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Robert Emmet (1778-1803)

This article was written by Henry Morse Stephens and was published in 1888

Robert Emmet, United Irishman, third and youngest son of Dr. Robert Emmet, physician to the viceroy in Ireland, was born in Dublin in 1778. After being educated at several private schools in Dublin, he entered Trinity College on 7 October 1793, and greatly distinguished himself there by winning prizes and by his eloquence in the Historical Society. A fellow student, Thomas Moore, the poet, describes his oratory as of the loftiest and most stirring character. His politics were, as might have been expected from the brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, violently nationalist, but his youth prevented him from having any weight in the councils of the society of United Irishmen. He was, however, one of the leaders of that party among the students of Trinity College, and he was one of the nineteen ringleaders pointed out to Lord Clare and Dr. Duigenan during their famous visitation held in February 1798, for the purpose of testing the extent of the sympathy exhibited by the students for the United Irishmen. When summoned before the visitors, Emmet took his name off the college books. This turn of events put an end to his thoughts of a professional career, but he continued to take the keenest interest in politics, and in 1800 visited his brother, a prisoner at Fort St. George, and discussed with him the expediency of a rising in Ireland.

He then travelled on the continent, visiting Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Spain; he met his brother after his release at Brussels and studied books on military science. In 1802 he had interviews with Napoleon and Talleyrand. The former promised to secure Irish independence, but Emmet doubted his sincerity. Emmet returned to Dublin in October 1802 with his mind made up on the subject. He had no combined plan like that of the United Irishmen of 1798; he had little hope of military help from France, although Napoleon had promised to invade England in August 1803; he seems indeed to have laid his plans without expecting them to be successful. He had £3,000 of his own, and £1,400 was advanced him by a Mr. Long, and with this money he purchased a few stand of arms, forged pikes, and collected a few desperate or ignorant conspirators. His father's death in December 1802 gave increased opportunities for pursuing his plans.

In the spring he formed depôts of arms at Irishtown, in Patrick Street, and at Marshalsea Lane, where forty men were employed in manufacturing weapons of war. He printed proclamations and a scheme of national government which should guarantee life and property and religious equality. An explosion in the Patrick Street depôt on 16 July hastened his plans. He took up his residence in Marshalsea Lane and prepared for an immediate outbreak. The details of the plot were precisely similar to those of Despard's in London, with which it had probably some connection. Emmet resolved to seize Dublin Castle, Pigeon House Fort, and the person of the viceroy, who was to be held as a hostage. What to do next Emmet does not seem to have determined, and he certainly made no attempt to get the feeling of the country on his side.

On Saturday, 23 July 1803, the projected rising took place. A few men came in from Kildare and Wexford, others were at Broadstone, but all were without orders. At nine o'clock in the evening Emmet, dressed in a green coat, white breeches, and a cocked hat with feathers, together with a hundred wild followers, marched from Marshalsea Lane in utter disarray; they came across the carriage of Lord Kilwarden on its way to the castle, and murdered the old man with their pikes. Emmet was disheartened by this violence, and hastened to Rathfarnham. His followers assassinated Colonel Brown of the 4th regiment, whom they met on the Coombe. At the castle all was consternation; the Irish military authorities seemed in despair, and ordered the general assembly of all the troops in garrison; but before they had collected, and while the officials were in despair, news arrived that the ordinary guard had turned out and had easily dispersed the rioters.

Emmet fled from Rathfarnham to the Wicklow mountains with a few friends. Anne Devlin, a daughter of his servant, brought him letters, and he returned with her in order to take leave of Sarah Curran, to whom he was engaged to be married, before escaping to France. His hiding-place was transferred to Harold's Cross, and there he was arrested by Major Sirr, the capturer of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, on 25 August 1803. He was tried on 19 September before a special court, consisting of Lord Norbury and Barons George and Daly, and though defended by Ball, Burrowes, and INally, he was condemned to death, and hanged upon the following day. He made a thrilling speech before receiving sentence, and also spoke from the scaffold.

The youth and ability of Emmet have cast a glamour of romance over his career, and that glamour has been enhanced by his affection for Sarah Curran, the daughter of the great lawyer, to whom Moore addressed his famous poem, ‘She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps;’ the lady afterwards (24 November 1805) married a very distinguished officer, Major Sturgeon of the royal staff corps. Emmet was first interred in Bully's Acre near Kilmainham Hospital, and his remains are said to have been afterwards removed either to St. Michan's churchyard or to Glasnevin cemetery. An uninscribed tombstone in each burial-place is now pointed out as marking his grave.

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