Robert Emmet

Two Hundred years ago on August 25 a tragic event befell Irish history.  It all began when the United Irishmen, a group of Catholics and Protestants united to work for Ireland’s independence, rose for that freedom in 1798.  The English put down the rising with extreme brutality and instituted a campaign of frightfulness, as Seamus MacManus called it, to break the spirit of the Irish that they should never dare to dream of liberty again.  They even banned the color green which was a symbol of the United Irishmen’s union of Protestant Orange and Catholic Blue and they annexed Ireland to England in the Act of Union in 1801, so that the Irish would no longer even have a country to fight for.  Terrible atrocities were reported as English militia ran down all who had belonged to, or had sympathies with, the United Irishmen.  In desperation, one young man emerged, contacted the leaders still at large and planned to fight back in another strike for freedom.  Entering into alliance with the Napoleon’s minister Tallyrand, he planned for another rising in 1803.

With promises of French support, cooperation of other revolutionary societies and money from men of high standing, the effort seemed more likely to succeed than the ill-fated attempt of five years earlier.  Further, he now had a secret weapon, not available in 1798, that he felt would make all the difference.  The weapon, developed with the assistance of his nationalist-thinking chemistry teacher, was quite simply a fireworks rocket capable of delivering a bomb.  Their chemical powder mix and a stabilizing shaft made it steadier in flight than anything that had been seen before.  The pair had built and stockpiled enough of the weapons to give them a military edge.  The young man conferred with the French in the fall of 1802 and returned to coordinate plans in Ireland.  His name was Robert Emmet.

Born on March 4, 1778, he was the 17th and final child of Dr. Robert Emmet and his wife Elizabeth.  He was the fifth to bear the name of Robert since four previous attempts to carry on the father’s name had died in infancy1.  A Chemistry student at Trinity College before the ’98 rising, he had been expelled for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to King George.  His older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, was one of the ’98 leaders, jailed and exiled by the English, who subsequently settled in America.  Young Emmet was to organize volunteer cooperation with the French when they landed.  He contacted surviving fighters of ’98, and was told that 19 counties stood ready.  He then confined his activities to Dublin with three other leaders.  Alas, today we know that one was a Castle spy who relayed the plans to the English.  Emmet received a report that Tallyrand was only using Ireland for his own political ends and began to doubt French support.  On July 16, an explosion in an apartment he was using as an arms depot, destroyed most of his rockets.  Convinced his plans were near discovery; he moved the date of the rising up to July 23.  Assurances came that if Dublin rose, the rest of Ireland would speedily follow.

On July 23, as Emmet awaited his men at an assembly point, word reached him that soldiers were on their way.  Confident that the rest of Ireland would follow his lead, Emmet drew his sword and led a ragged army of little more than 100 men into the Saturday night streets of Dublin.  Contradicting orders (authored by the Castle spy) left the revolution that Emmet had planned little more than a street riot that cost 30 lives.  Emmet went on the run into the Wicklow Mountains, where he would be safe from Crown forces, under an alias of Drake, as arrangements were being made for his passage to France.  Meanwhile, English Major Sirr, sought Emmet with a vengeance.  He arrested Emmet’s young housekeeper, Anne Devlin who, though brutally tortured in Kilmainham Jail, never revealed his whereabouts.  Her story is most inspiring and she remains one of Ireland’s greatest heroines.  Emmet daringly came down from the hills to visit his dying mother and his sweetheart, Sarah Curran.  Sirr was waiting and on Aug 25, 1813, (200 years ago), Emmet was captured, and cast into prison.

At his trial, Emmet secured his place in Irish history with a stirring and defiant speech denouncing the oppressors of his land, and denouncing those who would not vindicate him for doing what he felt every true patriot should do.  He said that since no man spoke up to vindicate his actions it was obvious that no man understood his reasons.  Therefore, he asked, until my country takes its place among the free nations of the world, let no man write my epitaph.  On September 20, the 25-year old rebel was taken to Thomas Street where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.  It was a horrible death, and it endeared the spirit of Robert Emmet to the Irish.  They took to wearing a leaf, a plant, or a sprig of shamrock in their lapel or hat band in defiance of the government’s ban on green, and to show support for Emmet’s ideals.  And the poets wrote of him with passion.  Even though such sentiments were censored, they simply used an old Irish trick and referred to Ireland by one of her many metaphors.  When it was illegal to write in praise of Ireland, her poets wrote in praise of Dark Rosaleen, Kathleen ni Houlihan, or Nell Flaherty – all understood to be Ireland.  Now a metaphor was used again to damn the British without them being any the wiser.  A verse was written, which became a popular song denouncing the murder of Nell Flaherty’s Drake – a reference to Emmet’s alias.  The Brits thought it a silly ditty about a woman who lost a barnyard fowl while the Irish knew they were singing about the King when they sang:

May his pipe never smoke, may his teapot be broke, and to add to the toil may his kettle not boil,

May he lay in the bed ’till the moment he’s dead.  May he always be fed on spoiled food and fish oil,

May he swell with the gout, may his grinders fall out, may he roar, bawl and shout, with a horrid toothache.

May his temples wear horns, and his toes all grow corns, the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s drake.

 

It goes on for many more similar verses and other ballads continued to be written up to the 1916 Rising when Tom Maguire, IRA Commandant in Co Fermanagh, wrote the moving ballad, Bold Robert Emmet – the Darling of Erin.   The great Irish musicologist  Josephine Patricia Smith, believed that there were more songs about Robert Emmet than any other Irish hero.  Author Terry Folan said it best when he wrote His speech from the dock is the center of Republican sentiment to this day.  Poets often make indifferent generals, but, at least in Ireland, they make wonderfully articulate rebels.

An interesting addendum to this story is that the Brits seized the remaining iron-cased gunpowder rockets in Emmet’s apartment and sent them to the Royal Arsenal where Sir William Congreve was the Comptroller.  He gave them to his son, William Jr, who worked on them and subsequently claimed Emmet’s innovations as his own.  Junior first demonstrated a solid fuel rocket,  40.5 inches long, with a stabilizing stick 16 feet long and a range of 2,000 yards, at the Royal Arsenal in 1805 (just two years later).  It was that Congreve Rocket, as it was now called, that produced the ‘rockets’ red glare’ in America’s national anthem when they were fired on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.  The saddest part of the whole affair is that many books and articles like the History of Rockets by Mary Bellis have taken research from the Notes and Records of the Royal Society, and the Encyclopedia Britannica which claim that an English chemist named William Congreve invented the modern rocket as a weapon with a significant advance on earlier black-powder versions.2 Not only does the Bold Robert Emmet get no credit, he is still waiting for his epitaph to be written!

Equally interesting is the Emmet legacy in America.  Robert’s brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, the exiled leader of the United Irishmen, had come to America where he became a remarkable American legal mind.  He was described by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as the most respected Irish American of his generation.  Ironically, he was serving as the Attorney General of New York State when his brother’s rockets were falling on Fort McHenry.  Thomas left a legacy of remarkable family members as well, from Medal of Honor recipient Robert Temple Emmet to Sister Brigid who was the 9th child in a family of 9 born on the 9th day of the 9th month of the 9th year of the 20th century (she was 90 in 1999).  While other descendants left their marks as prominent lawyers, doctors and artists, none left their mark as visibly as architect Devereaux Emmet, great, great grandson of Thomas, who designed Long Island’s Garden City Golf Course, the Red Course at Eisenhower Park, the Green course at Bethpage, and the courses at the Huntington, Glen Head, Rockville, Seawane, St. George’s, Wheatley Hills and Port Jefferson Country Clubs.

 

 

1. Robert Emmet – A Life by Patrick Geoghegan, 2002

2  Sir William Congreve from Encyclopedia Brittanica

Robert Emmet

The United Irishmen were a group of Catholics and Protestants united to work for Ireland’s independence, and they rose for that freedom in 1798.  The English put down the rising with extreme brutality and instituted a “campaign of frightfulness”, as Suemus MacManus called it, “to break the spirit of the Irish that they should never dare to dream of liberty again”.  Terrible atrocities were reported as English militia ran down all who had belonged to, or had sympathies with the United Irishmen.  This prompted United Irishmen leaders, still at large, to plan another strike for freedom.  Entering into alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte and his minister, Tallyrand, they planned a rising for 1803.

With promises of a French force; of cooperation from revolutionary societies in England and Scotland; and of money and support from men of high military and political standing in Ireland, the effort at first seemed more likely to succeed than the ill-fated effort of five years earlier.  In the autumn of 1802, a young man returned from France to coordinate the plans in Ireland.  His name was Robert Emmet.

He had been a Republican student leader at Trinity College before the ’98 rising and had been expelled for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to King George.  His older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, was one of the ’98 leaders imprisoned by the English and subsequently exiled to France.  Young Emmet’s prime objective was to organize and arm volunteers to cooperate with the French when they landed.  He contacted surviving fighters of ’98 and reported that 19 counties stood ready. He then confined his activities to Dublin with three other leaders, Michael Dwyer, Myles Byrne, and Bernard Duggin. Alas, today we know that Bernard Duggin was a Castle spy who relayed all the plans to the English.  Emmet, patiently waiting, began receiving reports that Tallyrand was only using Ireland for his own political ends, and the young Irish leader began to despair of French aid.  On July 16, an explosion in an apartment that he had been using as an arms depot convinced Emmet that his plans were near discovery; he moved the date of the rising up to July 23.  Assurances came from all over the country that if Dublin rose, the rest of Ireland would speedily follow.

On July 23, as Emmet awaited his men at the assembly point, a rumor reached him that soldiers were on their way. Confident that the rest of Ireland would follow his lead, Emmet drew his sword and led a ragged army of little more than 100 men into the Saturday night streets of Dublin.  Confused timetables, misleading reports, and contradicting orders (reportedly authored by Duggin) left the revolution that Emmet had so carefully planned little more than a street riot that cost 30 lives.  Emmet was on the run! He made his way into the trackless Wicklow Mountains where he would be safe from Crown forces.  As arrangements were being made for his passage to France, Emmet daringly came down from the hills to be near his dying mother and his sweetheart, Sarah Curran.  Meanwhile, an English officer, Major Sirr, was seeking Emmet with a vengeance. He arrested Emmet’s young housekeeper, Anne Devlin, and, though bayoneted twice and half-hanged, she never revealed his whereabouts.

Sirr finally found Emmet and cast him into prison.  Love letters from Miss Curran (which Emmet carried in the folds of his white neck cloth) were confiscated and Miss Curran was arrested for questioning.  Though she longed to admit her love for him, at Emmet’s strict insistence she denied all knowledge of the rebel leader lest she be incriminated and tortured as had Anne Devlin.  Emmet knew that his last gesture would have to be a defiant condemnation of the English at his trial, but he would not be able to do it if his beloved were in danger of reprisal for his last words and actions.  Obediently, Sarah denied him, but Major Sirr was determined to prove a connection.  During her questioning, Miss Curran was escorted across the prison yard when, suddenly, a door at the opposite end of the yard opened and out stepped Emmet between two guards!  The two young lover’s hearts pounded in their breasts as they were walked toward each other, and passed without the slightest hint of recognition.

In the dock, Emmet secured his place in Irish history with a stirring and defiant speech denouncing the oppressors of his land.  His final request was that, since no one rose to defend his motives, let no one write his epitaph until Ireland was free.  On September 20, the 25-year old rebel was taken to Thomas Street and hanged, drawn, and quartered.  Then sorrowfully was laid to rest the bold Robert Emmet – the darling of Erin.

In the 1850s, one of the early committees of the young AOH was the Emmet Monument Association (EMA) founded by John O’Mahoney and Michael Doheny.  Its purpose was to raise funds to build a monument on which to write Emmet’s epitaph, in other words, to free Ireland.  The EMA became the Fenian Brotherhood.

Theobold Wolfe Tone

The closest that the Irish ever came to complete independence happened when Irish Catholics and Protestants united in a brotherhood of purpose for the benefit of all. It started at the time of the American Revolution.

The 1777 surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in the American Revolution was followed by the alliance of France to America’s cause. The British Parliament began to fear an invasion of either England or Ireland. In April 1778, John Paul Jones crossed the Atlantic, captured two British ships, then boldly sailed into Belfast Bay in broad daylight, and sank a British Man-0-War. England was painfully aware that their power in Ireland to repel such attacks was non-existent, so they gave in to a suggestion made by Henry Grattan’s Patriot Party in the Irish Parliament: the creation of a corps of volunteers to defend England’s Irish colony.

The Patriot Party had evolved in the Irish Parliament as a result of the Crown’s policies against dissenters. Church of Ireland members held all the privileged positions, and the predominantly Catholic native Irish were forced to the low end of the economic scale, but all other Protestants, including Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers who made up the growing middle class of professionals and tradesmen, were called Dissenters, and were likewise disenfranchised. As Turlough Faolain further revealed in his book, Blood on the Harp, Although the Penal Laws had been specifically targeted at the Papists, much of the legislation had been drafted in such a way to make the Dissenters subject to the same restrictions.

Throughout the 18th century, selfish exploitation incited violence in all corners of England’s colonial empire. In Ireland, angry Irish tenants formed secret agrarian societies like the Whiteboys and Defenders to punish the abuses of the Landlords.

Dissenters followed with secret Protestant societies of their own like the Steel Boys in reaction to Ascendancy outrages. In 1759, Henry Flood, a leader of Irish Protestants in opposition to England’s economic exploitation, was elected to the Irish Parliament, and he formed a faction called the Patriot Party. The Patriot Party attracted Dissenters seeking change, and England bought off Flood with the position of Vice Treasurer. Henry Grattan stepped in to assume that vacated leadership, and the Patriot Party became the opposition party in the Irish Parliament.

Within two years after approval to form a Corps of Volunteers, 100,000 men were armed by the loyal aristocracy. Catholics were initially excluded from the volunteers, but when Spain entered the American alliance in 1779, Catholics were not only invited in, but armed. The volunteers did not turn out to be the loyal army that the Crown had hoped for. Not only had the Catholics no love of the Crown, but the Presbyterians had grievance with England over unfair trade laws that favored British products and crippled the Irish woolen and linen trades. Thus when the volunteers came to strength, the first invasion they repelled was the invasion of British-manufactured goods. In 1779 Henry Gratten moved in Parliament for Free Trade for Ireland. Knowing that his supporters were in the minority, on the day of the vote the indomitable Napper Tandy could be seen from the windows of Parliament with his volunteer artillery corps in their emerald and scarlet uniforms. They were mustered on College Green with their cannon trained on the assembly! The Free Trade Bill passed and the embargo was lifted on Irish exports. England became more nervous as Ireland became bolder.

In 1780, Gratten moved a Declaration of Right to grant the Irish Parliament independent status under the Crown, but the measure was opposed. In October 1781, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown! Afraid that Ireland would erupt next, King George gave Gratten his Irish Parliament, although it was a shallow victory. Only 64 of the 300 seats were filled by elections; the remainder were peers, lords, and landlords, and was hopelessly corrupt. There was one however, who entered and challenged that corrupt body; his name was Theobold Wolfe Tone.

Inspired by the American and French revolutions, Tone worked to unite the Irish people. In September, 1791, he published a pamphlet An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland by a Northern Whig explaining that both Dissenters and Catholics had common cause and a common enemy – England! The pamphlet was so well received that he was invited by Henry Joy McCracken to meet with the Northern Whig Club in Belfast. On Oct 12 Tone met with Thomas Russell and William Sinclair and on the 14th he met with a Secret Committee to discuss his plan for organized political and economic opposition to England. From it sprang an organization known as The United Irishmen which held its first meeting on October 26. They began to lobby for Catholic rights. England, on the verge of war with France, acquiesced, and the Franchise of 1793 was passed granting limited rights to Catholics.

Though legally established, England was determined to break this new union called The United Irishmen and began to sew seeds of division. Religious propaganda was aimed at both sides – each denouncing the other, and in 1795, as a final solution, The Orange Order was formed among loyal Church of Ireland protestants to exterminate Catholic `troublemakers’. Homes were raided, murders committed, and farms burned to the ground. Tone and the other leaders of The United Irishmen remodeled their organization from a political to a military one. As Tone travelled to America and France for aid, Insurrection and Indemnity Acts were passed by Parliament and England’s war against The United Irishmen accelerated. Atrocities were commonplace and leaders of the organization were arrested. Tone secured French aid and led a fleet of 43 French ships to Ireland. A fierce storm prevented their landing and they returned to France with the broken-hearted Wolfe Tone who immediately began lobbying for the French to mount yet another expedition.

On March 30, 1798, England declared Martial Law in Ireland to break The United Irishmen or force them into premature action. By May 27, the tactic succeeded. The people were finally goaded into action in a disjointed rather than coordinated insurrection – the rising of 1798 had begun. The leaderless and unarmed people of Wexford followed, initially led by a simple parish priest named Father John Murphy. News of the rising reached Tone in France, and he frantically pressed the French to aid his people who were already in the field against overwhelming odds. A small force of 1,000 men was dispatched, to be followed by a larger force. They landed on August 22, but at the wrong place – Killala Bay in Mayo. England dispatched General Cornwallis (recently disgraced by his surrender in America to an army made up of many Irish immigrants) to redeem his honor in Ireland. He landed at the head of a massive army and overpowered the French and Irish forces. French prisoners were expatriated back to France while the Irish were put to the sword.

Tone arrived with the final French force off Lough Swilly and ran directly into a waiting British fleet. After a desperate 6-hour battle, during which Tone himself commanded a battery of ships guns, the French fleet was routed and Tone was captured. As he was placed in chains he declared, For the cause which I have embraced, I am prouder to wear these chains than if I were decorated with the Star and Garter of England.. After his court-martial on November 10, he said, I have sacrificed all in life; I have courted poverty; I left a beloved wife unprotected and children whom I adore fatherless. After such sacrifice in the cause of justice and freedom – it is no great effort to add the sacrifice of my life. Wolfe Tone made that sacrifice on November 19, 1798. He was buried in Bodenstown, in the grave which Ireland cherishes today as her most precious possession. Thus ended a glorious dream that had all started in October, 1791.