by Dane Schmidt April 11, 2010
“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 now vindicate them. Let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, 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.”
Here lies Robert Emmet, born 1778 died 1803(Geoghegan). He lives on as a monument in the hearts and minds of free men and women lucky enough to know his story, and in the bosom of the oppressed and enslaved as a seed of hope.
Elizabeth Emmet was 43 when she gave birth to her 17th and final child, Robert Emmet(Geoghegan).Elizabeth and her husband, Robert, were hopeful that the fifth time was the charm, and that this tiny soul would live and prosper, where the other four babies to bear the name Robert Emmet died. This child was born to wealth in the upper class, and a seemingly certain future. This prosperous financial upbringing was thanks to his father, Dr. Robert Emmet. Amongst the luxuries of the upper class was the privilege of an education, of which Robert received the best. He entered Samuel Whyte’s English and grammar school, Whyte was considered an exceptional educator (Geoghegan). The annual exam at Whyte’s institution consisted of a play at a nearby theater; which gave Robert his first taste of public speaking. Rhetoric, a skill that was highly prized at the time, was a subject at which he excelled. Robert left Whyte’s academy having learned that, “A just delivery consists in a distinct articulation of words, pronounced in proper tones… and the whole accomplished with expressive looks and significant gestures.”(Geoghegan) The young Robert Emmet shared more than just a name with his successful father; he shared his father’s magnanimous personality, and his deeply patriotic beliefs. Those beliefs, mixed with young Robert’s developing skills as an orator, helped mold the young man into an incredibly persuasive speaker with profound political values. Another individual who had a great influence on Emmet was Sarah Curran.
“You could not see Miss Curran and not help liking her…her look was the mildest, and the softest, and the sweetest look you ever saw.”
-Emmet’s housekeeper, Ann Devlin
It has been said that Sarah Curran’s life story is one of love, death, pain, and regret (Geoghegan). Sarah was born in 1782 as the seventh child to the successful lawyer John Curran and his wife, Sarah Curran. John Curran’s favorite daughter, Gertrude, was a musical prodigy. Gertrude fell to her death from a window when she was 12 years old. Mr. Curran was unable to recover from this tremendous loss. Two years after this incident he discovered his wife was not being faithful to him, and a very messy divorce soon followed. John developed a detached and depressed view of his life. Sarah Curran called on her deep faith and her lighthearted sense of humor to deal with these tragic events that had unfolded. The special character she had developed soon drew the eye of Robert Emmet. Sarah’s brother Richard attended Trinity College with Emmet; it was through Sarah’s brother that Robert Emmet met Sarah (Geoghegan).
Robert’s love for Sarah was not with a “wild or unfounded passion” but rather “an attachment increasing every hour, from an admiration of the purity of her mind, and respect for her talents” (Geoghegan). Theirs was a romance that slowly turned from friendship to love, and by the time they realized what was happening, “it was too late to retreat”. Once in a love letter, Sarah jested “I long to know how your wife and ten small children are.” Robert Emmet’s relationship with Sarah Curran was significant, but in the end was just another facet of the growing emerald in his heart; Ireland.
The political climate of Ireland at the time was that of poverty and social stratification. The rulers ruled and the workers worked, it was nearly impossible for Irish citizens to escape the social class into which they were born (Tunney). The two main religions were Catholicism and Protestantism. Under English rule, the Protestants, who made up about 20% of the country, were the upper class (Joyce). Conversely, the Catholics comprised the majority and were considered the lower, impoverished social class.
The United Irishmen were a group of political idealists and reformists who saw England’s dominion over Ireland as unjust and intolerable. The United Irishmen had very different ideals, visions, and political values regarding the Emerald Isle. Their Original Declaration stated,
“FIRST RESOLVED — That the weight of English influence on the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce.
SECOND — That the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament.
THIRD — That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.”(unitedirishmen.org)
Upon examining the United Irishmen’s reaction to the political climate, it becomes clear that reform was inevitable. One interesting and noteworthy occurrence is the rich and poor; Catholics and Protestants, standing side by side under one noble purpose; the freedom of Ireland from the English oppressors, freedom for not only themselves, but their fellow Irish brothers and sisters, regardless of specific denomination or class. Robert Emmet was a devoted member of the United Irishmen. His first exposure to the faction was in his father’s house where meetings would regularly take place, his brother Thomas Addis Emmet was a very active member. This fact, combined with the patriotic views of his father, helped to sculpt Emmet into the revolutionist he would soon become.
Naturally, England was opposed to these radical and dangerous ideas, so opposed in fact that they were seeking out the members of the Society of United Irishmen to silence them (Tunney). At the time Emmet was enrolled in Trinity College. After authorities questioned his involvement in the United Irishmen, Robert withdrew from the college (Tunney). This decision had many repercussions, the most significant being that he would no longer be pursuing any sort of professional career.
In a brief reflection, what we have thus far is: Robert Emmet growing up in a wealthy Protestant home with a father who is deeply patriotic and wants the best for Ireland’s people. Robert enrolls in the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin. Robert Emmet meets Sarah Curran and they start an intense friendship that blossoms into love. Emmet takes the first step down his honorable path and withdraws from Trinity, leaving behind his professional career opportunities. At this point the political views of Robert Emmet were freedom and equality for all of Ireland’s people. Freedom and equality are the bread and butter of a democracy. Taking a look at modern day America versus America a mere fifty years ago, we see a huge amount of progress in freedoms and equality between people of different ethnicities and religious beliefs. Like any good forward-thinking democracy, America continues to challenge itself, always becoming more accepting of equal rights and freedom for everyone. In addition to equality and freedom, Emmet desired an abolishment of the hierarchal ways of the English, and to implement a democracy, the ideal end result being that through hard work and dedication, a person can make more of themselves then the social class they were born into.
Emmet’s values and ideals still ring true, 210 years later, in America. An important part of our American culture is the confidence that raising your social status is acceptable and encouraged. American society embraces the idea of an underdog achieving the impossible. The phrase “chasing the American dream” comes to mind. Modern examples of America’s passion for “rags to riches” can be found on T.V. quite easily. Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Deal or No Deal both promise the contestant a chance to walk away with money. It’s tough to imagine going through life with seemingly no chance of bettering yourself in any way, but that’s what being born Catholic meant in Ireland 210 years ago.
The second clause of the Declaration of the United Irishmen stated “radical reform” as the only way the English influence could be opposed. This reform was to be attempted by an overthrow of government. It was Robert Emmet’s plan to lead the United Irishmen to victory against English rule. His goals for this effort were clearly stated in this proclamation:
“…we war not against property–we are against no religious sect–we war not against past opinions or prejudice–we war against English dominion.” (RobertEmmet.org)
The plan was to bring 3,000 men into Dublin, seize strategic points overnight, then the counties would rise and eventually the French would land (Tunney). Emmet had accumulated quite an impressive arms reserve. He had various stockpiles of weaponry including things like folding pikes, exploding beams, and some of the first forms of rockets (Tunney). However, it was the volatility of these explosives that was the United Irishmen’s undoing. There was an explosion at one of the arms depots; this was the trigger that prematurely detonated an ultimately failed insurrection. Emmet’s element of surprise was lost. English authorities had seized pamphlets Emmet was planning on using to help rally support across the countryside (Neville). In this compromised state of affairs Emmet chose to initiate the revolt a week ahead of schedule. It was a complete disaster; the effort fell into complete and utter confusion and disorganization.
The struggle is over, the boys are defeated,
Old Ireland’s surrounded with sadness and gloom,
We were defeated and shamefully treated,
And I, Robert Emmet, awaiting my doom.
Hung, drawn and quartered, sure that was my sentence,
But soon I will show them no coward am I.
My crime is the love of the land I was born in,
A hero I lived and a hero I’ll die.
Robert Emmet was arrested on the 25th of August 1803 and executed on the 20th of September of the same year (O’Donnell). The valiancy Emmet showed during these events was truly remarkable. Despite the fact that authorities had found letters in his coat, Robert refused to disclose the name of his lover Sarah Curran, saying that he would rather give up his own life than injure another person (RobertEmmet.org). He managed to successfully keep her name out of the proceedings, taking full responsibility for the uprising. Emmet was on trial for 12 consecutive hours. During his trial he gave his famous speech from the dock. The following excerpts bring to light two points he was careful to make:
“I have much to say why my reputation should be rescued from the load of false accusation and calumny which has been heaped upon it.”(RobertEmmet.org)
“…My lords, you are impatient for the sacrifice-the blood which you seek is not congealed by the artificial terrors which surround your victim; it circulates warmly and unruffled, through the channels which God created for noble purposes. but which you are bent to destroy. for purposes so grievous. that they cry to heaven.” (RobertEmmet.org)
Emmet knew from the trial that the English were trying to kill the memory and the purity of his intentions. The second quote exemplifies the true fearlessness of the man, at this point we can see that he had made peace with his fate.
The Braque lay at anchor awaiting to bring me
Over the billows to the land of the free;
But I must see my sweetheart, for I know she will cheer me,
And with her I will sail far over the sea.
But I was arrested and cast into prison,
Tried as a traitor, a rebel, a spy;
But no man can call me a knave or a coward,
A hero I lived and a hero I’ll die.
After trial when he was taken to his cell, Emmet requested that the militia men guarding him be issued the refreshment of food and drink. One man recalled: “many, many of our men’s eyes let fall the briny tear while silently toasting his health, and then breathing a prayer for the future repose of his soul” (O’Donnell). While in the cell awaiting death Emmet drew himself, dead, with his head severed from this body.
When his hour finally came, it was time to make way to the scaffold. It was there that he made a simple, and what I find most tremendous, action of helping the executioner properly adjust the noose around his own neck. His last words: “my friends, I die in peace, and with sentiments of universal love and kindness toward all men.” (O’Donnell) After Robert Emmet had died, the executioner cut off his head and shouted “This is the head of a traitor, Robert Emmet!”(O’Donnell).
Hark! I the bell’s tolling, I well know its meaning,
My poor heart tells me it is my death knell;
In come the clergy, the warder is leading,
I have no friends here to bid me farewell.
Goodbye, old Ireland, my parents and sweetheart,
Companions in arms to forget you must try;
I am proud of the honor, ‘twas only my duty
A hero I lived and a hero I’ll die.
Robert Emmet’s resonating political values are two-fold. They can be broken down into the most basic elements of freedom, and passionately fighting for what you believe in. Emmet believed in these values so vehemently that he was willing to die for them. Emmet could have completed Trinity, settled down with Sarah Curran, and had an upper-class Protestant family. Such an attractive lifestyle would distract many men, but not Robert Emmet; he believed too passionately in fighting for the freedom of his countrymen.
I thought about how Emmet’s values would relate to modern time for many days. Each connection I made seemed less relevant than the last. Then, it finally hit me. I work in Gaylord, taking care of the downtown courthouse building, when I’m not in Petoskey at school. When I came in to work at 6:30 one morning I saw a work-request paper hanging on the door to the maintenance room. The document was a reminder to lower the flag in honor of a fallen Michigan solider. This was it. The pieces suddenly fit together for me; I immediately went outside into the crisp March morning and silently lowered the American flag. I had done this action many times before; never had the full magnitude of the symbolism struck me as it did that cold morning. Army Staff Sergeant Richard Jordan died March 16, 2010 during Operation Iraqi Freedom (militarytimes.com).
Like Robert Emmet, Sergeant Jordan died fighting for a cause that was bigger than himself. Nobility, valor, courage, and virtue all come to mind when remembering their sacrifices. America and Ireland are both bright, free-thinking countries, and both achieved brilliant victories by adhering to a simple rule: fight for what you believe in.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
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.
militarytimes.com retrieved March 15th, 2010 from
Neville, Peter. A Traveler’s History of Ireland. Second Edition, 1995, Interlink Books: New York
O’Donnell, Ruan. Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803. University of Limerick.
Dublin: Irish Academic Press (2003)
RobertEmmet.org retrieved March 15th, 2010 from http://www.robertemmet.org/default.htm
Tunney, John. Life and Legacy of Robert Emmet: A Lecture By John Tunney. Videocassette, North
Central Michigan College + The Robert Emmet Society (2003)
unitedirishmen.org retrieved March 15th, 2010 from http://www.unitedirishmen.org/