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Robert Emmet (4 March 1778 – 20 September 1803) was an Irish nationalist rebel leader. He led an abortive rebellion against British rule in 1803 and was captured, tried and executed.
Emmet was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1778. His father served as surgeon to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and to members of the British Royal Family on their visits to Ireland but despite his privileged position in Irish society Emmet, like many of his contemporaries, was attracted to revolutionary republican politics.
His education at Trinity College, Dublin when he joined the patriotic society, the Society of United Irishmen who had initially campaigned for parliamentary reform and an end to religious discrimination against Catholics (though Emmet and many United Irishmen were Protestants). However, when the United Irishmen were banned following the British declaration of war on Revolutionary France in 1793, the organisation was forced underground and now aimed for full Irish independence, preparing for insurrection with French aid. Robert Emmet’s brother Thomas Addis Emmet was a senior member of the United Irishmen and had to flee for France to escape prosecution for treason. The rebellion of 1798 was crushed but Emmet and others sought exile in France, joining the groups of emigre revolutionaries in Paris.
In 1802 during a brief lull in the Napoleonic Wars Emmet joined an Irish delegation to Napoleon asking for support. However the delegation returned unsuccessfully.
When European conflict was renewed in May 1803, Emmet returned to Ireland and together with other revolutionaries such as Thomas Russell and James Hope, prepared to launch a new rebellion. Emmet began to manufacture weapons and explosives at a number of premises in Dublin and even innovated a folding pike which could be concealed under a cloak, being fitted with a hinge. Unlike in 1798, the preparations for the uprising were successfully concealed, but a premature explosion at one of Emmet’s arms depots killed a man and forced Emmet to bring forward the date of the rising before the authorities’ suspicions were aroused.
Emmet was unable to secure the help of Michael Dwyer’s Wicklow rebels and many Kildare rebels who had arrived turned back due to the scarcity of firearms they had been promised but the rising went ahead in Dublin on the evening of July 23, 1803. Failing to seize Dublin Castle, which was lightly defended, the rising amounted to a large-scale riot in the Thomas Street area. The Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Lord Kilwarden, chief prosecutor of William Orr in 1797, but also the judge who granted habeas corpus to Wolfe Tone in 1798, was dragged from his carriage and hacked to death. Emmet personally witnessed a dragoon being pulled from his horse and piked to death, the sight of which prompted him to call off the rising to avoid further bloodshed.
Emmet fled into hiding but was captured on 25 August, near Harold’s cross. He endangered his life by moving his hiding place from Rathfarnam to Harold’s Cross so that he could be near his sweetheart, Sarah Curran. He was tried for treason on 19 September; the Crown repaired the weaknesses in its case by secretly buying the assistance of Emmet’s defense attorney, Leonard Macnally, for £200 and a pension. However his assistant Peter Burrowes could not be bought and pleaded the case as best he could.
After he had been sentenced Emmet delivered a speech, the Speech from the Dock, which is especially remembered for its closing sentences and secured his posthumous fame among executed Irish republicans. However no definitive version was written down by Emmet himself.
"Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dares now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth then and not till then, let my epitaph be written".
An earlier version of the speech was published in 1818, in a biography on Sarah Curran’s father John, emphasizing that Emmet’s epitaph would be written on the vindication of his character, and not specifically when Ireland took its place as a nation. It closed: "I am here ready to die. I am not allowed to vindicate my character; no man shall dare to vindicate my character; and when I am prevented from vindicating myself, let no man dare to calumniate me. Let my character and my motives repose in obscurity and peace, till other times and other men can do them justice. Then shall my character be vindicated; then may my epitaph be written."
On 20 September Emmet was executed by hanging and beheading in Thomas Street. The remains were then secretly buried. The whereabouts of his remains has remained a mystery. It was suspected that it had been buried secretly in the vault of a Dublin Anglican church. When the vault was inspected in the 1950s a headless corpse that could not be identified, but which was suspected of being Emmet’s, was found. In the 1980s the church was turned into a night club and all the coffins removed from the vaults. What was done with the mysterious corpse is unknown.