takes his place in the republican pantheon
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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