EMMET, ROBERT (1778-1803), Irish rebel, youngest son of Robert Emmet, physician to the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, was born in Dublin in 1778, and entered Trinity College in October 1793, where he had a distinguished academic career, showing special aptitude for mathematics and chemistry, and acquiring a reputation as an orator. Without taking a degree he removed his name from the college books in April 1798, as a protest against the inquisitorial examination of the political views of the students conducted by Lord Clare as chancellor of the university. Thus cut off from entering a learned profession, he turned towards political intrigue, being already to some extent in the secrets of the United Irishmen, of whom his elder brother Thomas Addis Emmet (see below) was one of the most prominent. In April 1799 a warrant was issued for his arrest, but was not executed; and in 1800 and the following year he travelled on the continent of Europe, where he entered into relations with the leaders of the United Irishmen, exiled since the rebellion of 1798, who were planning a fresh outbreak in Ireland in expectation of support from France. Emmet went to Paris in October 1802, where he had an interview with Bonaparte which convinced him that the peace of Amiens would be of short duration and that a French invasion of England might be looked for in August 1803. The councils of the conspirators were weakened by divided opinions as to the ultimate aim of their policy; and no clearly thought-out scheme of operations appears to have been arrived at when Emmet left Paris for Ireland in October 1802. Those in his confidence afterwards denied that Emmet was himself the originator of the plan on which he acted; and several of the ablest of the United Irishmen held aloof, believing the project to be impracticable. Among the latter was Lord Cloncurry, at one time on the executive of the United Irishmen, with whom Emmet dined the night before he left Paris, and to whom he spoke of his plans with intense enthusiasm and excitement. Emmet's lack of discretion was shown by his revealing his intentions in detail to an Englishman named Lawrence, resident near Honfleur, with whom he sought shelter when travelling on foot on his way to Ireland. Arriving in Dublin at the end of October he received information to the effect that seventeen counties were ready to take up arms if a successful effort were made in Dublin. For some time he remained concealed in his father's house near Miltown, making his preparations. A large number of pikes were collected and stored in Dublin during the spring of 1803, but fire-arms and ammunition were not plentiful.
The probability of a French invasion in August was increased by the renewal of the war in May, Emmet's brother Thomas being then in Paris in communication with Talleyrand and Bonaparte. But a discovery by the government of concealed arms, and an explosion at one of Emmet's depôts in Patrick Street on the 16th of July, necessitated immediate action, and the 23rd of that month was accordingly fixed for the projected rising. An elaborate plan of operations, which he described in detail in a letter to his brother after his arrest, had been prepared by Emmet, the leading feature of which was a simultaneous attack on the castle, the Pigeon House and the artillery barracks at Island bridge; while bodies of insurgents from the neighbouring counties were to march on the capital. But the whole scheme miscarried. Some of Emmet's bolder proposals, such as a plan for capturing the commander-in-chief, were vetoed by the timidity of his associates, none of whom were men of any ability. On the 23rd of July all was confusion at the depôts, and the leaders were divided as to the course to be pursued; orders were not obeyed; a trusted messenger despatched for arms absconded with the money committed to him to pay for them; treachery, quite unsuspected by Emmet, honeycombed the conspiracy; the Wicklow contingent failed to appear; the Kildare men turned back on hearing that the rising had been postponed; a signal expected by a contingent at the Broadstone was never given. In this hopeless state of affairs a false report reached Emmet at one of his depôts at nine o'clock in the evening that the military were approaching. Without taking any step to verify it, Emmet put on a green and white uniform and placed himself at the head of some eighty men, who marched towards the castle, being joined in the streets by a second body of about equal strength. None of these insurgents had any discipline, and many of them were drunk. Lord Kilwarden, proceeding to a hastily summoned meeting of the privy council, was dragged from his carriage by this rabble and murdered, together with his nephew Richard Wolfe; his daughter who accompanied him being conveyed to safety by Emmet himself. Emmet, now seeing that the rising had become a mere street brawl, made his escape; a detachment of soldiers quickly dispersed his followers.
After hiding for some days in the Wicklow mountains Emmet repaired to the house of a Mrs Palmer at Harold's Cross, in order to be near the residence of John Philpot Curran (q.v.), to whose daughter Sarah he had for some time been secretly attached, and with whom he had carried on a voluminous correspondence, afterwards seized by the authorities at her father's house. Attempting without success to persuade this lady to fly with him to America, Emmet lingered in the neighbourhood till the 25th of August, when he was apprehended by Major H.C. Sirr, the same officer who had captured Lord Edward Fitzgerald in 1798. At his trial he was defended and betrayed by the infamous Leonard MacNally (q.v.), and was convicted of treason; and after delivering an eloquent speech from the dock, was hanged on the 20th of September 1803.
By the universal testimony of his friends, Robert Emmet was a youth of modest character, pure motives and winning personality. But he was entirely lacking in practical statesmanship. Brought up in a revolutionary atmosphere, his enthusiasm was uncontrolled by judgment. Thomas Moore, who warmly eulogizes Emmet, with whom he was a student at Trinity College, records that one day when he was playing on the piano the melody "Let Erin remember," Emmet started up exclaiming passionately, "Oh, that I were at the head of 20,000 men marching to that air!" He had no knowledge of the world or of men; he trusted every one with child-like simplicity; except personal courage he had none of the qualities essential to leadership in such an enterprise as armed rebellion. The romance of his love affair with Sarah Curran - who afterwards married Robert Henry Sturgeon, an officer distinguished in the Peninsular War - has cast a glamour over the memory of Robert Emmet; and it inspired Thomas Moore's well-known songs, "She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps," and "Oh, breathe not his name"; it is also the subject of Washington Irving's "The Broken Heart." Emmet was short and slight in figure; his face was marked by smallpox, and he was described in 1803 for the purpose of identification as being "of an ugly, sour countenance and dirty brown complexion." A few poems by Emmet of little merit are appended to Madden's biography.
See R.R. Madden, The United Irishmen, their Lives and Times (2nd ed. 4 vols., Dublin, 1858-1860); Charles Phillips, Recollections of Curran and Some of his Contemporaries (2nd ed., London, 1822); Henry Grattan, Memoirs of the Life and Times of the Right Hon. H. Grattan (5 vols., London, 1839-1846); W.H. Maxwell, History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798; with Memoirs of the Union and Emmet's Insurrection in 1803 (London, 1845); W.H. Curran, Life of J.P. Curran (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1822); Thomas Moore, Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (2 vols. 3rd ed., London, 1832); and Memoirs, Journals and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, edited by Lord John Russell (8 vols., London, 1853-1856).
(R. J. M.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)