Emmet, one of the leaders that failed
We often hear of the mistakes that were the cause of the
failure of many of the risings attempted by Irishmen over
the years, but few of them failed as miserably as the one
planned by Robert Emmet in 1803.
Sadly this rising was doomed before it really started. Following
the rising of 1798 and the fierce resistance against the
government forces by the men who took part in that rising,
there was still a feeling in the minds of many that if the
plan formatted for it had been carried out properly, it
could have been successful.
One of those who had that feeling was a young student who
had been sent down from Trinity College, because of his
radical politics; the man in question was Robert Emmet.
He was born at St Stephens Green in Dublin in 1778,
the youngest son of the viceroys physician and was
the younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, one of the United
From his early days in college he expressed his disgust
at the treatment received by the ordinary Irish people at
the hand of the Government. Active in Trinity College debating
society, he went a step too far in his beliefs and paid
the price by being expelled from the college.
Word was also sent to the Dublin Castle authorities that
he could be a dangerous person. He still felt that a properly-organised
rebellion striking at the right time in the right place
could be successful. As a result of this belief he attempted
to re-establish the United Irishmen and also went to France
as an agent of that organisation where he contacted friends
in the right place concerning French assistance.
He is said to have met Napoleon, who promised him help.
He is also supposed to have met an expert in armaments from
America who showed him how to make what could be termed
a landmine, made from a little box packed with explosives.
He had decided to accept French assistance should it come,
but he also made up his mind not to make the mistake of
the 1798 leaders and depend upon it.
He decided to make his own plans and prepare for the rising
with a strong force of Irish at his command. He set to work
on building this new force from the Dublin area and carried
out a short spell of training them with the help of a few
of the survivors of the 1798 rising.
He returned to Ireland and decided to make the final plans
for his rising, which he intended to have in 1803. He met
with big disappointments when several of the old hands he
had expected to join him refused to take up his cause. He
was advised to leave the rising for a latter time as the
Government forces were still smarting after some of their
defeats during 1798 and only too ready to get the chance
He ignored this warning and decided to carry on with what
men he had. His father died in 1802 and he used the money
he had been left to rent storehouses and buy arms. He had
worked hard to have everything ready but the men he had
collected for his rising were little better than a mob and
were hard to control.
Anyway, he had made up his mind that the fewer who knew
his plans the better, another lesson learned from the 1798
rising. When we see all the regulations and arrangements
he made it is hard to understand why he did not take the
advice of some of his real friends and drop the whole thing
until conditions got better.
His mind was made up and on Saturday evening, July 23, 1803
he met with his men on Thomas Street near Dublin Castle.
He had expected to have over 1,000 men under his command
but at this point only about 80 turned up.
They had firearms, but a few had pikes. Emmet had meant
to attack the Castle, but even he realised that such a plan
was now out of the question; still he moved in that direction,
waving his sword and calling upon passers-by to join him.
Some did join his group but they were not doing so for Irelands
cause; they were hangers-on and vagabonds who cared little
for Ireland or Emmet but were in it for what plunder they
His men were now getting rowdy and almost uncontrollable
and he realised that his dream of taking the castle was
hopeless. He tried to speak to them and asked them to follow
him to the Wicklow Mountains, where they would wait until
conditions improved and more men joined. The toughs who
had joined had no time for such an idea and took things
into their own hands.
They murdered a soldier who was riding by and then committed
the crime that was probably the main cause of sending Emmet
to the scaffold. They stopped the coach of Lord Kilwarden,
the Chief Justice (and a very popular man), dragged his
from his coach and killed him, along with his young nephew,
who was with him.
Now sickened by what he saw and filled with despair, he
made his way to his house in Rathfarnham. It is almost certain
that he could have escaped to France but for his other passion;
along with his love for his country; his love for the ladies.
In this case it was for Sarah, the daughter of Philpott
Curran, that caused him to delay until he could say goodbye
to her. Meanwhile soldiers and police were searching every
hiding place known to them for Emmet and those associated
with him in his attempted rising, for that is all it could
There were several arrests and it was no surprise to hear
that some of those questioned sang like larks. One exception
was a girl who had worked as his housekeeper in Rathfarnham
and did know a lot about him.
Her name was Anne Devlin, she was a cousin of the Wicklow
rebels Michael Dwyer and Hugh OByrne and her loyalty
to Robert Emmet went far beyond that which should exist
between master and servant.
Following her arrest she was interrogated and tortured in
some brutal ways but refused to give any information about
She was brought to the gibbet on which he was to hang and
again tortured, but still refused to talk. The governments
answer to her determined stand was to charge her with high
treason and sentence her to three years in Kilmainham Jail.
After her release she got some work with another family,
but torture and prison had taken their toll and she died
in poverty and obscurity in 1851.
Emmet was arrested by Major Sirr in what was supposed to
be a safe house in Harolds Cross on August 25 and
several prisoners were detained in ships in Dublin Bay.
It is thought that about 17 were hanged later.
When Emmet was sentenced to be tried in Green Street Court
the bad luck that appeared to dog his every move stayed
with him, he choose as his counsel Leonard McNally, a man
who was in the pay of the Castle as an informer who had
defended several of the United Irishmen after
Despite putting up a great defence himself he was hanged
at noon on September 29 1803. He was then beheaded and his
head given to George Petrie for a death mask to be made.
Emmet is better known for his speech from the dock than
for the events of his rising. Even about this aspect of
his rising there are varied options.
That his speech from the dock was sincere and soul-stirring
there can be no doubt, but it is especially over the closing
sentence that most historians and experts differ. One thing
about it is sure, it caught the attention of whatever journalists
or scribes was there and soon became one of the best-known
death-defying speeches ever received by the public.
In the main, body parts of the speech read much the same,
but the twist in the tale is what makes the difference.
Now let us finish this account of the rising with his supposed
words: When my country takes her place among the nations
of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph by
written. I have done.
Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist