Note: The opinions expressed by the Robert Emmet Society Winning Scholar do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Society, it’s board or members.
The Salt of Liberty
“The man dies, but his memory lives.”
–Robert Emmet (Speech from the dock, 1803)
Every day an American hero is killed in Afghanistan. Though I had heard their names on the news, I never really understood the full gravity until that soldier was Jack. United States Army Private Jack Diener was more than just a brave fighter; he was a best friend, big brother, and beloved son. In just twenty years, his high morals and determination set him apart from anyone I have ever met. Up until his body was returned home in a somber hearse, no one had been able to grasp the reality that he was gone. More than five miles of people holding American flags lined the streets to silently mourn and welcome our hometown hero. Following his ceremony, we received bracelets inscribed with the phrase ‘Gone But Never Forgotten’. Recently, I discovered the truth behind these words on his old facebook wall. It has been two years, but his mother, friends and even strangers write to him regularly with confidence that he can still see every word. His birthday and holidays are especially painful, but every day since his death, he has been remembered. With each recollection they have shared, it is made evident that he imparted many precious memories to those he left behind. However, he is no longer capable of making these memories, enjoying the rest of his life, or even giving his mother a kiss to ease her pain. Jack gave his last breath to guarantee us such privileges today. He is the price we pay for liberty.
Ronald Reagan once admonished, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” (Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, 1961) Countless men and women have died for the right to claim independence. The idea of
remembering all their names is unfathomable, but there are some who have made their names known; some who have not only died for their country’s liberty, but lived for it. Irish patriot Robert Emmet was one of these men.
Around the world, Ireland is known for a giddy holiday that encourages people to adorn hues of green and share ancient folklore. On Saint Patrick’s Day, the cheerful laughter of many Irishmen can be heard whilst dancing a jig on the air; but Ireland hasn’t always been this way. Two centuries ago, Commander Robert Emmet wore his emerald uniform on the battlefield of a bloody revolution. Though four of his predeceased siblings had been named Robert Emmet, he was the only one to survive the ravishment of smallpox. Growing up, his father’s wealth and Protestant faith allowed him to experience the privileged side of society. However, his family ensured that he was never ignorant of the political injustices in his homeland. During schooling at Whyte’s Academy, he developed a hunger for knowledge which he used to pursue dreams of becoming a successful lawyer. Further studies at Trinity College led to the kindling of his patriotic fervor as well as his only romance with Sarah Curran. Although he later told his brother he had hoped “to have had her [Sarah] my companion for life,” destiny would not permit that pursuit (Geoghegan, pg. 25).
Few Irishmen were born into such social opportunity. During Emmet’s time, Catholics were denied the basic rights to land ownership and jobs, making their ambitions very difficult to attain. This was the consequence of an oppressive government which believed ‘rulers ruled and workers worked’ (Tunney Lecture). Injustices such as these and other discrepancies between loyalists and liberals ensued. Soon, a group of political reformers called the United Irishmen decided to take matters into their own hands.
Discrimination similar to that of Catholics during the late 1700s exists in every society. In Saudi Arabia, women are brought up to believe that they are inferior to men; they cannot vote, buy or sell property, play sports, or even drive a car. Furthermore, Pope Francis I of Argentina has labeled same sex marriage a “destructive pretension against the plan of God” (Crocker, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles). Although America is not perfect, I am proud to live in a country where prejudice is limited and not encouraged. We are raised to accept the Jeffersonian ideal that “all men are created equal [politically]”. In the past year alone, women were sanctioned in combat and nine states legalized gay marriage.
“There can be no peace between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, between justice and oppression, between freedom and tyranny.”-Patrick Pearse (Emmet Commemoration Speech, 1914)
By 1798, Ireland had lived in fear too long under Britain’s tyrannical rule. Government imposed tensions had finally reached their breaking point. After the English government discovered United Irishmen’s plans to gain French militia assistance, they took steps to ensure that this would never happen. It began with a strict ban on the United Irish Society, then moved into the homes of civilians when a set of invasive decrees, known as the Insurrection Acts, were passed.
Around this time, Emmet decided to take a stand and joined United Irishmen in their fight for justice. He watched as a system of terror was rapidly unleashed on his beloved country. On a daily basis, citizens were arrested, flogged, and tortured while their homes were transformed into burnt rubble. It wasn’t long before authorities turned their interest on students attending Trinity College. One by one each student was thoroughly questioned and, without hesitation, Emmet
removed his name from college enrollment. Suddenly, all dreams of becoming a lawyer were replaced by a new ambition: Ireland’s liberation.
Much like the English government of Emmet’s time, terrorists today seek to rule by fear. On September 11, 2001, millions of Americans watched in horror as parts of the pentagon in Washington and twin towers of New York City, collapsed into charred piles of ash. Al Qaeda terrorists had deliberately crashed two planes into the buildings, claiming over three thousand innocent lives. It is hard to understand the motives behind such an atrocity, but Americans wanted to know why our nation had been attacked. In the terrorist’s inhuman eyes, America had become too culturally dominant around the world and had to be overpowered. What they didn’t understand, is that it’s in the people that our nation finds its strength; not our government. Instead of intimidating Americans, they lit a fire in our hearts. Their violence parallels that of the English government through its effect; for most citizens, it was the catalyst that turned them into revolutionaries.
“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” -Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)
The inevitable revolt led by United Irishmen broke out in 1798. Unfortunately, both leaders of the insurrection were quickly captured, leaving many unarmed rebels to face the trained cavalry alone. A bloodied trail was streaked through Dublin as insurgents were brutally massacred and then callously thrown into a waste pit dubbed ‘Croppy’s Acre’. Emmet later wrote a poem called ‘Arbour Hill’ in tribute of those lost.
No rising column marks the spot
Where many a victim lies;
But Oh! the blood which here has streamed
To Heaven for justice cries.
It claims it on the oppressor’s head
Who joys in human woe,
Who drinks the tears by misery shed
And mocks them as they flow. (Geoghegan, pg. 286)
Syrians currently endure similar carnage every day during a widespread civil war. After protesters demanded that President Bashar Al-Assad step down, he instructed soldiers to open fire on all demonstrators; they had no choice but to take up arms and fight back. Without a leader, however, they don’t stand much of a chance against the organized Syrian Military. Over fifty thousand people have been killed in this struggle. Many still suffer physical and psychological torture in Syrian prisons (Morello, http://articles.washingtonpost.com). Both the Syrian and English government abused their citizens’ rights and then slaughtered anyone who defied their tyrannical rule. The only way to prevail against an organized army is to become one. Emmet knew this, and that’s precisely what he set out to create.
When the rising of 1798 had ended, Emmet began his mission in France. After a lengthy negotiation, he convinced Napoleon Bonaparte to sign a memorial supplementing the United Irishmen with French troops, some 25,000 men strong (O’Bradaigh, pg. 150). He then went on to enhance his plans with the help of an American inventor named Robert Fulton. Fulton taught him a great deal about naval weaponry with an emphasis on rocket building. With this newfound knowledge, Emmet returned to Ireland and initiated a mass production of weapons. Rockets,
grenades, and cartridges were made and carefully stashed in hidden compartments. Success was his lodestar, but everything changed the day that disaster struck on Patrick Street.
Emmet’s rocket testing experiments had gone terribly wrong after sparks from a fuse length met loose gun powder. The resulting explosion was strong enough to blow a hole straight through the roof. Amidst the asphyxiating gas, workers still managed to remove all evidence of the weapons they had manufactured. Although authorities found no indication of a crime, red flags had been raised and Emmet was forced to make an imperative decision. To maintain the element of surprise, Emmet rescheduled the Rebellion for July 23rd of 1803; sadly, it was an alteration that many rebels were never aware of.
On the eve of the revolt, Emmet wrote “If my hopes are without foundation-if a precipice is opening under my feet from which duty will not suffer me to run back, I am grateful for that sanguine disposition which leads me to the brink and throws me down, while my eyes are still raised to the visions of happiness that my fancy formed in the air.”(O’Donnell, pg. 55)
At eight o’clock, the doomed rebellion began. Wearing an emerald uniform with gold epaulets, Emmet proudly led the way as commander of the United Irishmen. After Napoleon’s troops failed to appear, chaos began. Messengers that had been sent to rally men abandoned their duty for fear of being arrested. Rebels watching the Canal Harbor struck one of their own men with a pike simply because he was wearing military boots. It wasn’t long before Emmet realized that the rebellion had taken a turn for the worse. He shot off a rocket signal to halt the insurrection, and although some heeded his command, many did not. By this time, the headquarters in Dublin Castle were well aware that something was amiss, but they chalked it up to a harmless ‘plebian riot’ (O’Donnell, pg. 69). With The Castle refusing to admit that an
uprising was underway, the United Irishmen still had a chance. All hope, however, was soon lost when a group of vengeful insurgents fatally piked Chief Justice Kilwarden. This was the ultimate stamp of death for anyone who had taken part in the rebellion. There would be no impunity when the offense was against a man who had enforced the government’s unjust laws.
Eventually, the rebellion died off with thousands of its faithful men dead or captured, but the battle was far from over. To assist soldiers in their hunt for the United Irishmen, citizens were required to post the names of all inhabitants on the doors of their homes. Monetary rewards were set for anyone who could provide information leading to the men who had piked Kilwarden to death. Many sought to receive those payments by falsely accusing the innocent. During the turmoil, Emmet took to the hills and awaited his chance to return. His house keeper, Anne Devlin, was brutally tortured and half hanged several times in a fruitless attempt by soldiers to uncover Emmet’s whereabouts. Despite her valor, he was later found and arrested; though he fought to the very end for his freedom, running through gardens and leaping over fences until he was caught. In court, he gave a speech from the dock powerful enough to move us still today. He made one last request before being sentenced to death.
“Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them.” –Robert Emmet (O’Donnell, pg. 159)
Although this speech compelled many to side with him, the government had already predetermined his fate. Even his legal defender, MacNally, had been paid off by The Crown. The following day, he was hung and then beheaded in front of many onlookers.
Emmet was just 25 years old when his life was ended at the hands of the English government. I strongly believe that it is God’s right alone to end a person’s life. President Obama
recently gained unilateral control of drone strikes, acting as the ‘judge, jury, and executioner’ of all suspected terrorists (Eddlem, http://www.thenewamerican.com/usnews/ politics). At any time, he could take the life of an innocent citizen. This is exactly what the Al Qaeda terrorists of 9/11 wanted, to scare us into killing without evidence or reason. Emmet is an ideal example of what we stand to lose when we allow man, other than God, to take lives.
“They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” Benjamin Franklin
Emmet never surrendered, even in his last moments when the executioner asked if he was ‘ready’ to hang, he replied ‘not yet’ each time. His story holds a very important message that I believe every generation should remember: no freedom has ever come free. Following many recent tragedies, new restrictions on guns in the United States have been introduced. Emmet’s plight is just one of the many that prove a nation without arms is a nation without means of protection. In the first uprising, insurgents were helpless against the well armed soldiers. Emmet saw the brutal outcome and knew that he could not allow his men to die without having a chance at victory. When I first read his story, I saw a man who had failed; now, I see a man who never stopped fighting for his beliefs.
“There are in every generation those who shrink from the ultimate sacrifice, but there are in every generation those who make it with joy and laughter and these are the salt of the generations, the heroes who stand midway between Gods and men.” (O’Bradaigh, pg. 82)
Every freedom we have today came by the blood of brave men akin to Robert Emmet and Jack Diener. They have acquired, protected, and kept it alive for centuries. Like salt, they act as
its preserve and all they ask in return is that we do the same for their memory. We must never forget their altruism because they are so much more than a name on the news or a hero in a book. They are the salt of liberty.
Crocker, Eliza and Shapiro,Lizzie. “Introducing Pope Francis, Your New Papa.”
The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 01 Apr. 2013.
Eddlem, Thomas R. “Judge Jury & Executioner: Should Presidents Have a License to Kill?”
The New American. 5 Dec. 2011. Web 20 Mar. 2013.
Geoghegan, Patrick M. Robert Emmet: A Life. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002.
Morello, Carlo. “Syria Peace Envoy Warns of Surge in Death Toll.” Washington Post.
30 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Jan. 2013. <http://articles.washingtonpost.com>
O’Donnell, Ruán. Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003.
O’Donnell, Ruán. Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003.
O’Donnell, Ruán. Remember Emmet : Images of the Life and Legacy of Robert Emmet. Bray:
Wordwell National Library of Ireland, 2003.
O’Bradaigh, Sean. Bold Robert Emmet 1778-1803. Dublin: Irish Freedom Press, 2003.
“Robert Emmet, Irish Orator and Patriot (1778-1803).” Robert Emmet Society. Web. 20 March, 2013. <http://www.robertemmet.org/default.htm>
Tunney, John. Life and Legacy of Robert Emmet: A Lecture By John Tunney.
Videocassette of John Tunny Lecture, North Central Michigan College and The Robert Emmet Society, 2003.