, indeed, whose who campaigned on both sides in the Civil War. Emmet, co-incidently, is honoured by a life-size statue in Washington quite close to the White House.

It seems quite obvious that the 1916 leaders carefully studied and adopted much of the plans and strategies of Robert Emmet's Rising. Padraig Pearse, in March 1914, gave two splendid lectures at the Emmet Commemoration in New York. He had studied Emmet's plans and manifesto and was deeply influenced by them.

The Proclamation read by Pearse before the 1916 rising was, in its essence, quite similar in phrasing to the manifesto read by Emmet on July 23, 1803. The latter was much longer, as was his Proclamation then of a provisional government.

Though shorter and more concise, the seminal influence of the earlier declaration was quite evident in its 1916 descendent.

Emmet's bold plan of capturing Dublin Castle, seat of the government, and other focal buildings in the capital, was obviously copied to a large degree in the plans which would be followed by the 1916 leaders.

Pearse said: “No failure, judged as the world judges these things, was ever more complete than Emmet's. Such a death always means a redemption. Emmet redeemed Ireland from acquiescence in the Union. His attempt was not a failure, but a triumph for that deathless thing we call Irish nationality”.

The following words in Emmet's Manifesto are equally unequivocal: “We therefore solemnly declare that our object is to establish a free and independent Republic in Ireland; that the pursuit of this object we will relinquish only with our lives”.

Tone and the United Irishmen expressed similar sentiments in 1798. A century later Pearse and his comrades verbalised the same philosophy, saying that what was an offer via Home Rule was “The promise of a poor simulucium of liberty”.

It is highly interesting to read that Daniel O'Connell, then a young barrister, enthusiastically joined a Lawyer yeomen Corps in 1803 to help in the pursuit of the rebels.

Comment is unnecessary except to say that anyone entering the Four Courts in Dublin can study the plaque erected there in 1998. Bearing the following inscription: “Erected in honour of the members of the legal profession who in 1798 sacrificed their lives or their careers in pursuit of a free Ireland uniting Protestant, Catholic or dissenter”. It names 10 barristers.

On September 20, 1803, one of Ireland's noblest patriots, Robert Emmet was executed in Thomas Street, Dublin. A one day trial in Green Street Courthouse, presided over by the infamous Lord Norbury, had no difficulties in convicting the young man of treason against the British crown.
This was largely because Emmet effectively refused to defend himself. He knew that it would be a useless exercise in the context of the Government's unswerving determination to keep Ireland within the Empire. It considered any attempt to change that situation to be high treason.

The principles of Liberty, Freedom and Equality which motivated Washington, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the people in the American colonies to rebel against their intransigent British rulers (who believed the tenet that might was right) saw the United States win freedom from repression.

The principles of Liberty, Freedom and Equality which motivated the downtrodden masses in France to rise up against their tyrant masters and win the rights that previously were totally denied them.
Here in Ireland, the United Irishmen sought by every democratic means to win the same rights. No concessions were granted. The United Irishmen were forced into a revolution, put down with much wanton savagery and bloodshed.

Wolfe Tone and many of his noble minded comrades, accused of treason, paid the ultimate price of their lives.

One year later the infamous Act of Union, was passed through corruption and jobbery and against the wishes of practically all Irish people, eliminating the last vestiges of freedom in independence.
Ireland was now merely a province of the expanding British empire. No charter of rights was still available to the masses of people. All things Irish were subsumed into an English ethos. It seemed like the death of a nation as a steady demise for the native culture, language and traditions was planned.

This was the background of the 1803 Rising. The principal protagonists who planned the rebellion had participated in, or were imbued with, the principles of the 1798 Rising. Foremost among them were Robert Emmet and Thomas Russell a Corkman based in Belfast.

Both were Protestant idealists influenced by the new thinking of equality and civil rights for everyone. Both could have the privileges and wealth of their ascendancy background. They and, indeed, many other high-principled colleagues, chose instead to champion the rights of the repressed and downtrodden masses.

The time seemed favourable for a rebellion. In May 1803 France renewed hostilities with England. Several of the ‘98 leaders were in Paris at that time, including Thomas Addis Emmet.
Robert went there and had discussions with the new leader, Napolean Bonaparte, who promised to send a fleet of 25,000 soldiers in 1803.

While Emmet felt that it was unsafe to unduly rely on these promises, he returned to Ireland and with like-minded United Irishmen, began to plan a new rising. He and his colleagues were determined that the mistakes made in 1798 would be avoided.

Principal among these mistakes was the structure and organisation which made it almost impossible to prevent infiltration by Government informers, who would instantly alert Dublin Castle.

The new organisation was successful in this primary objective. Even on the date of the projected rebellion, the Government was not in possession of any hard information to cause alarm.
This, added to the incompetence and inaction of the British forces' commander, General Henry Fox, did add up to a great opportunity for Emmet and his colleagues.

Also the Government, after the Act of Union was passed, believed that Ireland was pacified and cowed to accept British rule.

In recent years a very considerable amount of new research has demonstrated that the Rising, simple in its conception, was well planned and could have been successful.

Its central plan was base on secrecy and a surprise attack on an almost totally undefended Dublin Castle as well as other barracks at the Pigeon House, Island Bridge, Cork Street, Old Customs House and the Royal Barracks.

Only a small number of trusted officers were told of the plans. In his book, Robert Emmet, a Life (2002), Patrick M. Geoghegan has this to say: “The plan for taking Dublin was breathtaking in it's audacity. It was nothing less than an ambitious blueprint for a dramatic coup d'etat.”

Later when the Rising failed, the Government, taken aback by its perilous escape from the threaten danger from a well-planned rising, spared no effort at covering up. A big propaganda offensive was launched to minimise and play down the planning and extent of the Rising.

The official view disseminated was that this was little more that an ill conceived riot by the lower classes and malcontents led astray by their betters and promises of aid from France.
It was to be consigned to oblivion with hardly a ripple on the surface and the leaders were denigrated and made pay the ultimate price from their lives.

So why did an essentially well planned insurrection fail to get off the ground? There were a number of factors.

While secrecy was largely preserved and informers mostly neutralised, a core weakness was a grave lack of communication between the top and bottom ranks and between one post and another. All depended on a successful attack on the Castle and other city targets.

An explosion at one of Emmet's arms depots on July 16, though largely covered up, was instrumental in bringing forward the date to rise to seven days later, July 23.

This made for rushed preparations. Help to Ireland was not a priority for Napolean and Emmet had no great hopes of this aid.

Then too much responsibility was left on Emmet's willing shoulders. This, allied to the necessary secrecy, was a fertile ground for indiscipline. And though he spent all his father's legacy of £2,000 (in today's values at least £400,000), there was never enough funds for essential weapons etc.
Yet, despite these setbacks, it could be said that were it not for three of four instances of sheer bad luck, the plan of campaign would likely have worked.

One of the leaders, Miles Byrne, a man with military experience then and who later after the Rising escaped to France and attained the rank of Colonel in the French army, wrote in his memoirs circa 1850, “Not for centuries had Ireland so favourable an opportunity of getting rid of the cruel English yoke”.

The Rebellion, then, never really got off the ground. However, the principles enshrined in it have proved an abiding legacy in the campaign against injustice and repression and to achieve freedom and independence.

Emmet's death, like his life, was heroic. his speech from the dock had always been regarded as “one of the greatest in the history of oratory, and inspired lovers of freedom and justice in Ireland and elsewhere.

The great Abraham Lincoln knew this speech and used it by the firelight of his Kentucky cabin”.
Finally, it can be said there is a growing interest in the life, death and ideals of Robert Emmet. In all there are nine or ten biographies of the patriot published, four in the last year. All are well worth reading, particularly the two most recent by Dr. Ruan O'Donnell (UL) and Seán O'Bradaigh.

A lecture, sponsored by Clare GAA Board, on Emmet will be delivered by the definitive authority, Dr Ruan O'Donnell, in the West County Hotel on Friday, November. It should be highly interesting and informative.

Robert Emmet's sepach from the dock, while under questioning from Lord Norbury, is regarded as one of the finest speeches ever made, and was an inspiration even to such a notable figure as Abraham Lincoln. Here we reprint its more memorable passages.

“WHAT have I to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced on me, according to law. I have nothing to say which can alter your predetermination, nor that it would become me to say with any view to the mitigation of that sentence which you are her to pronounce, and by which I must abide.

“But I have that to say which interests me more than life, and which you have laboured, as was necessarily your office in the present circumstances of this oppressed country, to destroy. I have much to say why my reputation should be rescued from the load of false accusations and calumny which has been heaped upon it.

“I do not imagine that, seated where you are, your minds can be so free from impunity as to receive the least impression from what I am about to utter. I have no hope that I can anchor my character in the breast of a court constituted and trammelled as this is. I only wish, and it is the utmost I expect, that your lordships may suffer it to float down your memories untainted by the foul breath of prejudice, until it finds some more hospitable harbour to shelter it from the rude storm by which it is at present buffeted.

“Were I only to suffer death, after being adjudged guilty by your tribunal, I should bow in silence, and meet the fate that awaits me without a murmur; but the sentence of the law which delivers my body to the executioner, will, through the ministry of the law, labour in its own vindication to consign to obloquy, for there must be guilt somewhere - whether in the sentence of the court, or in the catastrophe, posterity must determine.

“A man in my situation, my lords, has not only to encounter the difficulties of established prejudice. The man dies, but his memory lives. That mine may not perish, that it may live in the respect of my countrymen, I seize upon this opportunity to vindicate myself from some of the charges alleged against me.

“When my spirit shall be wafted to a more friendly port. When my shade shall have joined the bands of those martyred heroes, who have shed their blood on the scaffold and in the field in defence of their country and of virtue, this is my hope - I wish that my memory and name may animate those who survive me, while I look down with complacency on the destruction of that perfidious government which upholds its domination by blasphemy of the most High which displays its power over man as over the beasts of the forest - which sets man upon his brother, and lifts his hand, in the name of God, against the throat of his fellow who believes or doubts a little more of a little less than the government standard - a government which is steeled to barbarity by the cries of the orphans and the tears of the widows which it had made.”

“I have been charged with that importance in the efforts to emancipate my country, as to be considered the keystone of the combination of Irishmen or as your lordship expressed it, ‘the life and blood of the conspiracy'. You do me honour over much; you have given to a subaltern all the credit of a superior.

“There are men engaged in this conspiracy who are not only superior to me, but even to your own conception of yourself, my lord; men before the splendour of whose genius and virtues I should bow with respectful deference, and who would think themselves disgraced by shaking your blood-stained hand.”

“What, my Lord! shall you tell me, on the passage to the scaffold, which that tyranny, of which you are only the intermediary executioner, has erected for my murder, that I am accountable for all the blood that has been and still will be shed in this struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor? Shall you tell me this, and must I be so very a slave as not to repel it?”

“Let no man dare, when I am dead, to charge me with dishonour; let no man attain my memory by ‘believing that I could have become the pliant minion of power in the oppression and misery of my countrymen.

“The proclamation of the Provisional Government speaks for my views; no inference can be tortured from it to countenance, barbarity or debasement at home, or subjection, humiliation or treachery from abroad. I would not have submitted to a foreign oppressor, for the same reason that I would resist the domestic tyrant. In the dignity of freedom, I would have fought upon the threshold of my country, and its enemy should only enter by passing over my lifeless corpse.

“And am I, who lived but for my country, who have subjected myself to the dangers of the jealous and watchful oppressor and now to the bondage of the grave, only to give my countrymen their rights, and my country her independence - am I to be loaded with calumny and not suffered to resent it? No. God forbid!”

“If the spirits of the illustrious dead participate in the concerns and cares of those who were dear to them in this transitory life. Oh! ever dear and venerated shade of my departed father look down with scrutiny upon the conduct of your suffering son, and see if I have, even for a moment, deviated from those principles of morality an patriotism which it was your care to instil into my youthful mind, and for which I am now about to offer up my life.

“My lords, you seem impatient for the sacrifice. The blood for which you thirst is not congealed by the artificial terrors which surround your victim (the soldiery filled and surrounded the Sessions House) - it circulates warmly and unruffled through the channels which God created for noble purposes, but which you are now bent to destroy, for purposes so grievous that they cry to heaven.

“Be yet patient! I have but a a few words more to say. I am going to my cold and silent grave: my lamp of life is nearly extinguished; my face is run; the grave opens to receive me, and I sink into it's bosom. I have but 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 motives dare now vindicate them. let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth.”

Courtesy of the Clare Champion
October 2003