Robert Emmet

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Emmet, Robert, brother of preceding, was born in Molesworth-street, Dublin, in 1778. Shortly after his birth his father removed to 109 Stephen's-green West (corner of Lamb-lane). There, and at Casino, his father's country place near Milltown, his early years were passed. He was sent to Oswald's school, in Dopping's-court, off Golden-lane; subsequently he was removed to Samuel White's seminary in Grafton-street; and was afterwards put under the care of Rev. Mr. Lewis, of Camden-street. On 7th October 1793 he entered Trinity College. His college course, like his brother's, was brilliant. He exhibited great aptitude for the exact sciences, especially mathematics and chemistry.

He took a prominent part in the Historical Society, and espoused the national side in the political debates. Thomas Moore, his fellow-student, thus describes his oratory: "I have heard little since that appeared to me of a loftier, or, what is a far more rare quality in Irish eloquence, purer character; and the effects it produced, as well from its own exciting power, as from the susceptibility with which his audience caught up every allusion to passing events, was such as to attract at last the serious attention of the Fellows; and by their desire one of the scholars, a man of advanced standing and reputation for oratory, came to attend our debates, expressly for the purpose of answering Emmet, and endeavouring to neutralize the impressions of his fervid eloquence." In April 1798 the Lord-Chancellor held a formal visitation for the purpose of inquiring into the extent of the sympathy with the United Irishmen existing in the College. Robert Emmet, on being summoned, wrote a letter to the Fellows requesting his name to be taken off the books, and indignantly denouncing the proposed proceedings. In this he is said to have had his father's approval.

Some fervid writings by Moore and Counsellor Walsh (the author of Ireland Sixty Years Ago) were in truth the cause of this visitation. Emmet's professional prospects were now blighted; his brother, Thomas Addis, was in prison, and a warrant was out for his own arrest. We know little of his life for some years. Probably he acted occasionally as confidential agent for his brother and others of the United Irish leaders then in confinement. In 1800 he visited his brother Thomas in prison at Fort George, and passed on for a tour on the Continent — visiting Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Spain. On his way back he rested at Amsterdam, and met his brother, then released from confinement, at Brussels. Robert appears at this time to have been much engaged in the study of works on military science.

The leading United Irishmen then on the Continent were resolved on renewing their efforts, in the event of a rupture between England and France — regarding the struggle in Ireland as only suspended. Napoleon gave positive written assurance of his intention to secure the independence of Ireland. In the autumn of 1802 Robert had interviews with Napoleon and Talleyrand, and was strongly impressed with the insincerity of the former, believing that if he did interfere in the affairs of Ireland, it would be merely to advance his own designs. The impression left on his mind by these interviews was that Napoleon would probably invade England in August 1803.

He returned to Ireland in October 1802. The day before his departure from Paris, he dined in company with Lord Cloncurry and Surgeon Lawless. Lord Cloncurry afterwards related how Emmet spoke of his plans for a revolutionary movement in Ireland with a view to securing its independence "with extreme enthusiasm — his features glowed with excitement; the perspiration burst through the pores, and ran down his forehead." On arriving in Ireland, he at once took the lead in a plan for insurrection the following summer. He had about £3,000 in cash, his own fortune, and some £1,400 advanced by a Mr. Long. His father and mother were then residing at Casino, and he remained there in seclusion for some weeks. In preparation for future possibilities, he formed hiding places between the floors at Casino, as he afterwards did at the house near Harold's-cross bridge where he was arrested. His father's death, in December 1802, left him more at liberty to pursue his plans. In the course of the spring he established depots of arms in Dublin, at Irish-town, Patrick-street, and at Marshalsea­lane, where about forty men were engaged in manufacturing pikes, gunpowder, rockets, and explosive materials.

Emmet's arrangements included an attack on Dublin Castle and Pigeon-house Fort, and all the details of an elaborate system of street warfare were set down on paper. The better to conceal his plans, he, under the name of Ellis, took a farm-house in Butterfield-lane, near Rathfarnham. He was untiring in his exertions, corresponding with his friends in the surrounding districts, and superintending the depots, undismayed by failures or mischances — always firm, determined, and hopeful. His printed proclamations and plans of government were conceived in a lofty and generous spirit; life and property were to be respected, religious equality upheld, constituencies were to be represented in proportion to population, in the national government he contemplated. He had not intended his rising before August, when he expected Napoleon to invade England; but an explosion in Patrick-street depot on the 16th of July hastened the development of all his plans, and he took up his abode in the Marshalsea-lane depot. "There," says Dr. Madden, "he lay at night on a mattress, surrounded by all the implements of death, devising plans, turning over in his mind all the fearful chances of the intended struggle, well knowing that his life was at the mercy of upwards of forty individuals, who had been or still were employed in the depots; yet confident of success, exaggerating its prospects, extenuating the difficulties which beset him, judging of others by himself, thinking associates honest who seemed to be so, confiding in their promises, and animated, or rather inflamed, by a burning sense of the wrongs of his country, and enthusiastic in his devotion to what he considered its rightful cause."

He now fixed upon Saturday 23rd July for carrying his schemes into execution. The morning of that day found him and his companions divided in their plans. Consultations were held at the depot in Thomas-street, at Long's in Crow-street, and Allen's in College-green. The Wicklow men under Dwyer had not come in; the Kildare men came in, but dispersed at five in the afternoon through some misunderstanding; a contingent of 250 from Wexford were at hand, but without definite orders; so it was with a large body assembled at the Broadstone. "There is one grand point," remarked Emmet, "no leading Catholic is committed — we are all Protestants, and their cause will not be compromised." At length, about nine in the evening, when Emmet was confused, heart-sick, and desperate, a report was brought that the military were in motion against them. "If that be the case, we may as well die in the street as cooped up here," he remarked, and putting on a uniform, he distributed arms, sent up a rocket to call in the country contingents, and at the head of about one hundred men sallied out of Marshalsea-lane into Thomas-street, and directed his steps towards the Castle, crying, as he drew his sword, "Come on, my boys."

The stragglers in the rear soon perpetrated acts of pillage and assassination — Lord Kilwarden, a humane and popular judge (hastening to a Privy Council at the Castle), was dragged out of his coach and murdered. News of these proceedings reached Emmet, and he hastened back in horror; but the mob were beyond control, and conscious at last that all was over, he hastened out to Rathfarnham. There was some desultory fighting in Thomas-street and on the Coombe, where Colonel Browne and several soldiers were killed. In less than an hour the rout of Emmet's party was complete. Troops were now poured into Dublin, within a few hours martial-law was proclaimed, and the executions and the reign of terror that followed 1798 recommenced. Meanwhile his friend Russell had as completely failed in his efforts to rouse an insurrection in the north of Ireland. Emmet and a few companions remained at Butterfield-lane for nearly two days; and then, hearing that the house was to be searched, fled to the mountains. The father of their servant Anne Devlin procured horses, and accompanied them.

A few days afterwards, Anne Devlin went up to the mountains with letters, and found Emmet and his friends sitting outside a cabin still in their uniforms, as they had been unable to procure other clothes. In all probability he might have escaped to France, had he not insisted upon returning with Anne Devlin for the purpose of taking leave of Sarah Curran, daughter of John Philpot Curran, to whom he was engaged. He concealed himself at the house of a Mrs. Palmer, at Harold's-cross, and while there drew up a paper for transmission to Government, in the hope that it would stop the prosecutions and executions. His hiding-place was not discovered until 25th August, when he was arrested by Major Sirr, about seven o'clock in the evening. We are yet unacquainted with the name of his betrayer — to whom £1,000 was paid over on 1st November ensuing. Emmet was at once taken to the Castle, and thence removed to Kilmainham. Vigorous but ineffectual efforts were made to procure his escape.

His trial for high treason came on at Green-street on 19th September. It is stated that he had previously offered to plead guilty if the Government would return to him an intercepted letter to Sarah Curran. The proceedings occupied but one day. Burrowes, his leading counsel, has often related that whenever he attempted to disconcert any Government witness, Emmet would interpose with: "No, no; the man's speaking truth;" and when Burrowes was about to avail himself of the privilege of reply, at the close of the case for the Crown, Emmet whispered: "Pray do not attempt to defend me; it is all in vain." The jury brought in a verdict of guilty. Robert Emmet's speech before sentence has often been remarked upon as one of the most thrilling pieces of oratory delivered under like circumstances. He was repeatedly interrupted in its delivery by Lord Norbury, the presiding judge, who conducted the trial in a spirit of great harshness towards the prisoner. Dr. Madden says: "No published report gives any adequate idea of the effect its delivery produced on the minds of his auditors. Emmet pronounced the speech in so loud a voice as to be distinctly heard at the outer doors of the court-house; and yet, though he spoke in a loud voice, there was nothing boisterous in its delivery, or forced or affected in his manner; his accents and cadence of voice, on the contrary, were exquisitely modulated. His action was very remarkable; its greater or lesser vehemence corresponded with the rise and fall of his voice."

The trial closed at half-past ten o'clock at night, by a sentence of death, to be carried into effect next day. He was immediately heavily ironed, and placed in a cell in Newgate, hard by the court, and at mid-night was removed to Kilmainham. He spent part of the night in writing a long letter to his brother, explaining and justifying his conduct. (This letter was never delivered. Many years afterwards its contents reached Thomas Addis Emmet through the press.) His last hours were spent in religious exercises and conversation with his friends. He rejoiced on hearing of the death of his mother a few days previously, as he hoped the sooner to meet her in the other world. He declared his political principles to be unchanged. About noon he wrote a letter to Richard Curran respecting his love for his sister Sarah. He had already during the night written to the father, justifying his engagement with his daughter. About one o'clock he was conveyed under a strong guard to Thomas-street, where, at the corner of the pavement by St. Catherine's Church, a scaffold had been erected. He ascended the steps with firmness, and addressed the crowd in a sonorous voice: "My friends, I die in peace and with sentiments of universal love and kindness towards all men."

The halter was then placed round his neck, the plank on which he stood was tilted from beneath him, and after hanging a few minutes the head was severed from the body, and held up to the crowd. (This was 20th September 1803; he was aged 24.) His remains, first interred in Bully's-acre, near Kilmainham Hospital, are said to have been afterwards removed either to St. Michan's or to old Glasnevin churchyard. In his speech before sentence he had made the request: "Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dares now vindicate them, let not prejudice nor ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace: my memory be left in oblivion, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written." Robert Emmet is described as slight in person; his features were regular, his forehead high, his eyes bright and full of expression, his nose sharp, thin, and straight, the lower part of his face slightly pock-pitted, his complexion sallow. All with whom he came in contact were impressed with the sincerity of his convictions. The uniform in which he arrayed himself on the day of the rising (a green coat with white facings, white breeches, top-boots, and a cocked hat with feathers) has in Ireland become historical.

Emmet was the author of several pieces of poetry, which will be found in his memoir by Dr. Madden. Sarah Curran, cruelly disowned by her father for her attachment to Emmet, was kindly received into the family of Mr. Penrose, a member of the Society of Friends residing near Cork, and two years afterwards (24th November 1805) married Captain Sturgeon, nephew of the Marquis of Rockingham, and accompanied him to the Mediterranean. Before her return to the United Kingdom she gave birth to a child, whose early death hastened a decline that seized her. She died at Hythe in Kent, 5th May 1808. Her father is stated to have refused a last request that she might be buried with a favourite sister in the lawn of his residence, the Priory, Rathfarnham, and she was interred with her ancestors, at Newmarket, County of Cork.

Note from Addenda:

Emmet, Robert, was born 4th March 1778.[233]

Sources

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

331. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 4 vols. London, 1858-'60.

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