Robert Emmet; a life

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (Autumn 2003), Reviews, Robert Emmet, Volume 11

Patrick M. Geoghegan
(Gill and McMillan, E23.99)
ISBN 0-7171-3387-7

Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798
Ruán O’Donnell
(Irish Academic Press, E59.50)
ISBN 0-7165-2788-X

Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803
Ruán O’Donnell
(Irish Academic Press, E27.50)
ISBN 0-7165-2786-3


That Robert Emmet has been the subject of more than forty biographies is indeed incredible given the brevity of his life and the unqualified failure of ‘his’ rebellion of 1803. In part, this fascination can be attributed to his attractive personality and the sense in which his life contained the necessary ingredients of a tragic myth. It might also be argued that Emmet’s contribution towards Irish independence was essentially posthumous, and due in no small part to his celebrated oration in the dock which transformed a fiasco into a spiritual triumph that has inspired generations of republican radicals. Yeats numbered Emmet as ‘foremost amongst [Ireland’s] saints of nationality’; Pearse celebrated his ‘heroic faith and the splendour of death’, while in 1913 Liam Mellows informed his mother of his intention to be ‘another Robert Emmet’. These new biographies go beyond all previous studies and add greatly to our appreciation not only of Emmet but also of the context and course of the rebellion of 1803. Both are sympathetic to their subject and independently they conclude that Emmet and the rising were far more significant than earlier histories suggest.
O’Donnell and Geoghegan’s very different biographies may be attributed to their particular research interests. Ruan O’Donnell established his reputation with his detailed study Rebellion in Wicklow: 1798 (1998), while Patrick Geoghegan’s principal publication has been his account of the passage of The Irish Act of Union (1998). O’Donnell’s work might be described as military history while Geoghegan’s focus has been essentially the realm of high politics. These differences are reflected in their biographies of Emmet; they account for Geoghegan’s demonstration of the blood relationship and other connections between Robert Emmet and William Pitt, and also for O’Donnell’s determination to place each of the participants of 1803 within their appropriate position in the rank-and-file of the United Irish organisation. O’Donnell is clearly at home with the out-of-door politics of the period and the machinations in Dublin’s myriad ale-houses; Geoghegan, by contrast, focuses upon the bourgeois radicalism of the period.
Geoghegan writes well and this biography is in the style of Stella Tillyard’s Citizen Lord (1998). His interpretation is heavily influenced by Dr Madden and Thomas Addis Emmet’s earlier biographies, but his conclusions are informed by archival material, including previously unused sources in a variety of repositories in the United States. His literary skill is immediately apparent in his dramatic discussion of Emmet’s demeanour and delivery in the dock, while his second chapter, ‘Romance revisited: the Sarah Curran story’, is particularly informative. Perhaps the most original sections of Geoghegan’s biography are those that describe Robert Emmet’s time at Trinity College, Dublin. Of particular interest is his account of Emmet’s participation in the Historical Society, which, like the country at large, exhibited signs of a split between ‘the supporters of power’ and the ‘popular side’. The young Emmet distinguished himself as a champion of the latter with oratorical skills which, his companion Thomas Moore recalled, ‘enchained the attention and sympathy of his young audience’. Geoghegan enthusiastically describes the atmosphere in ‘the Hist’, to the point where Emmet is finally broken on 28 February 1798 by sustained heckling and interruptions in a debate on a motion which he had himself proposed: ‘Ought a soldier to consider the motives of war, before he engages in it?’ Clearly, on this occasion the weight of the establishment triumphed, but his biographer believes the experience steeled him for similar tactics encountered at his trial five years later. Geoghegan also presents a lively discussion of Lord Clare’s famed Visitation of the College on the eve of the rebellion and the subsequent expulsion of nineteen students. Of course, the fact that Emmet had already withdrawn was of academic interest; described by Clare as ‘one of the most active and wicked members of the society of United Irishmen’, he was technically expelled in the exercise. Ruan O’Donnell treats this episode with less deference and dismisses ‘the “Visitation”’ as a sham. Far from being a thorough inquisition, he argues that it was in Fitzgibbon’s interest to play down the extent of radicalism in the College rather than concede ‘a political own goal’ to his United Irish adversaries.
O’Donnell’s biography is a very different enterprise: while Geoghegan adopts a thematic approach, he treats his subject chronologically, beginning with Emmet’s role in the rebellion of 1798. The publisher’s decision to divide the study into two volumes is questionable, particularly as the author argues convincingly that both rebellions belong within a continuous framework. In this way, his analysis justifies the Young Irelanders’ conclusion that the ‘grandest efforts’ of the era had Wolfe Tone as its soul and Robert Emmet as its epitaph. O’Donnell emphasises this continuum throughout, and his conclusions are justified not only by the presence of so many veterans of ’98 amongst Emmet’s collaborators but also in their determined efforts to avoid the errors and excesses of the earlier insurrection.
This biography is forensic in its examination of archival material and it demonstrates O’Donnell’s unequalled knowledge of the personnel of the United Irishmen and their military structures. His discussion of the choice of Marshalsea Lane in Dublin’s Liberties as the conspirators’ principal depot is illustrative of this point. No one else but Ruan O’Donnell would know that the yard was to the rear of the White Bull Inn, whose proprietors, United Irish sympathisers Patrick and Mary Dillon, had lost relatives in Kildare in ’98. Moreover, their beer supplier, John Hevey of Thomas Court, had been awarded compensation of £150 by Lord Kilwarden in a celebrated case against Major Sirr. These volumes are replete with such detail, and the reader is left with the sense that the characters of the narrative are intimate acquaintances of the author. Certainly the volume of detail is at times distracting, and Emmet disappears for pages at a time, but the overall effect demonstrates O’Donnell’s conviction that rather than being simply ‘Emmet’s rebellion’, 1803 was indeed a United Irish revolt in its inspiration and execution. The provision of extensive footnotes and a detailed index greatly enhances the volumes and makes them an unparalleled and invaluable guide to the United Irishmen, their context and their contemporaries.
Yet while these are very different biographies they are united in their conclusions. Both agree that, rather than being a naïve, romantic fool, Emmet was a military leader of considerable talent and influence. More than this, their assessments of Emmet’s remarkable Proclamation of 1803 clearly establish his significance within the Irish constitutional tradition. While they differ on the chronology of the rebellion, both argue that neither Emmet nor his leading associates should be judged by the events of 23 July 1803. Above all, the rebellion failed on account of its timing, which betrayed its potential. In his condemned cell, Emmet despaired: ‘had I another week—had I a thousand pounds—had I one thousand men, I would have feared nothing . . . but there was failure in all—plan, preparation and men’. Yet within the Castle there was a chilling awareness and universal relief that the rebels’ ill-judged timing had saved the day rather than any efforts of their own.
While both biographies would have been greatly improved by the inclusion of readable maps rather than the illegible tokens offered by the publishers, they are otherwise to be recommended unreservedly. They provide an important reassessment of Emmet, his conspiracy and his complex legacy, and ought to be read in the sequence in which they were published.

Dáire Keogh
St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568