Robert Emmet: Beliefs in the Arena
By: Joshua Allen MacVey
“You are now called upon to shew the world that you are competent to take your place among nations, that you have a right to claim their recognizance of you, as an independent country, by the only satisfactory proof you can furnish of your capability of maintaining your independence, your wresting it from England with your own hands!”1
Robert Emmet, young Irish idealist turned revolutionist. His goal, in essence, freedom – freedom for his beloved native country of Ireland, that she may break loose the century-old shackles England forced upon her, that she may finally voice her own opinions and represent the will of her people… that she may finally take her “place among nations”2. Robert Emmet’s goal was what we and countless others demanded in the past and continue to fight for in the present, what John Locke (one of Emmet’s main influences) called: “A state of perfect freedom to order our actions, and dispose of our possessions as we think fit, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man” As with countless others of the past and present, this compelling need for freedom drove Robert Emmet’s politics and life.
Ireland is neither the first nor the last country to have endured oppression from another country. History is a continuous repetition of imperial rises and falls. The Romanians and Mongolians once conquered weaker countries, forced their religion, and prosecuted those who, like the Irish, believed a “little more or less than the government standard,”3 which at the time bore equal importance as law. The pattern continued with the British Empire, whose trade acts and unfair representation forced the American Colonies to revolution. It was during this time that Robert Emmet’s story began.
Emmet was born in Ireland on the 4th of March in 1778 (O’Donnell, 3), a time when the American War of Independence took place overseas. This fact fueled discussion in Ireland, another colony of England at that time, as to the question of honor for not only the American Revolution, but for revolution in general. Ireland, thanks to England, had been socially separated between the Protestant and the Catholic, the upper and lower classes (Joyce). The Catholics, accounting for upwards of 85% of the country, were denied voting rights and representation in the Irish Parliament (formed on English terms). England had overwhelming political power and when coming to decisions regarding Ireland, it mostly, if not always, leaned in the direction of bettering the mother country. Meanwhile, the majority of Ireland remained impoverished through the 1600s far into the 1800s. The Emmet’s, a wealthy protestant family, sympathized with the unrepresented Catholics and admired the American Revolution. From the time he was born, Robert Emmet’s political views lay out before him.
It was in the mid 1790s that Robert’s older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, frequently held meetings in the Emmet household with leading members of the United Irish, an organization originally set out to attain universal suffrage and equal electoral districts. These members, specifically Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, turned to the prospects of revolution once they realized Parliament would never provide fair representation. They “applied… for the assistance of France, to enable them to assert their independence… this plan met with the warmest probation and support from both Russell and [Thomas Addis] Emmet” (O’Donnell, 27). Thomas Emmet embraced revolution from England and took part in leading the United Irish Organization.
Now a United Irish member in the Emmet household, it was only natural that Thomas’s revolutionary politics influenced his younger brother. Upon enrolling in Dublin’s Trinity College and becoming secretary of the school’s first secret United Irish Committee (Geoghegan, 70), Robert Emmet joined the debating club, where his views towards revolution were made apparent. At one debate, he posed the question:
“When a people advancing rapidly in civilization and knowledge of their right look back after a long lapse of years and perceive how far their government has lagged behind them, what then, I ask, is to be done by them in such a case?”4
Emmet answered his own question with the line: “What but pull the government up to the people?”5 Had he not been censored, he definitely would have deemed revolution necessary.
Revolution is, by no means, an idea of the past. It is ever-present! Through this last half-century we have witnessed the Carnation Revolution of 1974, and the South African Revolution taking place in the late 1950’s-90s’, both issuing the fall of their corrupt governments and the institution of Democratic-Republican, free thinking principles. The South African Revolution began when the local government enacted Apartheid (segregation) laws and denationalized over nine million Africans, all of whom were not allowed political rights (Chokski). Nelson Mandela, an African Activist at the time, was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of collaborating to overthrow the government. While in prison, Mandela communicated from the outside to keep the revolutionary spirit high and the Afrikaner government was eventually overthrown. He was freed in 1990 and three years later elected President, abolishing segregation and ensuring equal civil and economic rights for the people. The Carnation Revolution occurred amidst this all, when officers in the armed forces, inspired by the pro-independent fighters in South Africa, decided to overthrow their own fascist regime.
The Carnation and South African Revolutions parallel Emmet’s rising. Had his strategy gone as planned, Emmet, like the Carnations and Mandela, would have attained his goals of prohibiting censorship, declaring free speech a right, giving independence to any foreign colonies in possession, and ensuring equality and representation for all native citizens. Although these revolutions differ in specifics, they have in common the fight for rights their oppressive government failed to ensure, the same fight that Robert Emmet and the Irish faced from centuries of English rule, the same that we and others will continue to face in the future.
In another speech, Emmett proposed that,
“If a government were vicious enough to put down the freedom of discussion, it would be the duty of the people to deliberate on the errors of their rulers, to consider well the wrongs they inflicted, and what the right course would be for their subjects to take, and having done so, it would then be their duty to draw practical conclusions.”6
Through clever censorship of his own words, Emmet underscored the position that the English/Irish Parliament took towards the Irish People in denying Catholics representation. He believed it was not only the duty of the United Irish, but of all countrymen whose government has forsaken them to “deliberate, consider, and draw practical conclusions” for betterment.
“Practical conclusions,” in Emmet’s case, meant rebellion, a term often associated with radicalism. To call Emmet a radical, however, would not do justice to the man. He believed in his cause, and believed in fighting for it. He would not have insisted in rebel action if he and his United Irish had been given another choice. For years they had unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament for equality, and for years their petitions went unanswered. Both Thomas and Robert had embraced the fact that peaceful protest had failed.
Not all problems dealing with social inequality require military mutiny, and not all revolutions require physical combat. We have undergone and continue to undergo domestic revolutions within the United States. Since the formation of our country, African Americans have undergone social injustice and segregation. From the days of the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Movement of 1950s and 60s to the election of an African American President, we still turn on the television with news indirectly relating to racial inequality and stereotypes of the “inferior race”.
From personal experience, I have seen that inner city schools with high concentrations of African American’s have in many cases overfilled classrooms, obsolete facilities, and insufficient funds to hire qualified teachers. I have seen the ghettos where streets are unkempt and lined with demolished homes and signs reading “foreclosed”. I have seen all of this, and I know that although it may appear hopeless, revolution is occurring. It has improved. People are still fighting for rights, and though they may be peaceful, they, like Robert Emmet, would readily die for their rights should the government have the audacity to take them away.
At the time of Thomas Emmet’s arrest in March 1798, plans for the rebellion had already taken place, but not before Robert wrote an unsigned address to the United Irish that “urged restraint in the face of the illegal and unconstitutional measures employed to force them into insurrection when members of the most corrupt and infamous Administration are earnestly hoping, and anxiously watching, for the first appearance of Rebellion” (O’Donnell, 58). He had fled Trinity when they declared the intent to investigate all students.
It is unclear upon Emmet’s direct involvement in the Rebellion of 1798, but it is certain it did not happen the way he wanted. He preached patience. He believed French assistance was needed to win, but after the original leadership had been arrested, policy changed and it was decided to act before the French were ready. After months of struggle, the United Irish (now rebels) were, for the most part, defeated. French assistance came, but too late, and all was nearly lost.
As the rebellion came to a close, Emmet fled the country for France. Three years later, he came back with the promise of French assistance should he mount a successful United Irish coup. After just under two years of strategizing and calling arms, Emmet entered into what was named “the Rising of 1803”. It depended on all counties of Ireland to rise at once, signaled with the fall of Dublin. Unfortunately, Emmet was forced to move before he was ready due to an explosion in one of his arms depots that had aroused government suspicion. The people were not ready, and consequently Dublin did not fall. The rising on July 23, 1803 failed. Emmet fled the city and went into hiding. Two months later he was arrested and charged with high treason.
Even with the numbers of the United Irish greatly reduced, Emmet’s return to Ireland and his determination for independence showed that liberties worth fighting for are not to be abandoned. We, the Females and Males, the Feminists and Marxists, the Ethnicities and Religions of the world…humanity… we all carry on through hard times to push toward our goal of equality.
John Locke once wrote, “…creatures of the same species and rank [humans], should be equal amongst another, without subordination or subjection.” To me, it is not the differences between us that matter. It is the understanding that we must extend towards one another. We constantly struggle to uphold this philosophy not just within our government, but within ourselves. As we face modern war, economic crisis, world poverty, and oppression, we try to work towards equality and the right of opportunity for all.
Robert Emmet has set the bar for us. A Protestant and true altruist fighting for the rights of Catholics…his countrymen…his equals, he believed in this philosophy and could not have better upheld it’s meaning. Even in the face of sure death, he saved the lives of countless of his brethren.
Wishing to stop unneeded bloodshed, Emmet “prohibited his lawyers from making any arguments or calling any witnesses” (Geoghegan, 239). He knew if any were called, they would be sought out and prosecuted after his death. After twelve grueling hours of trial, Emmet was found guilty of high treason, sentenced to be hanged in the gallows on Thomas Street, and given a last chance to speak. On the dock of the courthouse, he delivered one of the most moving speeches in history. Underscoring the atrocities committed against the Irish by England one last time, he spoke:
“While the destruction of that [English] government which upholds its dominion by impiety against the most high, which displays its powers over [Irish] man as over the beasts of the field, which sets man upon his brother, and lifts his hands in religion’s name against the throat of his fellow who believes little more or less than the government standard, which reigns amidst the cries of the orphans and of the widows it has made… If there be a true Irishman present, let my last words cheer him in the hour of his affliction.”7
Feeling the heat, the presiding judge interrupted him several times and Robert Emmet ended his great speech with some of the most memorable lines in Irish history:
“I have not been allowed to vindicate my character. I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world: it is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare to vindicate them, let not prejudice or 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. I have done.”8
At 25, just before execution, Robert Emmet uttered his last words:
“My friends, I die in peace and with sentiments of universal love and kindness towards all men.”9
Where Emmet failed to “vindicate his character” in the courtroom of his trial, his legacy has triumphed. Through action, Emmet pronounced his belief in a free world, a world without imperial rule, where countries must act for the benefit of their people. He believed in a world where a man can embrace his countrymen as brothers, ready to stand for noble causes. He fought and died for his cause. In the final words of his “The Provisional Government to the People of Ireland” he stated,
“Countrymen if a cruel necessity forces us to retaliate, we will bury our resentments in the field of battle, if we fall, we will fall where we fight for our country – Fully impressed with this determination, of the necessity of adhering to which past principle has but too fatally convinced us; fully impressed with the justice of our cause which we now put to issue. We make our last and solemn appeal to the sword and to Heaven; and as the cause of Ireland deserves to prosper, may God give it victory.”10
Robert Emmet gave his life for the right of freedom for not just his country, but the world, in hopes that one day the victims of oppression would stand up and seek equality. Theodore Roosevelt wrote,
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”11
Robert Emmet was that man in the arena. He failed, but not before his beliefs took root in the world, the same beliefs we would die for today.
Chokski, Monal, Cale Carter, Deepak Gupta, Tove Martin et al. “The History of Apartheid in
South Africa.” Computers and Apartheid. Apr. 1995. www.vivisimo.com. 13 Apr. 2009
<http://www-cs-students. stanford.edu/~cale/cs201/ index.html>.
Geoghegan, Patrick M. Robert Emmet: A Life. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2002.
Joyce, Patrick W. A Concise History of Ireland. 17th ed. Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son, 1910.
Locke, John. The Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration. Binghampton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press, 2003.
O’Donnell, Ruan. Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003.
O’Donnell, Ruan. Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003
Roosevelt, Theodore. Citizenship In A Republic: The Man in the Arena. University of Paris,
Sorbonne. 23 April 1910.