What the epaulets were for

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín


Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ was written in 1944. The action, we are told, is to take place ‘in an oppressed yet stubborn country – Poland, Ireland, the republic of Venice, some South American or Balkan state’. And then we are told, in typical Borgesian style, that the action in fact ‘took place’ in Ireland in 1824. The narrator is a man called Ryan and he is researching the story of his great-grandfather, ‘the young, heroic, beautiful, murdered Fergus Kilpatrick, whose grave was mysteriously violated, whose name gives lustre to Browning’s and Hugo’s verses and whose statue stands high upon a grey hilltop among red bogs’.

Kilpatrick was ‘a conspirator and a secret and glorious captain of conspirators’ who ‘perished on the eve of the victorious rebellion he had planned for and dreamed of’. The circumstances of the death are enigmatic; Kilpatrick was assassinated, but no one was apprehended for his death; he may have been murdered by the very police who failed to find his assailant. In any case, he became a national hero. But now his biographer has a curious problem, common to anyone who studies the shape of Irish history as told through its martyrs and heroes: things are shadowy and mirror each other strangely; nothing is necessarily true and much is mystery; facts resemble fiction more than they ought; narrative itself is misleading and full of false trails and labyrinths leading back into themselves. Our dream-time, our songs and our myths live in these narratives more actively than any set of realities or pointed purposes.

Ryan, in Borges’s story, is puzzled by the theatrical nature of his ancestor’s assassination. It was done in a theatre; certain tropes seemed to echo events in Julius Caesar and Macbeth. At the last gathering he attended, Kilpatrick, Ryan discovers, signed the death warrant of a traitor ‘whose name has been scratched out’. And then Ryan realizes the truth: Kilpatrick himself was the traitor, he had signed his own death warrant, and, with his associates, he had staged his own execution in the form of a dramatic assassination. Since the country idolized him, the circumstances of his death ‘would engrave themselves upon the popular imagination’. Kilpatrick himself was ‘moved almost to ecstasy by the scrupulously plotted fate that would redeem him and end his days’. Ryan, after much indecision, decides to leave this extraordinary discovery out of his book. His great-grandfather who died for Ireland remains a hero about whom ballads, elegies and rhapsodies would continue to be composed and performed.


Hector Berlioz was one of the composers to write a song about Robert Emmet, a hero during this time of heroes. In 1827, three years after the assassination of Fergus Kilpatrick in Borges’s story, Berlioz fell in love with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he saw in a production of Hamlet. Berlioz was already interested in Ireland because of the poetry of Thomas Moore. On Sundays, he wrote, he would go and watch the sun go down, ‘marvelling at the sight of the glorious reflections on the waters of the Seine, gliding and murmuring before me, and with my imagination carried away by splendid images from the poems of Thomas Moore which recently I had discovered in French translation and read lovingly for the first time’. In his rhapsodic love for Smithson he would walk the streets of Paris all night. One day, on his return ‘from one of those excursions in which I seemed to be searching for my soul … finding Thomas Moore’s “Irish Melodies” open on my table, my eyes alighted on the one beginning with the words “Quand celui qui t’adore”. I took up my pen, then and there, wrote the music for the heartrending farewell that is to be found under the title “Elegie” at the end of my set of pieces called “Irlande”.’

Berlioz’s source was ‘When he who adores thee’, Moore’s song for Robert Emmet. The lack of strict verse metres in the French prose translation from which Berlioz was working allowed him enormous freedom to rhapsodize. While Moore’s melody itself is his most fervid and emotional, Berlioz’s is vastly more complex and original, highly theatrical, a gift for the virtuoso pianist and voice. It moves from tearfully tender art song to fiercely emotional operatic aria, without the softness of Berlioz’s other Irish songs. ‘Works of this kind’, he wrote, ‘are not meant for the ordinary concert-going public; to expose them to its indifference would be a kind of sacrilege.’

Berlioz was born in the year of Emmet’s execution. His fascination with Emmet, Marianne Elliott writes in Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend, ‘owed something to his empathy with other gifted young men cut short brutally during the revolutionary era. But John Crabbe – in a psychological study of Berlioz – is so impressed by it that he suggests a form of telepathic communication across time and has even suggested the possibility of Berlioz having been the reincarnation of Emmet.’ Berlioz wrote his ‘Elegie’ before he knew much about Emmet, but rededicated the song to him when he received information from Leigh Hunt, a friend of Moore and of many English Romantic poets, who sent him the closing part of Emmet’s legendary speech from the dock, which Berlioz reproduced in a new preface. ‘He belonged to an honourable family. His character was noble and dignified, his mind spirited, his heart ardent and dedicated, he was seduced by brilliant hopes and betrayed by false friends … He was condemned to death and executed at the age of twenty-four.’ Berlioz believed that Moore’s song was as much about Emmet’s love for Ireland as his love for Sarah Curran.

In his biography of Berlioz, David Cairns writes that ‘the early Romantics’ admiration for Thomas Moore is one of those crazes that a later age finds baffling’. The craze for Robert Emmet is, perhaps, easier to understand. His youth, his doomed idealism, his good family, the version of his final speech widely disseminated, his public and brave death, his powerful friends (such as Moore, who had known him at Trinity College), fitted into a narrative whose construction was greatly assisted by the shortage of documentation. Many men who had been rescued by time from their own youthful foolishness could feel that his spirit had entered theirs.

Hardly any letters written by Robert Emmet survive; there is no autobiography; there are few contemporary references to him, although there are many to his older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet. Robert Emmet appears, it seems, from nowhere, with fire in his eyes and nothing in his head except abstract ideas of liberty. He is out of Stendhal more than he is out of history. Thus he is fodder not only for songs and stories and patriotic speeches that sanctify his glory, but also for mockery by writers such as James Joyce and Denis Johnston (and indeed Borges) who saw the comic possibilities of such sanctity, and for Irish historians, crudely called ‘revisionist’, who have sought to re-examine the shibboleths surrounding Irish nationalism. Laughing at Emmet was one of the best ways available of killing your Irish nationalist father.

Emmet is tailor-made for twenty-first-century historians such as Marianne Elliott, who are as interested in the myth and how it spread as they are in the man. The story of Emmet is also a godsend to historians who wish to revise the revisionists, for an historian like Ruan O’Donnell, for example, who, after elaborate and painstaking work in the archives studying hitherto marginal figures and forces, has come up with a new, post-revisionist, and less than convincing version of the years in which Emmet and his brother had a project for a revolution in Ireland. Another recent book, Patrick M. Geoghegan’s biography of Emmet, was published last year, with sentences that could have been written in the nineteenth century.


The first contemporary effort to rehabilitate Emmet took place in 1978, on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, in a column in the Irish Times by Anthony Cronin. Cronin was fully aware that, at the time of writing, heroism ‘pure and undefiled’ was ‘at a low rate of discount’, as was Romanticism; and martyrdom was ‘a joke in poor taste’. Thus there would not be much fuss about ‘the arch-bungler’ Emmet in that year. ‘Emmet,’ Cronin wrote, ‘in the popular estimation nowadays, was a bit of an eejit, and the less said about him the better.’ Nonetheless, Cronin was struck by ‘the contrast between the idealism of Robert Emmet and the self-seeking, the brief-hunting, the placemanship, the cool run-of-the-mill chicanery and corruption of everyone who surrounded him with the exception of his own hostlers, butchers and brickmakers’. Cronin insisted that Emmet at twenty-four was ‘at the head of what in hard fact did very nearly become a mass movement of daunting proportions, with a fair chance of success’.

In his two-volume work tracing Emmet’s role in the rebellions of 1798 and 1803, Ruan O’Donnell sets out to study that mass movement, placing Emmet at the centre of conspiracy in Ireland over a period of several years. He also places the rebellion Emmet led in July 1803 in a continuous line of seditious and revolutionary activity in Ireland beginning a decade earlier, rather than treating it as a strange and isolated incident, as other historians have done. His two volumes contain detailed accounts of the many conspirators, and O’Donnell is fascinating on their origins, loyalties and actions.

O’Donnell’s narrative figures Emmet’s career as a cross between a chess-board and a spider’s web, with Emmet as skilful player and chief spider. It is important to remember, however, that it was the government who made the slow but eventually masterful moves, and Emmet who was the fly; and important also to bear in mind that it seemed like that at the time to many who knew Emmet. It is hard to accept O’Donnell’s thesis that Emmet’s career between 1797 and 1803 is somehow seamless, that he was an inevitable leader of an Irish revolutionary movement and that he was pragmatic and deliberate in his plotting and preparation. It can, in fact, be argued that the reason why there is so little about Emmet in government papers, the reason he is so oddly invisible in the years between his expulsion from Trinity College in 1798 for suspected membership of the United Irishmen and his journey to France in 1801, is not that he was so cunning a conspirator, but simply that he was inactive. He was at home in his father’s house; he was reading; he was following events closely but in the shadow of his older brother.

The post-revisionist line on Emmet, begun by Anthony Cronin in 1978 and offered with rich detail in the books by Ruan O’Donnell and Patrick M. Geoghegan, is nonetheless an interesting one. Emmet, it is true, was fired by ideas of civil liberty and religious freedom; he had studied closely the central texts and tracts proposing such liberties and freedoms; he was inspired by the American and French revolutions, which succeeded in using mass agitation and violence for political aims; he knew, as no other Irish revolutionary did, that the taking and holding of the centres of power in Dublin represented the key to victory; he understood the need for secrecy in a society filled with spies and informers; he had studied military strategy and many of his ideas on how the city could be taken were serious and well thought out; he made careful alliances with forces in the city and with the United Irishmen, and, as much as he could, with the French government, including Bonaparte, Talleyrand and Bernadotte; his speech from the dock, which comes in various versions, but which was transcribed, according to Marianne Elliott, by an experienced law reporter from the prosecution team in a form reasonably close to the one we know, is an astonishing piece of eloquence, perhaps the finest of its kind.

Thus Emmet’s rebellion, long derided as ‘a free-ranging outburst by a leaderless and drunken rabble’, as Ruan O’Donnell puts it, can instead be marked, according to O’Donnell, ‘as one of the few occasions when Irish insurgents combated regular soldiers on the streets of the national capital’. And Emmet himself, instead of being the romantic hero whose very foolishness and failure inspired Patrick Pearse a hundred years later, can be read as a hard-headed revolutionary: we should study his life rather than his death. ‘If Ireland had been a free country,’ Anthony Cronin wrote, ‘or Irish society had been a free society in which a man of honour could have cared to rise, there is absolutely no doubt whatever that Emmet would have distinguished himself as a politician of humane instinct and near-to-dazzling genius.’

In her introduction to Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend, Marianne Elliott writes about her own early researches in the French archives, from which she built an image of Robert Emmet, not as the ‘gentle youth’ his college friends remembered, nor as ‘the arch-bungler’ and ‘bit of an eejit’, in Anthony Cronin’s phrases, nor as the doomed hero who appears in the work of Coleridge, Southey, Moore and Shelley, but ‘as a single-minded negotiator with talents as a military tactician, at least on paper, and a young man who commanded the respect of a number of hardened senior figures in the French government and military command’. This is the version of him put forth in O’Donnell’s and Geoghegan’s biographies. Elliott herself remains sceptical.


If we were in any doubt about the potency of Emmet’s legend, it could be dispelled quickly by the scene of Emmet’s execution in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses:

The last farewell was affecting in the extreme … The deafening claps of thunder and the dazzling flashes of lightning which lit up the ghastly scene testified that the artillery of heaven had lent its supernatural pomp to the already gruesome spectacle … The nec and non plus ultra of emotion were reached when the blushing bride elect burst her way through the serried ranks of the bystanders and flung herself upon the muscular bosom of him who was about to be launched into eternity for her sake … Every lady in the audience was presented with a tasteful souvenir of the occasion in the shape of skull and crossbones brooch …

In Joyce’s version, the executioner has neatly arranged ‘on a handsome mahogany table … the quartering knife, the various finely tempered disembowelling appliances’, because, of course, even though Emmet was hanged, and not, in fact, drawn and quartered, all three punishments were inflicted on him in the ballad ‘Bold Robert Emmet’, written around 1900, which is better known than either of Moore’s songs (‘She is far from the land’ and ‘When he who adores thee’) and easier to sing in a public house:

Hung, drawn and quartered, that was my sentence
But soon I will show them that no coward am I,
My crime was the love of the land I was born in,
A hero I’ll live and a hero I’ll die.

As Denis Johnston wrote in an introduction to his 1929 play The Old Lady Says ‘No!’, the most iconoclastic work yet on Emmet: ‘The whole episode has got that delightful quality of storybook unreality that creates a glow of satisfaction without any particular reference to the facts of life.’ It is these facts which remain in dispute. Since Irish historians hunt in packs, Emmet has been either ignored or dismissed over the past half-century. Ruan O’Donnell’s and Patrick M. Geoghegan’s work represents part of a movement, then, by younger Irish historians to look again, from a post-revisionist perspective, at Emmet and the United Irishmen. In 1969 Thomas Pakenham, in the Preface to his book The Year of Liberty, wrote: ‘On the rebel side, lack of sources makes it impossible to do justice to the movement. I have found fewer than a hundred revolutionary documents of 1798. For the most part I have had to make do with second-hand (and sometimes second-rate) material: contemporary spy reports, mid-nineteenth-century biographies, folk songs and hearsay. My picture of the revolutionary underground in ’98 is, of its nature, a reconstruction.’ Thirty-five years later, if you read O’Donnell and Geoghegan, it is the government position that has come to seem often misty and strange. Their tone has come full circle.


Almost fifty years ago in his book Maria Cross, Conor Cruise O’Brien opened his chapter on Sean O’Faolain with an astonishingly beautiful and perceptive paragraph which explains a great deal about the imagination and psyche of Robert Emmet:

There is for all of us a twilit zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history. Our elders have talked their memories into our memories until we come to possess some sense of continuity exceeding and traversing our own individual being. The degree in which we possess that sense of continuity and the form it takes – national, religious, racial, or social – depend on our own imagination and on the personality, opinions and talkativeness of our elder relatives. Children of small and vocal communities are likely to possess it to a high degree and, if they are imaginative, have the power of incorporating into their own lives a significant span of time before their individual births.

In trying to understand Robert Emmet, it is essential to remember that he was the youngest son, born after many miscarriages, four of them called Robert. Christopher Temple Emmet, the eldest Emmet child, a talented orator who became a barrister, was seventeen years older than Robert (he died suddenly in 1788); Thomas Addis Emmet, who had a great influence on Robert, was fourteen years older than him; and Mary-Anne was five years Robert’s senior. On his marriage in 1791, Thomas Addis moved next door to the family house in Dublin. Emmet’s father, who was very well connected, being a relative of the Marquis of Buckingham, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1782–3 and 1787–9, was a state physician. ‘The 1780s were an increasingly profitable, stable and confident period for the socially privileged class to which the Emmets belonged,’ Ruan O’Donnell writes. The father was deeply involved in public affairs, as were the older brothers. ‘The vigorous intellectual environment’, as O’Donnell describes it, of Robert Emmet’s father’s house in Stephen’s Green ‘had long preceded his birth and continued throughout the politically turbulent 1780s and 1790s. A key event for the Emmet family was the American War of Independence.’

Marianne Elliott writes that ‘the advanced thinkers of the day were regularly invited to Dr Emmet’s dinner parties, and on one of these occasions Dr William Drennan was flattered when parts of his radical Letters of Orellanea were recited by the twelve-year-old Robert Emmet. This had called for an end to religious discord and championed the right of extra-parliamentary agitation in favour of parliamentary reform.’

Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell were among Thomas Addis Emmet’s close friends. In the years before 1793, when war broke out with France, reforming ideas were fashionable – almost glamorous – among sections of the Protestant upper-middle class and aristocracy in Dublin, so that Robert Emmet grew up in an atmosphere of privilege on one hand and heated debate about liberty on the other. The Emmets, like the parents of Oscar Wilde fifty years later (Sir William Wilde was also a fashionable doctor), or Lady Gregory and her circle a century later, managed to be members of the ruling class, haughty in the Dublin that was theirs, but interested also in a new political dispensation in which the ‘people’ whom they knew best as servants and tenants would hold power. This intersection of power and popularity made these people different from their English counterparts and gave them the feeling they could do what they liked.

After 1793, it is possible to trace Thomas Addis Emmet’s involvement with the United Irishmen as it became a dangerous, revolutionary movement and to find him working as a lawyer at the same time. When he was arrested in March 1798 he was treated as a member of the ruling class. ‘One of the incongruities of the 1798 crisis’, Marianne Elliott writes, was that ‘while torture was used to extract information from the lower rank of rebel, it was never used on the top leaders. These, after all, were gentlemen and were largely treated as such.’ Thomas Addis Emmet was joined in prison by his wife, who stayed with him for a year, until he was removed to Scotland. He was held until June 1802, when he went to Paris to plot further against the government.

Thus prison offered Thomas Addis Emmet a kind of sanctuary from what happened in the summer of 1798. Nor was he entirely broken by his time in prison, even though he had been a senior figure in the United Irishmen. While evidence of the grim determination and cruelty of the government in Ireland in the second half of 1798, including summary executions and torture, was all around, none of it affected the Emmets directly. This meant that the youngest of the family was free to dream of that twilight time when ideas of revolution and liberty came untarnished by suffering and failure.

In Trinity College Dublin, Robert Emmet excelled in debating; he lived at home and appears to have been ‘uninvolved in student pranks or riotous behaviour’, Marianne Elliott writes. ‘Unlike Tone and even his brother Thomas, his name is absent from the books of censures and cautions.’ While it is important to view with great caution every single word that Thomas Moore wrote about Robert Emmet in his 1831 book on Lord Edward Fitzgerald, it is easy to understand why Elliott, O’Donnell and Geoghegan all quote from Moore. There is very little other information about Emmet between his arrival in Trinity and his effective expulsion for being a member of the United Irishmen in April 1798. The extent of his involvement is unclear, but it was not enough for him to be arrested.

It is unclear also what Robert Emmet did between April 1798 and the summer of 1800. What is certain is that historians hate a vacuum. Emmet wrote a few political poems, which seemed angry and must have pleased his brother; Marianne Elliott has him involved in the re-organization of the United Irishmen after January 1799. ‘It is likely’, she writes, ‘that Robert Emmet was heavily involved in the military planning.’ She has evidence that he was spoken about as one of the ‘colonels’ of the movement as it waited for a French invasion. O’Donnell has Emmet more involved in the summer rebellion itself; he was, O’Donnell writes, ‘fully engaged in the city’s United Irish organisation. Working behind the scenes boosted his stature in the movement and rendered him a credible figure to the veterans destined to play critical roles in the plot of 1803.’ O’Donnell suggests that the reason why Emmet’s name did not appear in spy reports was ‘his security-consciousness and self-discipline, very much in evidence in 1799’, but it may be that the spies had nothing to report, and that the most he saw of the rebellion was loyalist soldiers marching past the window of his father’s house in Stephen’s Green. Later, he carried messages for his imprisoned brother.

O’Donnell has a thesis that Emmet grew in stature from 1798, so that he had developed a great personal authority by 1799. ‘Robert Emmet had been accepted in Dublin,’ he writes, ‘by January 1799 as the virtual heir to the position of chief military strategist.’ There was, however, not much competition, and not much military strategy either; and perhaps more importantly, there is not much evidence for O’Donnell’s statement. At the end of 1798, as his brother and his friends were busy trying to negotiate their way out of prison, O’Donnell writes that although ‘Robert Emmet’s whereabouts at this time are unknown it is very likely that he was one of those consulted on the way forward’. O’Donnell has no evidence for this. He goes on to say that once Emmet returned to Dublin in 1802 ‘his credentials as a dedicated United Irishman were virtually unimpeachable’, since he had exchanged the safety of Paris for the danger of Dublin; but this does not follow, given that his older brother remained in Paris and that many of the intellectuals within the movement still viewed collaboration with the French as essential.

Robert Emmet does appear in one very convincing role in January 1799, as a young man of little judgement who could not keep his mouth shut. On 2 February James McGucken reported to the government that he had spoken with Thomas Addis Emmet’s brother Robert, who told him that a new committee and executive were being formed in Dublin, with colonels in each county setting up regiments secretly. ‘Emmet mentioned Wright the surgeon & [Con] McLoughlin [sic] of Usher’s Island as two of the present leaders in Dublin,’ McGucken wrote. Robert Emmet was still seen as Thomas Addis’s brother, rather than as a figure in his own right, or a military strategist as Elliott and O’Donnell would have him, by an informer who was the legal advisor to the Ulster Directory. In March 1799 Emmet wrote to McGucken using invisible ink and sent the letter in the ordinary post. O‘Donnell calls this act of pure foolishness ‘a calculated risk’. It allowed for warrants to be issued for the arrest of Robert Emmet and several others, and information about Emmet’s whereabouts to be given to the authorities. Emmet, at that time, was more dangerous to the movement he sought to promote than he was to the government, closer indeed to Borges’s traitor (if rather more innocent) than to Berlioz’s hero.

‘Robert Emmet slipped out of Ireland’, O’Donnell writes, ‘sometime after April 1800 and arrived in Hamburg from England by August at the latest.’ En route, O’Donnell has him travelling to Fort George near Inverness in Scotland, where Thomas Addis Emmet was held from April 1799. That raises a very interesting question: if Robert Emmet were as significant a figure by that date as O’Donnell suggests, how come he could openly visit his brother in prison? His brother was, in any case, in dispute with another United Irish prisoner, Arthur O’Connor, and Robert Emmet, according to O’Donnell, ‘made a successful intercession between the rivals’. O’Donnell goes on:

While his reputed skill as a negotiator and persuader may very well have helped secure this outcome, it is also likely that the new accord was facilitated by the positive news he had brought from Ireland. At the very least, Emmet could claim that the revival of United Irish structures had reached the point where a coordinated response to the French was again within reach. He may well have sought their imprimatur for the specific secret proposals he intended laying before Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris … Addis Emmet, O’Connor and the other Irish rebels incarcerated at Fort George clearly assented, given the ease with which the diplomatic contacts that had been painstakingly developed by the original leadership were put at Robert Emmet’s disposal in 1801–2.

This is all very interesting and may well be a fine piece of historical detective work, but the problem is that it may not even be true that Emmet went to Fort George at all. O’Donnell’s footnote offers Madden’s The United Irishmen, published in the 1840s, as the source. Marianne Elliott writes that while ‘Emmet’s great-nephew later claimed that Robert visited his brother in Fort George … there is no contemporary evidence for this and it would have been impossible after September/October 1799, when the London government introduced new restrictions on visits and communications with the Fort George prisoners.’

Since Elliott and O’Donnell are in fundamental disagreement, it is interesting to see what Patrick M. Geoghegan, in Robert Emmet: A Life, has to say about the matter. Robert Emmet, he says, arrived at Fort George in mid June 1800, just as tensions were coming to a head between his brother and Arthur O’Connor. ‘Fortunately he succeeded in preventing violence,’ Geoghegan writes, ‘and he used his extraordinary powers of persuasion to bring about a temporary reconciliation. This was one of his greatest abilities, for as Madden records: “Robert Emmet had a singular talent for composing differences, and making people who spoke harshly and unkindly of one other acquainted with each other’s good qualities, and thereby causing them to come to terms of accommodation.”’

Madden, it should be remembered – and it is not pointed out here by Geoghegan or by O’Donnell – could reliably ‘record’ nothing. He was not two years old at the time of the supposed visit. He was, Marianne Elliott says, ‘a passionate admirer of Thomas Moore’; his work, she says, is ‘heroic history par excellence … the tone was rather like that found in traditional saints’ lives … Even within such hagiography, Madden’s treatment of Emmet is excessively uncritical, if not unreal. It reads like a work of bad fiction because much of it is just that.’ In a footnote, Geoghegan mentions that a biography of Thomas Addis Emmet is sceptical about Robert Emmet’s visit to his brother, but in his text he quotes Madden’s patent nonsense about Emmet’s character without comment. The problem two of these historians have (besides the matter of basic credibility regarding the visit) is that if Emmet did not visit his brother, then there is nothing that can be usefully said about him in this period. We simply do not know where he was or what he was doing. It is hard perhaps to write a history of nothing, but quoting a well-known hagiographer is not the way. Geoghegan, incidentally, cites Madden as his only source in more than one hundred of his footnotes.


In March 1802 Catherine Wilmot wrote to her brother: ‘We have lately become acquainted with Robert Emmett [sic], who, I dare say you have heard of … His face is uncommonly expressive of everything youthful and everything enthusiastic, and his colour comes and goes rapidly, accompanied by such a nervousness of agitated sensibility, that in his society I feel in a perpetual apprehension lest any passing idle word shou[l]d wound the delicacy of his feelings.’

It is important to remember that Thomas Addis Emmet did not arrive in Paris until the summer of 1802; this meant that his young brother had eighteen months to reinvent himself in the foreign capital, away from his brother’s shadow and from any stigma that might have attached to his military inactivity in the 1798 rebellion. In this period he could become anyone he wished, a blushing, impetuous youth on one hand, and a serious revolutionary who could command respect from hardened figures within the French administration on the other, using the full charming intensity of his class confidence. It is here that the protean young man meets the protean legend. Anything written about him in these couple of years could have been true, while its opposite could also have been true. He had no occupation other than to transform himself. Thus by the time he returned to Ireland, he was, in one small frame, a hardened conspirator and an unreliable young man doing battle with each other. In December 1802 his father died, leaving him free in Dublin without either his brother’s influence or his father’s, but with enough money left to him in his father’s will to begin planning his revolution.

The hardened conspirator realized that the establishment of central munitions depots, whose whereabouts were known only to ‘an elite strike force … was the key to success’, as O’Donnell writes. The depots, O’Donnell adds, were also the weakest link, being vulnerable to informers or to an accident. Nonetheless, Emmet and his friends managed to amass a remarkable amount of sophisticated weaponry within easy distance of Dublin Castle without the knowledge of the government. No informer penetrated the group. In one depot alone 36,400 cartridges, 246 grenades, 8 rockets and 5000 pikes were found when the rebellion had failed. It was in one of these depots on 16 July 1803 that an explosion occurred which forced the question of whether to wait for a French invasion or begin a unilateral revolt.

This was when reason and judgement were needed, when connections in places like Kildare, Wicklow and Wexford were required; this was when the possibility of cancelling any rebellion, or watching and waiting, would have to be considered. This was also when a knowledge of high politics – of how the French and British were likely to respond – was also required. It was only in June that Major Sirr, organizing Her Majesty’s forces, received his first physical description of Robert Emmet, who was busy seeking support in the city and much of the time failing to find it.

It is here that O’Donnell’s analysis seems at its weakest. After the Dublin Carpenters’ Society, an illegal proto trade union, refused help, O’Donnell writes, ‘as discussions reached an advanced stage it is clear that the failure to reach an accommodation was based on pragmatic considerations rather than a rejection of the Emmet-led leadership and their agenda’. This is, in fact, not at all clear; it is just as possible that they listened to Emmet and thought he was talking nonsense. The arguments for the rising going ahead, as summarized by O’Donnell, seem also very weak: ‘The United Irishmen of Dublin would have no viable role behind the lines in the event of a French invasion if [the] central stores were compromised. An uprising, however, would answer Napoleon’s query as to whether the Act of Union had dissuaded the Irish people from their pursuit of emancipation and the rights of man. A strong showing of the order achieved in south Leinster in 1798 would provide the United Irish embassy in Paris with a compelling case for the dispatch of immediate assistance.’

The problem was that, although Emmet believed that other counties would rise after Dublin, he had no good reason to believe this. He had never been in Wexford; according to O’Donnell he failed to send even a basic message about the rebellion to Wicklow, although this is disputed by Geoghegan, who believes that Michael Dwyer, the leader of the Wicklow rebels, held back deliberately; the Kildare rebels learned that Emmet was the leader of the rebellion only on the afternoon of the day it took place. He was, O’Donnell writes, ‘a virtual stranger’ to them. Since a French invasion was not planned in the summer of 1803, any wise counsel would have suggested moving the arms, saving them if possible, and waiting. It was clear to anyone who had witnessed the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion that a failed rising would be mercilessly put down by the British, and would send signals to the French that Ireland would require more determined force than a mere invasion if it were to be held.

A small rising in Dublin could surprise the government, but it would need then to build almost instant support from the unarmed city population and from outside Dublin. The lord lieutenant, quoted by Geoghegan, found it ‘remarkable that the plan for the rising in Dublin and the mode by which it was to be effected, as well as the moment, was a perfect secret among the leaders themselves’. He recognized that while this state of affairs ‘diminishes our chance of procuring good information, it must [also] greatly diminish their chances of success at any point’.

Despite this, a young, persuasive and charming aristocrat, used to taking advice from his now absent older brother and now dead father, and fired still with the stories of his youth about the American and French revolutions, decided to go ahead with the rising. On its eve, he wrote a note: ‘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’. For the day of his rebellion, he wore a general’s hat with a green feather, a green uniform with gold lace and gold epaulets. But he was, as Lord Redesdale later commented, ‘a general without an army’. Most of his followers, such as they were, simply did not follow him. ‘The fighting which occurred,’ O’Donnell writes, ‘was by no means an index of the revolutionary potential of the conspiracy but was rather the visible manifestation of a partially successful strategy of disengagement.’ One wonders if that was why Robert Emmet put on his hat, or if that was what the epaulets were for.

It suited the government later to play down the intensity of the fighting and the quality of the surprise and to blame what happened on one foolish youth. Castlereagh, defending the government later, insisted that the Castle had not, in fact, been surprised; ‘that Dublin was sufficiently garrisoned; and that if it was not for the murder of Lord Kilwarden, the insurrection in Dublin was not important enough to be called rebellion’.

In his detailed account of what actually happened on the day, O’Donnell often gets carried away. When Miles Byrne’s unit ‘dropped their armaments and departed the scene in ones and twos’, O’Donnell comments grandiosely, ‘they had missed their chance to participate in the Rising of 1803’. Since he has built up Emmet as a military strategist, parts of his account of Emmet during the actual rising make sad reading: ‘If invited, the vast majority of those whom Emmet had summoned to arms in the preceding half hour elected not to follow. Indeed, there were apparently far more rebels on the streets of the capital after Emmet headed into the south city suburbs and potential oblivion than had rallied to his side on Thomas Street.’

The rebellion was defeated and Emmet captured. It is hard not to burst with laughter as O’Donnell tells us, using a letter to The Nation in 1844 as the source, that ‘a supplementary guard of Roscommon militia were moved when Emmet asked their officer to issue the men with food and drink. One recalled “many, many of our men’s eyes let fall the briny tear while silently toasting his health, and breathing a prayer for the future repose of his soul”.’ Does O’Donnell, who is a lecturer at the University of Limerick, really expect us to believe this sort of nonsense? Geoghegan, despite himself, is often even funnier. He quotes seriously and without comment one of Madden’s interviewees who, when asked if Robert Emmet was vain, said: ‘Oh dear no! Robert had not a particle of vanity in his composition. He was the most free from self-conceit of any man I ever knew. You might live with him for five years – aye, for ten years – in the same house – in the same room, even, and never discover that he thought about himself at all. He was neither vain of his person or his mind.’ Geoghegan’s own prose seems to have been greatly influenced by his reading of Madden. ‘Robert Emmet’, he writes, ‘turned twenty-five on 4 March 1803. Charismatic and authoritative, he was growing into his leadership role every day. Even experienced campaigners fell under his spell and could not hide their astonishment at how young he was.’ Or: ‘An inspirational speaker, Emmet was at his most effective when he was persuading people to believe in something. He was brilliant at expressing his ideas and very quickly came to epitomise those ideals for his listeners.’ Or: ‘Only twenty-five, Emmet acted with a maturity beyond his years. With a firm control of his emotions, he displayed remarkable composure and never let any difficulty shake his resolve. He chatted to the men, encouraging them, but never joked or compromised his leadership position. Because of this “the people had great confidence in him; they would venture their lives for him”.’ (The last quote comes from Madden.) Marianne Elliott has much to say about this type of specious sentimentality about Emmet in the nineteenth century. It would perhaps amuse her to see it surviving into the twenty-first.


To read about Emmet on the bicentenary of his rebellion and execution is to encounter a striking contrast between the display of pre-revisionist methodology, in all its weakness, on the part of two young historians, and a brilliant masterclass in how history and legend might be interpreted, by Marianne Elliott. The story itself remains fascinating. The streets in which two hundred years ago there was a project for a revolution are the very streets that were sweetly stolen from revolutionaries by Leopold Bloom and his young friend Stephen Dedalus. In Ulysses, Bloom saw ghosts of Emmet everywhere he went a hundred years after Emmet’s death, just as we see ghosts of Bloom a hundred years after his odyssey. Stephen’s Green, Grafton Street, Aungier Street, Cuffe Street, Francis Street, Thomas Street, Harold’s Cross, Rathfarnham and the city quays are Emmet’s territory. He stored his weapons in backyards and safe houses for his assault on the citadel; his associates moved with ideas of liberty and much resentment in their minds, and rare and brave ambitions which came to nothing and led to disaster.

Emmet’s legacy is haunting and difficult. As Ireland takes its unsovereign place in the European Union and the Anglo-American pact, he awaits, perhaps, our ability to remember freely and accurately – and, despite everything, nonchalantly – a man who, as Yeats said, ‘mastered everything except human nature’. The rich confusion offered to us by some of his historians is perhaps the epitaph he best deserves.

Marianne Elliott, Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend, London: Profile.
Patrick M. Geoghegan, Robert Emmet: A Life, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.
Ruan O’Donnell, Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798, Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
Ruan O’Donnell, Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803, Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 12 Autumn 2003