The United Irishmen were a group of Catholics and Protestants united for Irish independence who rose in 1798. The English put down the rising with extreme brutality instituting 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 the symbol of the union of Protestant Orange and Catholic Blue. In retaliation, one young man contacted leaders still at large and planned another rising. He entered an alliance with Napoleon’s minister Talleyrand and planned to rise in 1803. Promises of support from France, from other revolutionary societies and from men of high standing in Ireland, made the effort seemed more likely to succeed than the ill-fated attempt of five years earlier. Further, he now had a secret weapon that he felt would make the difference. Developed with help from his chemistry teacher, John Patten, it was an iron-clad rocket that delivered a bomb. Their chemical powder mix and a stabilizing shaft made it steadier than anything ever seen before. They built enough of them to provide a military advantage. The young man returned from France in 1802 to coordinate plans in Ireland. His name was Robert Emmet.
Born 4 March 1778, he was the 17th child of Dr. Robert and Elizabeth Emmet. He enrolled as a Chemistry student in Trinity College, but was expelled for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to King George III. His older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, was one of the ’98 leaders, jailed and exiled to America where he became New York State Attorney General and that’s another story. As for young Emmet, he was to organize military cooperation with the French when they landed. He confided in three surviving fighters of ’98 and was told that 19 counties stood ready to join him. One of those confidants, Bernard Duggan, was a castle spy who relayed the plans to the English. Receiving a report that Talleyrand was only using Ireland for his own political ends and there would be no French support, Emmet began to weigh his chances of success when the decision was made for him! On 16 July, an explosion in an apartment he was using as an arms depot destroyed most of his rocket stockpile. Convinced that his plans were near discovery and with assurances that if Dublin rose, the rest of Ireland would speedily follow. He moved the date of the rising up to 23 July, 217 years ago this month.
That day, as Emmet awaited his men to assemble, word reached him that soldiers were on their way to arrest him. Confident that the rest of Ireland would follow his lead, Emmet drew his sword and led a force of less than 100 dedicated men into the Saturday night streets of Dublin. Contradicting orders (authored by Duggan) 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 the alias of Mr. Drake, as arrangements were being made for his passage to France. Meanwhile, English Major Henry Sirr, arrested Emmet’s young housekeeper, Anne Devlin who was brutally tortured in Kilmainham Jail, but 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! 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 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 defend him, it was obvious that no man understood his motives. Therefore, he asked, until my country takes its place among the free nations of the world; let no man write my epitaph. On 20 September, the 25-year old patriot was taken to Thomas Street where he was hanged and then beheaded on a wooden block. No one claimed his remains out of fear of arrest, though years later it was learned that his body had been secretly taken to be buried near his mother’s family in Blennerville, County Kerry in a place now called Emmet Park. Many Irish took to wearing a leaf or a sprig of shamrock in their lapel or hat-band in defiance of the government’s ban on green to show support for Emmet’s cause. Poets wrote of him with passion despite such views being censored. One used an old Irish trick of using metaphors to refer to Ireland (Nell Flaherty) and to him by his alias. The verse became a popular song damning the murder of Nell Flaherty’s Drake. 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 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.
Emmet became an icon of resistance even 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.’ Later, when funds were needed to support Ireland’s War of Independence. Michael Collins set up the wooden block on which Emmet had been beheaded in front of Pearse’s School at St Enda’s to sell Dáil Éireann bonds. At the time, Joseph MacDonagh, brother of the executed Thomas, was filming in Pearse’s school for the film Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn. During a break, he also filmed Collins signing up leading republicans for the first issue of Dáil Éireann bonds, using the historic block as a symbolic table. The block thus became part of the first propaganda documentary film ever produced in Ireland.
An interesting addendum to this story is that the Brits seized the remaining rockets from Emmet’s apartment and sent them to Sir William Congreve, Comptroller of the Royal Arsenal. In 1805, his son claimed them as his own invention. It was those so called Congreve Rockets that produced the ‘rockets’ red glare’ in America’s national anthem when they were fired on Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Not only does the Bold Robert Emmet get no credit for developing the rocket, he is still waiting for his epitaph to be written!