The Rising of 1803 in Dublin

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

July 23, 1803. Robert Emmet heads his men by J.D. Reigh. (Shamrock, 5 July 1890)

July 23, 1803. Robert Emmet heads his men by J.D. Reigh. (Shamrock, 5 July 1890)

The rising of 1803 bore as much resemblance to what had been planned by its chief military strategist, Robert Emmet, as the rebellion of 1798 did to Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s original plans. In both instances United Irish offensive activities had been envisaged as secondary to those of a sizeable French expeditionary force. Contingencies devised by the military committee of the United Irishmen between 1796 and 1803 were conceived as those appropriate for untrained and lightly equipped auxiliaries in support of a primary body of French professionals. The French were to supply officers, men, cavalry, artillery, munitions, firearms and their reputation for invincibility in the field. In short, the Parisian administration was expected to make good its offer to underwrite the Irish revolution. The assistance promised by the United Irishmen was to take the form of widespread and staggered diversionary actions to tie down British garrison personnel behind government lines. Victory would be effected by attacks on communications around the capital and the orderly mobilisation of insurgents in sectors where French cadres were accessible. By 19 May 1798 and 16       July 1803, however, the respective United Irish leaderships opted instead for the desperate gamble of unilateral uprising ahead of expected reinforcement from France. Both strategies faltered in Dublin, although the impressive degree of preparation attained in 1803 was not fully revealed owing to Emmet’s decision to countermand orders to rise and the inability of State forces to confront the insurgents in their midst.
Similarities between the two projected conspiracies may be attributed to the common involvement of Philip Long, John Allen, William Dowdall, Walter Cox and several other important military committee associates. Emmet, although an officer in the St Stephen’s Green Division of United Irishmen in May 1798, evidently only reached the inner circle of the organisation in August of that year. He rose still further to inherit Fitzgerald’s crucial role in October 1802. By then the collapse of the Peace of Amiens (March 1802) seemed likely to bring a French invasion fleet to Irish shores on a scale not seen since December 1796. Prior to his reappearance in Dublin, Emmet had been personally assured of French intentions, as he informed Miles Byrne, by Foreign Minister Tallyrand and First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Emmet consulted widely with United Irishmen on the Continent, from Hamburg to Cadiz, in the summer of 1802, and on his return to Dublin in October was told that nineteen counties were prepared to rise en masse to aid the French.

Irish executive physically vulnerable

Much attention was subsequently paid by Emmet, Long and Dowdall to city fighting although, as with so many other aspects of the planned coup d’état, little of this investment was visible on 23 July 1803. They realised, nonetheless, that the Irish executive at Dublin Castle was physically vulnerable and easily isolated from army headquarters at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Moreover, the viceroy, Lord Hardwicke, lived outside the city in the Phoenix Park with a small staff of retainers and bodyguards. The chances of French progress in the provinces were obviously much greater if surprise attacks killed, captured or trapped the viceroy, privy council and commander-in-chief at the height of an invasion crisis. The prospect of wresting the Castle from State control would also have been a major morale boost for the United Irishmen expected to rally to the French en route to Dublin. The city, therefore, was the key to United Irish strategy, and the challenge of seizing control of it absorbed Emmet’s coterie in the spring of 1803.
The conspirators hired an unknown number of premises in Dublin where war material was manufactured and stored. Walter Cox claimed knowledge of at least nine buildings where firearms were concealed, although the two most important known depots in Mass (a.k.a. Marshal) Lane South and Patrick Street contained very few. Buildings in North King Street, Smithfield, Winetavern Street, Capel Street, New Row and many other locations were employed for this purpose. Sophisticated ordnance such as rockets, mines and explosive devices (‘infernals’) were obtained in the south city.

Lieutenant General Henry Fox by J.W. Chandler. As a result of the commander-in-chief's complacency, Emmet's insurgents were not opposed by any Crown forces acting under specific orders until after the rising petered out. (Public Record Office, Northern Ireland)

Lieutenant General Henry Fox by J.W. Chandler. As a result of the commander-in-chief’s complacency, Emmet’s insurgents were not opposed by any Crown forces acting under specific orders until after the rising petered out. (Public Record Office, Northern Ireland)

They were to be used during the critical mobilisation phase to drive the garrison off the streets and keep them corralled in their barracks. The military did not have to be annihilated, an unlikely prospect in any case, but it was imperative that their capacity to confront the popular forces was dealt a major blow in the initial stages of the revolt. Such breathing space, coupled with such variable factors as charismatic leadership and local military success, was the difference between attaining mobilisations of the contrasting levels seen in Wexford and Westmeath in 1798.

Army untrained in urban warfare

The army was untrained in fighting in built-up areas and had never faced on home soil the improvised weapons envisaged by Emmet. All western military forces were obsessed with the practices of column advances and the ranks, files and squares that typified the formalised contests of the Napoleonic Wars. Neither cavalry nor artillery could be properly deployed in urban zones, and the extreme difficulty of organising and manoeuvring regulars in such conditions would have been exacerbated by the impediments of smoke once combat was joined. Furthermore, Emmet wished to fight at night and to prepare his chosen ground with spiked chains, fire and barricades to further limit the options of his enemies. The response of the soldiery to a deluge of grenades and musketry from elevated positions and their ability to maintain an efficient rate of fire when threatened by massed pikemen on all sides were open to question. Furthermore, several hundred easily concealed pistol calibre muskets had been commissioned by Emmet to give the insurgents a much better chance of prevailing against the 4000 regulars in Dublin. Miles Byrne procured in excess of 400 such weapons from gunsmith Daniel Muley, and James Hope obtained an unknown quantity of high-quality blunderbusses from another source.
This sudden onslaught in the city centre was to be seconded by an influx of thousands of rebels from counties Kildare, Wicklow and Meath, all of which were within walking distance of Dublin. Pike dumps were established for their use along the banks of the Royal Canal, in Rathcoffey (Kildare), Santry Woods (Dublin) and undoubtedly many other locations. Attacks on Belfast, Limerick and Cork, meanwhile, would increase pressure on the executive, which Emmet aimed to paralyse within the capital. The precise strategy of the Emmet group vis-à-vis the countryside was never divulged, let alone the last-minute contingencies adopted in haste after 16 July 1803, but such factors as staggered uprisings, ambushes and fighting columns were evidently considered. As before, market towns located on provincial road routes radiating from the capital would be occupied and defended. Dunshaughlin, Dunboyne, Lucan and similar outlying villages were earmarked for capture by men who had played the same role in the same places in May/June 1798. Each nodal point would contain the nucleus of a mobilising rebel column. The actual closure of roads by rebels in Celbridge, Maynooth, Phibsborough, Sandymount and Rathfarnham on the night of 23 July 1803 points to the viability of Emmet’s plans and their considerable potential if triggered further afield. This was also emphasised by the unopposed march to the capital of insurgents from Straffan, Naas, Clane and other parts of Kildare.

The Patrick Street explosion

Most of the United Irish veterans in contact with Emmet’s circle had undertaken to operate as auxiliaries alongside the French, or even without foreign assistance, if given modern weapons. They had sworn to perform this duty in 1797–8 and remained committed in the aftermath of defeat in the field to abide by their oaths in 1802–3. Failure to deliver either a French expeditionary force or the new muskets, therefore, fatally compromised the conspiracy. This dilemma arose owing to an accidental explosion in the rocket depot on Patrick Street on 16 July 1803 that forced the hand of the leadership. Darby Byrne and one Keenan were mortally wounded, and the frantic attempt to conceal the cause of the resultant fire led to conflict with the watchmen. Unbeknownst to Emmet, the military had refused to aid the watchmen that night without permission from a civilian magistrate, and the Castle authorities were powerless to arrest persons on suspicion owing to the revocation of coercion legislation in 1802. Byrne and Keenan spurned the inducements and threats of their captors and died within days under guard in Steevens’s Hospital.
Fearing that all the crucial dumps would be discovered in house-to-house searches, Emmet sided with those who argued that an immediate uprising would oblige the French to expedite the invasion expected in August/ September. A hastily convened conference in Windy Arbour (Milltown) on 16 July 1803 fixed the date of the uprising for 23 July. Given the sense of exigency, there was no provision for cancellation and insufficient time to acknowledge the responses of regional leaders. This meant that the outright opposition of most commanders to fighting with pikes alone was not appreciated in the capital until it was too late for Emmet to stand down his Leinster adherents.

Great Court Yard, Dublin Castle by James Malton. The castle was the main object of Emmet's projected coup d'état. (National Library of Ireland)

Great Court Yard, Dublin Castle by James Malton. The castle was the main object of Emmet’s projected coup d’état. (National Library of Ireland)

Communications with the Michael Dwyer faction in west Wicklow also proved less than ideal and broke down entirely when most required. Thomas Russell, James Hope, William Hamilton and other long-standing radicals went to Ulster to warn their contacts, while Dublin residents such as Miles Byrne and Arthur Devlin primed fellow Leinstermen. William Todd Jones and William Norris made overtures at the same time in Munster, and it seems that Limerick, if not also Cork, was originally intended to be attacked on 23 July. The reception of the delegates in most instances was far from positive given the magnitude of what was in train and it is highly likely that the rising would have been cancelled had Emmet realised that sufficient Ulster forces to capture Belfast, Downpatrick and Ballymena would not be fielded at the moment of truth.

The Dublin plan

The first attacks in Dublin were entrusted to squads of heavily armed men who gathered in private houses close to their objectives. Miles Byrne and William Darcy were primed in Denis Lambert Redmond’s Wood Quay home for the attempt on the main Castle gates: another squad was simultaneously poised to break through the weakly defended Ship Street perimeter wall. Townsend Street rebels were tasked with raiding the ordnance store they lived beside, aided by their republican neighbours from Fleet and Poolbeg Streets. Ringsend and Irishtown rebels on the south coast were to strike at the Pigeon House Fort and a dump was maintained for their use by Thomas Brannigan. Smithfield area rebels in the north inner city were to tie down the substantial garrison of 2100 men based in the Royal Barracks (now the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks) and hinder their efforts to cross the Liffey into the main rebel mobilisation area. The Liffey bridges would have been hotly contested. Patrick McCabe’s men also reconnoitred outlying military installations on the north side with a view to storming the Phoenix Park Magazine and Islandbridge artillery barracks. Given the impracticality of holding such positions from garrison counterattack, it is likely that the Magazine would have been burned and the cannon at Islandbridge spiked to prevent their use against the insurgents.
While the first wave exploited the element of surprise, Emmet, Dowdall, Allen and Long envisaged the rapid disbursement of pikes to the main reserve on Thomas Street near the focal point of the Corn Market building. At least 7000 pikes were stored nearby in Marshal Lane South (a.k.a. Mass/ Marshalsea/Thomas Street depot) for the use of these men. The core group of 2000 County Dubliners and Liberties men was to have massed on Crumlin Commons and infiltrated Sylvester Costigan’s Thomas Street distillery during the late afternoon. Armed in secret and behind chained doors, this cadre would have provided a backbone to the low-level activists told to mass in the pubs, groceries and dens of the south city ahead of further instructions. Hope had agitated amongst the Coombe United Irishmen towards this end, and the highly effective Colonel Felix Rourke of Rathcoole, a hero of the Leinster campaign in 1798, was destined to command. Other rebel officers were concealed in Thomas Court, College Green and two pubs operated by United Irishmen: the White Bull Inn and Yellow (a.k.a. ‘Golden’) Bottle on Thomas Street. The mere coalescence of such men severed the most direct route between Dublin Castle and army headquarters at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and, as such, it is not surprising that Emmet deployed chains, ‘infernals’ and sentries to protect the Liffeyside approaches to his primary body of manpower. Rebel officers also formed up with hand-picked men at Rainsford Street to guard the Canal Basin and the James’s Street side of the critical zone. Rourke et al. shot at least two dispatch riders in the early evening and fired upon senior garrison officers en route to a conference in the Royal Hospital.
Emmet and his main associates spent much of the morning and early afternoon briefing subordinates in safe houses around the south city and soon realised that the situation regarding arms and the French was bound to cause dissension. Kildare men heard unfounded rumours that their Dublin comrades would not fight, and some leaders exerted themselves to send their followers home. The unexplained absence of Hope in Ulster evidently irritated many of his acquaintances in the Coombe who were not known to Rourke, let alone Emmet or Dowdall. When the truth about arms provision became apparent, a substantial element of Kildare forces withdrew from the city environs. Meanwhile, unauthorised attacks on army officers, magistrates, soldiers and loyalists threatened to alert the government in the early evening. Palmerstown magistrates Richard Willcocks and Edward Clarke were shot and wounded on Arran Quay when returning from the Castle. It was correctly assumed that they had reported their fears of an uprising, although Emmet had no way of appreciating the profound confusion within the executive at that time. Essentially, a republican riot was expected, not a full-blown insurrection attempt, and while Lord Lieutenant Hardwicke and Undersecretary Alexander Marsden believed that the army would patrol after dark, commander-in-chief Lt-Gen. Henry Edward Fox thought otherwise. Inexperience, incompetence and overconfidence disposed Fox to accept the misconception that the civilian yeomanry would shoulder the burden of security duties. The net result was that Emmet’s insurgents were not opposed by any Crown forces acting under specific orders until after the rising petered out.

Mobilisation countermanded

By 9.15 p.m. Emmet decided that the rising could not succeed and took steps to preserve the lives of his followers. The Mansion House on Dawson Street had been raided for arms and Henry Howley compromised the carriages needed for the rush on the Castle gates by shooting Colonel Lyde Brown during a fracas on Bridgefoot Street. Two small patrols of watchmen and magistrates had also been driven away from the Thomas Street vicinity by Rourke’s sentries and men who had just been equipped with pikes at the Corn Market House. A protracted, bloody and doomed struggle seemed in the offing, which Emmet wished to avoid. Consequently, sizeable insurgent groups straddling the main suburban roads after 9.00 p.m. were stood down by the launching of a solitary signal rocket that countermanded orders to rise. Shortly afterwards Emmet emerged from the Thomas Street depot and hastily read extracts from the Proclamation of the Provisional Government to the People of Ireland. He then headed a feint on the Castle in order to bring approximately 200 junior followers into the Dublin Mountains. The élite veteran groups such as that led by Byrne were not deployed when Emmet moved away from Thomas Street towards Rathfarnham. The chance encounter with and fatal piking of Chief Justice Kilwarden on the way towards the Castle had proved the final straw that exposed the limits of Emmet’s control over those already on the streets.
Not considered by Emmet was the determination of several well-organised factions under recognised leaders to confront State forces. McCabe, Owen Kirwan, Peter Finnerty and Thomas Keogh were amongst the insurgent officers eager to fight at the head of separate corps. As Emmet approached Rathfarnham, at least 400 and probably many more insurgents fought a series of short skirmishes with two distinct elements of the 21st Regiment. The clashes moved from Thomas Street to the vicinity of the Coombe Barracks on Newmarket Street and scores of fatalities ensued. By 11.00 p.m. these efforts had resulted in the retreat of the military to barracks and the dispersal of their protagonists. Accordingly, the subsequent deluge of troops from Cork Street and Old Custom House Barracks found much evidence of an uprising but very few obvious participants. This exchange was by no means the fiasco the Castle, army and parliament were keen to project to the curious French gallery and to a British population living in fear of a cross-channel attack on their own shores.


Emmet and his main Kildare and Wicklow associates hid in the Ballynameece, Bohernabreena and Ballinascorney district of the Dublin mountains until 27 July, when he returned to his still-secret Harold’s Cross lodgings to confer with surviving leadership figures in the city. The French were still expected within weeks if not months, and Miles Byrne was sent to Paris to brief the United Irish embassy on what had transpired. The French were not, however, in a position to mount an expedition at such short notice, although September was still in contemplation for the oft-postponed Irish invasion. It was not to be. On 25 August 1803 Emmet was taken prisoner in Harold’s Cross by the indefatigable Town Major Henry Charles Sirr and brought to the Castle. Tried on 19 September and executed the following day on Thomas Street, the loss of Emmet precipitated the total collapse of the plot. Rourke, Redmond and Russell were the only other leaders of note executed by late October, by which time the workings of martial law ensured that the United Irishmen were no longer in a position to offer immediate coordinated assistance to the French. The origins, course and consequences of the rising of 1803 will be debated for years to come, but it is clearly unsatisfactory to treat the subject as an insignificant occurrence in the long history of Anglo-Irish hostilities.

Ruán O’Donnell lectures in history at the University of Limerick.


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