The ghostliness of Robert Emmet

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2003), News, Robert Emmet, Volume 11

The ghostliness of Robert Emmet is not just about the way he haunts the Irish historical imagination; it is sometimes suggested by the very evidence for his physical existence. It was Emmet himself who set the haunting note, insisting in his famous speech from the dock on a form of memorial absence—that his tombstone remain uninscribed until his country had taken its place among the nations of the earth. Uncannily, this wish was soon tragically compounded by the disappearance of his body: a blank tombstone and an unknown grave remain twin absences that sustain Emmet’s compelling spectre in the ranks of Irish political martyrs.
A similar phenomenal uncertainty seems to attach to many of the objects associated with his brief presence in this world. What exactly did he say in his speech from the dock? Determining his exact, original words is still a tricky matter for historians, as there are a number of versions of the speech extant. What did Emmet look like? His death mask, at least, seems to offer a final, haunting impression of his face—but then there are several versions of it, making it likewise difficult to settle with assurance on the original imprint of that famous profile. The miniature sketches made by James Petrie, who was present at Emmet’s trial, undoubtedly offer an authentic image of Emmet, but only two survive, contained in a small locket, a prized possession of his latter-day descendant, Philip Emmet.
The most elaborate and convincing image of Emmet is undoubtedly the formal portrait now in the possession of Kilmainham Gaol. There can be little doubt about the authenticity of this fine portrait. It came into the possession of the then Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society in 1962 as one of a set of two portraits, the other being of Emmet’s sister, Mary Anne Holmes. They had belonged to an Albert Sexton, a descendant of the Young Irelander Timothy Sexton, who had been a prisoner in Kilmainham following the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848. How Timothy Sexton came into possession of the paintings is not known. However, it is part of the tragedy that befell the Emmet family in the wake of Robert’s death that the contents of the Emmet household were dispersed as the family line died out in Ireland (Mary Anne died in 1804). Thomas Addis and his family, in exile in America, did recover some plate and linen, but clearly the paintings remained in Ireland. The contents of the family home were believed to have been given by Mary Anne Holmes to friends when the house was vacated soon after the 1803 rising. It is likely, therefore, that the paintings would have had an established provenance when they came into the possession of Sexton, who, as a fervent Irish patriot with revolutionary principles, would have taken a keen interest in Emmet memorabilia some 50 years after his death.
The other remarkable feature of the portrait is its likely author. The name of Thomas Hickey, one of Ireland’s most distinguished eighteenth-century painters, is inscribed along the stretcher. For much of the 1790s he was out of Ireland and earned his living as a painter in British India. He seems to have returned to Ireland around 1799–1800—providing just that window of opportunity to paint the 21- or 22-year-old Emmet as he appears in the painting. But, yet again, there remains an element of mystery about this painting: many of the romantic representations of Emmet that appeared throughout the nineteenth century appear not to have been influenced by a knowledge of it. Emmet appears consistently as a stylised Napoleonic figure, largely seen in profile. The influence of the Petrie drawings is detectable in some of these romantic representations, but not the Hickey portrait.
And then we have the block on which his head was reputed to have been severed from his body. Is it the real thing? The answer is most probably yes: it is improbable that such a substantial object, carrying such gruesome associations, would have endured for so long had it not been genuine. The earliest evidence we have for its provenance is the catalogue for an auction of historic memorabilia to support the Volunteer Dependents’ Fund held at the Mansion House on 20–21 April 1917. The block is cited as having belonged to Sir Thornley Stoker (1845–1912), a leading surgeon and brother of Bram Stoker (author of Dracula). Stoker was a keen collector of antiques (as memorably described by Oliver St John Gogarty in his memoir As I was going down Sackville Street), and it was most likely in his capacity as collector that he came into possession of the block. The block was bought at the 1917 auction by an unknown buyer and presented as a gift to Mrs Margaret Pearse, mother of the Pearse brothers, and came to reside at St Enda’s School.
Thus it was that this by-now powerfully symbolic object came to play a leading role in the first-ever propaganda documentary produced in Ireland. Joseph MacDonagh, brother of Thomas who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, was on location in Pearse’s school, St Enda’s, shooting the film Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn in the spring of 1919. MacDonagh broke away from his fictional endeavours to film Michael Collins, the first Dáil’s Minister of Finance, presiding over a succession of leading republicans as they signed up for the first issue of Dáil bonds, with the block serving as a symbolic table.

Pat Cooke is Curator of Kilmainham Gaol.

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