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.