Robert Emmet was born in Dublin on 4 March 1778. He was the youngest son of Dr Christopher Emmet (1729–1802), a court physician, and his wife, Rebecca Temple(1739–1803). The Emmets were financially comfortable, with a house at St Stephen’s Green and a country residence near Milltown. One of his elder brothers was the nationalist Thomas Addis Emmet, a close friend of Theobald Wolfe Tone, who was a frequent visitor to the house when Robert was a child.
Robert Emmet entered Trinity College, Dublin in October 1793, at the age of fifteen. In December 1797 he joined the College Historical Society, a debating society. While he was at college, his brother Thomas and some of his friends became involved in political activism. Robert himself became secretary to a United Irish society in college, and was expelled in April 1798 as a result.
After the 1798 rising, Robert Emmet was involved in reorganizing the defeated United Irish Society. In April 1799 a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he escaped, and soon after, travelled to the continent in the hope of securing French military aid. His efforts were unsuccessful, and he returned to Ireland in October 1802. In March the following year, he began preparations for another rising.
After his return to Ireland, Emmet began to prepare a new rebellion, with fellow revolutionaries Thomas Russell and James Hope. He 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. 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. However he had lost all control of his followers and in one incident, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Lord Kilwarden, reviled as 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. Sporadic clashes continued into the night until finally quelled by the military at the estimated cost of twenty military and fifty rebel dead.
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 dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance, asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain un-inscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.
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