The Emmets of Our Time
by Jessica LeBresh, 2012 RES Scholarship Winner
The Irish have a reputation of intense pride, and rightly so. Robert Emmet embodies the characteristics the Irish hold on to fiercely. He had all the attributes a man might hope to possess in near perfect proportions: noble intentions, an incredibly sharp mind, a pure heart, steadfast determination, and an articulation of eloquence. Robert Emmet was born to a wealthy family in 1778, where is father taught him to value equality and patriotism. His sacrifice was not required of him by anything other than his own conscience. Emmet proves there is goodness and courage in the world to rival the greedy thirst for power. We desperately need this encouragement; that is the reason he is still relevant today.
Robert Emmet valued morals and honor before wealth, power, and his own life. This is evident throughout his trial, and certainly in his statement, “Let no man dare, when I am dead, to charge me with dishonour ; let no man attain my memory by believing that I could have engaged in any cause but of my country’s liberty and independence” (Geoghegan 13).
Few are willing to relinquish their lives for the sake of others. Emmet’s morals were so strong he was prepared to sacrifice life itself for the benefit of mankind. He stated his sacrifices and demands in his final speech so eloquently that more than two hundred years later his words still touch our hearts:
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 its channels, and in a short time it will cry to heaven. Be yet patient! I have but a few words to say: my ministry is now ended. I am going to my cold and silent grave; my lamp of life is nearly extinguished. I have parted with everything that was dear to me in this life for my country’s cause, and abandoned another idol I adored in my heart, the object of my affections. My race is run. The grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom. I am ready to die. 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 silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for no man who knows my motives dares now 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 [sic], 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 until then, let my epitaph be written. I have done. (Geoghegan 15)
Emmet’s sacrifice is made even more admirable because he was not among the persecuted. He fought, and gave his life, for a group to whom he did not belong: the Irish Catholics. Life for a Catholic Irishman in these times was harsh at best. During this era a Lord Chief Justice declared “an Irish Roman Catholic had no existence in the eyes of the state, and the Irish were subjected in their own country to a set of laws which we should compare today to the anti-Jewish laws of Hitler” (Ussher 16). The rift between adherents of the two religions increased with time, and in 1727, Protestants denied Catholics the right to vote and excluded them from all public office (Howell). Though the treatment was shameful towards Catholics, Robert Emmet could easily have ignored this fact like many had. He could have led his life happily as a wealthy Protestant lawyer (he was certainly going to be among the best) and likely married to the “idol [he] adored in his heart” (Geoghegan 15). He was not mistreated, yet he still resisted the oppressors to see justice among all.
Even in his last hours, Emmet showed a sense of character that few are able to lay claim to. He did not sleep the night prior to his scheduled execution, but rather remained awake to write his final words to those he held dear. As the carriage that was to take him to his death waited outside, he asked that one final request be granted, and that was to write his last letter, addressed to William Wickham (initially Britain’s spymaster). Even Wickham regarded himself as “the principle means of bringing the writer to the fate which at that moment awaited him” (Geoghegan 261). The letter contained the words of a gracious man, not the sentiments of an irrational, conquered adversary. Emmet’s words put doubt in Wickham’s heart in regards to his political career, and ultimately led to his hastened retirement (O’Donnell 125).
After a failed rebellion against the oppressive Protestant government, Robert Emmet was hanged on September 20, 1803. Because of his confident bravery a reluctant reporter admitted: “Even as it was, I never saw a man die like him; and God forbid I should see many with his principles” (Geoghegan 264).
Robert Emmet has inspired me to consider a slightly more modern testament to the martyrdom for liberty; Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Similarities occurred between injustices in Ireland and those later in Germany. In 1945, Bonhoeffer gave his life, as Emmet did, for his fellow humans. As Emmet violently protested Protestant discrimination of Catholics, Bonhoeffer protested against Nazi German discrimination against Jews (Bonhoeffer). Both men were not members of the unfortunate groups, but both empathized for their fellow humans, and could not sit idly by while innocent people were being tortured. Ideally, one day we will no longer witness atrocities toward humanity. But if we do, there might be those who follow in Emmet’s footsteps, providing us with the hope necessary to persevere. Emmet was brave, virtuous, passionate, righteous, and determined. In all honesty, it has been a struggle to find mere mortals of our current time who match Emmet’s level of heroism.
I had initially attempted to depict the similarities between Emmet and the Occupy movement, but I found no comparative passion in political activism to measure up to Emmet’s. I have, however, come to see the similarities between Emmet’s values and those of the UN peacekeepers. Most developed nations today, like the US and many of the nations of Europe, have established peace in their countries. But these countries’ citizens are not blind to the terror outside their nation’s borders. They are aware that crimes against humanity are being committed in areas like Africa and the middle east. Though we do at times infringe upon the sovereignty of corruption-laden governments, this is an insignificant price to pay for the protection of innocent people.
UN peacekeepers strive to end conflicts and safeguard citizens. Like the Irish Catholics of Emmet’s time there are citizens today who are punished merely for existing by corrupt governments. Like Emmet, UN peacekeepers cannot allow injustice to continue without opposition. Similar to Emmet, the peacekeepers themselves could easily live lives of comfort, yet they fight crimes against humanity.
It seems counter intuitive that peacekeepers could be presented in the form of military force. But as Robert Emmet saw, there needs to be recognition among the oppressors that the oppressed are supported, and a lethally supported at that. The Millennium Report states: “The best peacekeeper is a well-trained, disciplined and well-equipped soldier.” They are also no strangers to sacrifice. Recent statistics show 1,648 peacekeepers died while serving in missions up to 14 July 2000 (Peacekeeping).
These courageous people share with Emmet the basic moral principle that if harm comes to humanity, it must be stopped at all cost. While the UN utilizes peaceful negotiations as often as possible, Emmet led a rebellion to change what needed changing, which likely was the only way to make an impact. I think that if Robert Emmet were alive today his rhetoric would be effective in UN negotiations.
While the values of great people like Emmet are kept alive by those who share them in our modern world, they are not common enough. Sadly, it appears these values are diminishing with the ages. If more citizens of the world possessed morals that matched Emmet’s, the acts of those legendary few like him would not warrant the praise they receive. It is an indication of our human imperfection that those who possess upstanding values are idolized.
Corruption that strives to end equality can be so overwhelming that most refuse to recognize it, or our sense of hope in humanity is overrun by weakness. We are faced with the same choice: to willingly ignore the wrong in our world, or commit ourselves fully to the quest for equality. I intend to belong to the latter group. I hope to one day hold a position as an international lawyer for the UN, a title with which I would use to fight for human rights.
We must focus on the positive, and the possibility of virtuous people fulfilling their potential. There are those now who uphold the moral codes of humanity. Robert Emmet was able to look back on his life and be proud that he had held true to the patriotic and moral principles his father instilled in him. I am thankful to know what he did for his countrymen, and thankful his epitaph was written by those who did his character justice, as he had requested.
Hopefully, when reminiscing about my life I can feel at least a sliver of the pride and honor I’m sure Emmet felt. I hope people like him continue inspiring future generations to realize that values are what make life worth living.