Friday, March 04, 2005

March 4th, 1778 - Birth of Robert Emmet

On the 4th of March 1778, Robert Emmet, one of Ireland's most famous revolutionaries, was born in Dublin. Emmet was a member of the United Irishmen and leader of the Uprising in 1803. He was captured and convicted of
"high treason". On 20 September 1803, he was hanged, drawn and quartered, and beheaded. His Speech from the Dock stands as one of the most memorable and moving speeches in Irish history.

The following is a speech made by Seán Ó Brádaigh at the bicentenary commemoration of Robert Emmet's death:

It has become fashionable in some quarters to talk about the ‘myth’ of Robert Emmet. Let me say at the outset that the story of Robert Emmet is not in the realms of fiction. We know sufficient about him and his short life to be able to say that there is no need to create any myth about the man.

The Society of United Irishmen to which he belonged was no myth either. Nor is the Republican resistance to English rule in Ireland, before Emmet’s Rising and since, a myth. The invasion, conquest and plantation of Ireland are no myths, nor is the suffering of the Irish people. We know of the laws against Catholics, we know of the landlord system and the evictions, the starvation of 1845-48 and the coffin ships. None of these are myths.

Robert Emmet was a fine, respectable, idealistic young man who walked these streets of Dublin and who understood well the degradation and suffering he saw all around him. He was bright and intelligent and studied at Trinity College until he was expelled from there because of his Republican activities. He travelled throughout Ireland, in England and Scotland, on the continent of Europe and spent some time in France. He met some of the great intellectuals, revolutionaries, writers and statesmen of the period. He was all the time developing and formulating his ideas, and planning about how best to bring English rule in Ireland to an end. When he inherited his father’s estate he spent every penny of it on the cause of Irish Freedom.

So, there is no need to indulge in the realms of mythology. If we know less about him than we know about Tone, or Pearse or Connolly, it is because his life was shorter than theirs. There is, nevertheless, plenty of evidence as to his background, the influences which formed him and the deeds he did. We also have many of his letters, his Manifesto and his inspiring Speech from the Dock.

There is something special about Robert Emmet, something exceptional and even lovable, that has made him ‘the darling of Erin’, for the last two hundred years. He has inspired scores of biographies and hundreds of songs. Thousands of boys are named after him. He has become a hero on both sides of the Atlantic, in France and in the United States, as well as at home. He has brought us all together here today from all parts of Ireland, to meet at this hallowed spot where his young life was brutally taken from him in order to protect and secure English rule in our own country. It was on this very day, September 20, 1803, at this very spot in front of St. Catherine’s Church and at this very hour that young Emmet died for Ireland on England’s gallows tree.

Emmet deserves our respect, our admiration and our gratitude. Were it not for him, and countless other patriots, the Irish nation would long ago have faded away and disappeared in the mists of history. His memory endures and his deeds and words have inspired many who came after him, chief among them Patrick Pearse. In his speech from the Dock, Emmet said: “This is my hope, that my memory and name may serve to animate those who survive me”. And indeed it has. Emmet, as one of his biographers, Leon Ó Broin said, “was pure gold”, and the people of Ireland shall never forget him.

Nor shall we forget his gallant comrades in revolution, Michael Dwyer, Thomas Russell, Jemmy Hope, Miles Byrne and many others. The valiant Anne Devlin was faithful to the end. Despite many bribes and inducements, pain and torture, she never revealed one iota to the agents of the Crown. She died in poverty in 1851.

We remember also with pride all those who died in action in 1803, most of whose names we shall never know. John Keenan bled to death as a result of an explosion in the Patrick Street arms depot on July 16, 1803. His brother, Thomas Keenan was hanged here in Thomas Street, the scene of Robert Emmet’s execution.

Also hanged here in Thomas Street were Edward Kearney, Owen Kirwan, Maxwell Roach, John Killeen, John McCann, John Hayes and Michael Kelly. Denis Lambert Redmond was hanged at Coal Quay, now called Wood Quay. Felix Rourke was hanged at Rathcoole, Co Dublin. James Byrne and John Begg were hanged in Townsend Street. Thomas Donnelly and Nicholas Tyrrell were hanged at Palmerstown, Co Dublin. Henry Howley was hanged at Kilmainham Gaol. John McIntosh was hanged in Patrick Street.

Thomas Russell, James Corry and James Drake were hanged at Downpatrick, Co Down. Andrew Hunter and David Porter were hanged at Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim.

We salute their memory. Republican Ireland shall never forget them.

We of Republican Sinn Féin, who have gathered here today, hold true to Tone’s and Emmet’s teaching and purpose – to break the connection with England and establish an independent Irish Republic, uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman. Tone and Emmet, Pearse and Connolly, saw Ireland as one nation of thirty-two counties. They regarded English rule in Ireland as an illegality. Now, two hundred years later, Republican Sinn Féin adheres to the same judgement. This is the bedrock of Irish Republicanism, along with the corresponding proposition that all Irish men and women, as citizens of Ireland, are entitled to equal rights and equal opportunities. The corollary of this is that all owe allegiance to the Irish nation.

On September 19, 1803, Robert Emmet was tried, convicted and sentenced to death by a Special Commission of three judges, sitting in Green Street Courthouse. The handpicked jury did not even retire to their room to consider their verdict. Emmet spent that night in Kilmainham Gaol, where he wrote his last letters and tided up his affairs; and where two clergymen of the Church of Ireland saw to his spiritual needs.

On the afternoon of September 20, he was brought under heavy guard to this spot, travelling via Islandbridge, Benburb Street, recrossing the Liffey at Queen’s Bridge (now Mellows Bridge) and ascending Bridgefoot Street to Thomas Street. A public gallows had been erected here and it was on this very spot that he was hanged. His body was then stretched on a deal table and the head severed from it. The executioner held the head aloft by the hair and marched up and down the platform, crying out: “Here is the head of the traitor, Robert Emmet”.

Because this is the exact day and the exact hour of Emmet’s execution, we who have gathered here, are probably, as Pearse said at the grave of the Fenian O’Donovan Rossa, in closer spiritual communion with him today than ever before or perhaps ever again.

We of Republican Sinn Féin are in close spiritual communion with Emmet for other reasons also, besides standing on this spot on this bicentenary day. Because we uphold the Republican principles of Tone and Emmet, some of our members have stood in recent years, and in recent months, in Emmet’s dock in Green Street Courthouse, before the Special Non-jury Court. I speak of people like Emmet, of respectable families and good standing in society, arrested under draconian legislation and an attempt made to tarnish their good name, by association with criminal elements and other means. There are Republican prisoners in custody today who are refused political status, just as Emmet and his comrades were in 1803.

It is important that we appreciate that the Rising of 1803 was more than just an aftershock of the Rising of 1798. It was organised by the same United Irish movement, the first generation of Irish Republicans, but one major event separated the two. This was the Act of Union of 1800 which abolished the Irish Parliament in College Green. The brand new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was designed to bring Irish separatism to an end forever, by absorbing Ireland into total and complete union with England “in perpetuity”. The outside world was told that England’s Irish problem had been resolved.

The Act of Union came into force on the first day of the new century, January 1, 1801. But in that same month, Robert Emmet and Malachy Delaney arrived in Paris to seek French assistance, just as Theobald Wolfe Tone had done previously. The French were inclined to the belief that the Act of Union had changed the situation in Ireland. But Emmet and Delaney in their memorial to the First Consul, Bonaparte stated as follows:

“We have been instructed to declare to you that the English Union has in no way eased the discontent of Ireland. The silence . . . . has been but a politic silence, under a state of persecution”.

The French Government archives show how the Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, interpreted this memorial when sending it to Bonaparte, on January 18, 1801:

“The Irishmen have presented a well-crafted memorial, which is clear, precise and nobly written. It presents the state of Ireland, demonstrating that the parliamentary Union is imposed by constraint, and not by the consent of the nation”.

Here we have evidence of the intellectual, diplomatic and literary skills of the young Emmet, then but 23 years of age. He had many other talents as well, as we know from the substantial material preparations he and his comrades made, under the very noses of the Dublin Castle authorities, in the spring and early summer of 1803. Emmet’s Rising of July 1803 served notice on England and her minions in Ireland that the so-called Irish problem had not been solved by the Act of Union, far from it. Twice more in the nineteenth century, and four more times in the twentieth century, three of these in my own lifetime, Irish men and women asserted Ireland’s right to freedom in arms.

The Act of Union of 1800 sought to copperfasten English rule within a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was not the final settlement with England. The Treaty of 1921 ushered in a new United Kingdom, this time of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It was forced on the Irish people at great cost in blood and suffering and with native Irish collaboration. It was not the final settlement either.

The Stormont Agreement of 1998 has also sought to copperfasten English rule in the Six Counties, by seeking to anchor it in the consent of both Unionists and Nationalists. We have not achieved the sovereign independent Republic of 32 Counties, based on equal rights and equal opportunities for all itchildren. The major obstacle to attainment of that objective is English rule and an English army of occupation in the North. On this side of the Border, we have full official cooperation and collaboration with the government of England and its regime in the Six Counties. And we have coercion, intimidation and threats against those who oppose it.

Robert Emmet’s appeal to future generations, in the name of Irish freedom, on the basis of the common name of Irishman, was a call to national service. There are many people who serve Ireland today in numerous ways, both in paid employment and in voluntary work. Many Irish people work abroad unselfishly, for the welfare of suffering mankind. Their labours bring honour to Ireland and her good name.

But, there is still an appreciation among Irish people that Emmet’s epitaph cannot yet be written because Ireland, is not yet free of foreign rule. And, when it comes to the basic, continuing and enduring issue of confronting English rule in our country, denying its legitimacy and leading the vanguard in an endeavour to end it, it is Republican Sinn Féin, almost alone, which mans an bhearna bhaoil.

As Patrick Pearse also said at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, the defenders of English rule think that they have pacified Ireland, by purchasing one half and intimidating the other half. In the words of the constitutional nationalist, Charles Stewart Parnell, they think they have succeeded in setting the ne plus ultra to the march of the Irish nation, setting the limit of thus far and no farther. They proclaim the lie that Ireland consists of just 26 Counties and that ‘Northern Ireland’ is another country. The new label for Ireland is ‘the island’! What a ghastly and appalling distortion and caricature of an ancient and illustrious nation. I cannot but ask when the self-esteem and dignity of the Irish people will assert that this is not acceptable.

To maintain its bridgehead in Ireland, England has not only created sectarian divisions and used the 18% of the Irish people who describe themselves as Unionists, but she has cleverly sought to get the rest of the Irish people to acquiesce in this arrangement and claims democratic legitimacy for it. But the partition of Ireland remains what it always was, a denial of democracy, by dividing, by force of arms, the historic Irish nation and the historic province of Ulster, on the basis of a sectarian headcount.

We can come to some understanding of how this can happen if we ponder the words of the 1916 leader, Thomas McDonagh, to his courtmartial: “In this ceaseless struggle there will be, as there has been, and must be, an alternate ebb and flow”. In the last 200 years since Emmet’s time, there has been this seemingly inevitable ebb and flow, or swing of the pendulum between constitutional Nationalism and revolutionary Republicanism.

We all desire peace. I have never met anyone who preferred war to peace. The necessary prerequisite, the essential requirement, for peace, is justice, and it is that peace, based on justice, that we Republicans of today strive to achieve. It is not the Pax Britannica, nor the Pax Americana, but the Peace of the Gael. There is room in the Republic of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, of Seán Sabhat and Bobby Sands, for all Irishmen and women, under the common name of Irishman, irrespective of when and in what circumstances their ancestors arrived in Ireland. The only qualification is that they give their allegiance to the historic Irish nation.

For the moment, the forces of constitutional nationalism, among whom I include the Provos of today, have, for the first time, totally accepted English rule in the Six Counties as legitimate. We can, however, already detect the beginning of the fall of the pendulum from this dishonourable and ignominious position, as people discern the receding prospect of a free and united Ireland through the so-called peace process. Republican Sinn Féin will continue to advocate the clear Republican doctrine of breaking the connection with England.

Some may consider us small in number and, at this point in time, ineffective in action. But there have been times before in Irish history when the separatist cause seemed to be weak. We of Republican Sinn Féin are the nucleus, which represents what Emmet represented, the soul of Ireland, the prophetic shock minority, those who are neither purchased nor intimidated. This nucleus will in due course become the dynamism and the driving force within the crashing waves of the flowing tide when it returns.

This will not come about by accident or mere good luck. Our historic task and duty is to inform, educate and mobilise the youth of Ireland, putting before them the concept of service in the noble enterprise of achieving the 32-County Irish Republic. The abject sell-out by the Provos and the shameful corruption in Irish public life today are the very antithesis of all that Robert Emmet stood for. They also provide fertile ground for us to cultivate. Our task is immense, but we are inspired by our patriot dead, and young Emmet is our guiding star.

His Speech from the Dock was a defiant challenge to English rule in Ireland and a challenge to Lord Norbury’s Special Court. More than that, it was a challenge to future generations of Irish men and women to continue the struggle for a free and united Ireland, which would take her place among the nations of the earth.

Republican Sinn Féin has taken up that challenge. Our ÉIRE NUA Programme for a four-province federal Ireland is a blueprint for a modern democracy at national, provincial and local level. Our primary objective is to uphold and promote Emmet’s noble design for his country.

In continuing to pursue this objective, as he reminded us, we must in all our endeavours, “cause the law of morality to be enforced and respected”. True Irish Republicanism, in other generations, was always based on truth, justice and high standards. If we are to succeed, we must abide by the same lofty and noble principles of Robert Emmet.

An Phoblacht Abú!

(Speech by Seán Ó Brádaigh at Emmet Bi–Centenary Ceremony)


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