Robert 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 Stephen’s Green in Dublin in 1778, the youngest son of the viceroy’s physician and was the younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, one of the United Irishmen.

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 for revenge.

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 Ireland’s cause; they were hangers-on and vagabonds who cared little for Ireland or Emmet but were in it for what plunder they could get.
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 be called.
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 O’Byrne 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 her master.

She was brought to the gibbet on which he was to hang and again tortured, but still refused to talk. The government’s 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 Harold’s 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 1798.
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