Robert Emmet in the Words of Others

Robert Emmet

The Character of Robert Emmet


“Were I to remember, indeed, among all I have known, who appeared to me to combine in the greatest degree, pure moral worth with intellectual power, I should, among the highest of the few, place Robert Emmet.”  - Thomas Moore, a friend of  Emmet's at University College Dublin.


“So gifted a creature does not appear in a thousand years.” -  Archibald Douglas, a university friend of Emmet who became a famous clergyman.


“Mr Robert Emmet, a young gentleman of highly respectable family, of very striking talents and interesting manners, was in the habit of visiting at Mr Curran’s house.” -  Biographer of the lawyer John Philpot Curran, whose daughter Emmet courted.


"[Emmet was] not a person who has been seduced by others, but a gentleman to whom the rebellion may be traced, as the origin, the life and the soul of it." - Standish O’Grady, Attorney-General  and prosecutor at Emmet’s trial.


“He was a very young man. He had not that distrust of human nature which is the bitterest part of wisdom and only comes to men by long experience. He trusted too easily. Men failed him through weakness, through idleness, through all kinds of little, petty weaknesses. Some, too, perhaps were treacherous. His mind was in a flame with his own thoughts, with his own purposes. But such men, though they see often less into human nature than others until the world has schooled them, have often been the very masters of the world.” - William Butler Yeats, poet.


The Appearance of Robert Emmet


“In 1798 he was near twenty years of age, of an ugly sour countenance; small eyes, but not near-sighted; a dirty-brownish complexion; at a distance looks as if somewhat marked with small-pox; about five feet six inches high, rather thin than fat, but not of an emaciated figure; on the contrary, somewhat broad-made; walks briskly, but does not swing his arms.” - Reverend Thomas Elrington, Senior Dean of Trinity College.


“He was above middle stature, rather slight and delicate, although endowed with nervous strength which enabled him to support great fatigue. He walked with a quick step, and all his movements were rapid. The portraits remaining of him have been made after his death, and the painter, it is said, preoccupied with his tragic fate, has given him a sad sombre expression which he had not in the happy days of life. His countenance was pleasing and distingué. His hair was brown and his complexion quite pale; the eyebrow was arched, and the eyes black and large with dark eye-lashes, which gave to his looks a remarkable expression of pride, penetration, and mildness. His nose was aquiline and his mouth slightly disdainful. 

“Energy, delicacy, and tenderness are expressed in his melancholy and ardent features. Such was, however, his total absence of affectation and his simplicity, that modesty of his character, joined to a sort of habitual reserve, hid the working of his mind in the ordinary circumstances of life, but, were any subject started which was deeply interesting to him, he appeared quite another man.” -  Louise de Broglie, Comtesse d’Haussonville, writing in 1858.


The Actions of Robert Emmet


“I have been for some time in possession of everything that has been going forward in the college – and I know that Emmet is one of the most active and wicked members of the society of the United Irishmen – and I did desire the Provost not to suffer any person to take his name off the college books, that I might bring him and others of his association to punishment.”  - Lord Chancellor Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare.


“Early in the year 1801, Mr Robert Emmet went over to the Continent with a mission to the French Government from the Executive Directory of the United Irishmen here. He was accompanied by a Mr Malachi Delany of the County of Kildare; Delany had been formerly an officer in the Austrian service and was deeply engaged in the Rebellion of 1798. They travelled through England and embarked at Yarmouth for Hamburg, Emmet (against whom there was no charge) under his own name, and Delany under the name of Bowers… He returned to this country in November, 1802, where he remained unmolested, as he had done before, there being no charge against him, this circumstance of his having been sent on this treasonable mission having only been discovered since the Insurrection of the 23rd July.” - William Wickham, Chief Secretary.


“Mr Emmet’s powerful, persuasive language, and sound reason, all coming from the heart, left it impossible for any Irishman, impressed with a desire for his country’s independence, to make any objection to his plans (particularly as Ireland’s great opportunity seemed now to have arrived for her freedom), save to bide the proper time, and wait for French aid. For my own part, I had no objections to make. I merely observed that I trusted the poor county of Wexford, and the other parts which suffered in 1798, would be spared until Dublin was ready to begin and take the lead in the struggle; that for the accomplishment of this enterprise there were more than three hundred brave county of Wexford fellows who escaped in ’98 and who took refuge in Dublin and the environs, on whom we could count when the time for action arrived, and that with the aid of those tried man, and with the brave Kildare men and Dublin citizens, I trusted success was certain.[…]”

“Both Mr John Patten and Mr Philip Long endeavoured to persuade Emmet of the urgent necessity of his going at once to France; to which he replied that it should never be said of him that he had abandoned the brave people implicated through his means.[…]”

“I took my last farewell of this magnanimous young man, who during this interview never uttered a word of blame against any of those leaders who might have preserved discipline and prevented the disasters and false alarms which produced such bad effects on the men in Thomas Street.” - Miles Byrne, revolutionary.


“He pronounced the speech in so loud a voice as to be distinctly heard at the outer doors of the courthouse… moving about the dock with rapid but not ungraceful motions.” - Dr Madden, commenting on the trial.


“Never shall I forget the moment when, rising with a manner full of grace and mildness, Emmet offered to his country the sacrifice of his life. All eyes filled with tears. We went out sobbing, and I thought for a moment that justice was severe and the conspirator to be pitied.” - The Marquis d’Harcourt, an English officer who had helped put down Emmet’s rebellion.


“Nevertheless, I must say that he was great amid all his errors. When, on the day of his trial – the tomb already open to receive him – he made the very walls ring with the power of his eloquence. I saw that viper (Plunket) whom his father had nourished in his bosom tremble under his lashes and that scum of humanity (Norbury), who was one of the judges, grow pale and tremble on his seat. It was, under such circumstances, an effort almost superhuman: and when, after inflicting that memorable chastisement, and hurling that withering defiance at his enemies, he displayed a moral integrity a talent and intrepidity unparalleled in the annals of the world.” -  St John Mason, Emmet’s first cousin, writing to The Times in 1842.


The Trial and Dying Behaviour of Mr. R. Emmet, Who was Executed September the 20th, for His Treason. – Together with his Solemn Exhortation to his Countrymen to reject the proffered Friendship and Assistance of Despotic, Cruel and Perfidious FRANCE.

On Monday September 19, ROBERT EMMETT was put to the bar, at Dublin, on trial for High Treason. The prisoner challenged nineteen peremptorily out of the pannel for a Petit Jury, and six were set aside for the Crown.

The Attorney General took a retrospective view of the public calamities incident to the spirit of insurrection which had hitherto pervaded the minds of the common people of that country.

The prisoner at the bar, If Mr. Attorney was properly instructed, would appear by substantial evidence, together with a variety of corroborating circumstances, to have been the prime source, origin, and spirit of the recent insurrection in this city so erroneously wicked in its conception, but so truly contemptible and puerile both in the plan and execution.

The prisoner in a speech marked by some trait of ingenuity and elocution, justified the conduct imputed to him, on firm and long adopted principles.

The Jury returned a verdict GUILTY, without leaving the box; and Lord Norbury pronounced sentence of DEATH on him.

At ten o’clock this morning, (Sept. 20), a confidential friend of this unfortunate Gentleman was permitted to visit him at Kilmainham gaol. The visitor, a Professional Gentleman of considerable eminence, on his entrance into the culprit’s chamber found him reading the Litany in the Service of the Church of England in the presence of the Rev. Mr. Gamble, the Ordinary of Newgate; after which he made a hearty breakfast. Retiring afterwards to a room with his friend, after certain family communications, he adverted to his circumstance of having his pockets examined in the dock on the preceding evening, for some instrument with which it was apprehended he might destroy himself. He disclaimed such notion, alledging it was incompatible with the religion he professed.

The culprit was led from Kilmainham gaol under a strong military guard, composed of detachments both of Cavalry and Infantry of the Regular Troops quartered at the Barracks. He arrived about three o’clock at the temporary gallows, in Thomas-Street, in a carriage with two clergymen. In his progress thither his demeanour, however, did not appear of that serious call befitting the awfulness of his situation, or the religious sentiments he had uttered in the morning. He gazed about, particularly in Dirty-lane, the scene of his exploits, with a species of light inattentive smile, approaching a laugh, until he was carried to the place of execution, and spoke and nodded to some of his acquaintance with the greatest coolness. After mounting the platform attached to the gallows, he addressed the surrounding crowd in a few words, saying he did in peace and universal love and kindness with all mankind. While the Executioner was adjusting the rope round his neck, he became very pale, and he seemed earnestly to talk and expostulate with him most probably about some awkwardness in his manner, from which he felt an inconvenience. After the hangman had pulled a cap over his eyes, the culprit put up his hands, pinioned as they were, and partly removed it. The platform was dextrously removed. After which he hung for near a minute quite motionless, but violent convulsions then seized him, which lasted for several minutes. The process of beheading, &c, was afterwards gone through, and his body removed to Newgate.

The admirable description which he drew of the French fraternity must powerfully operate on that part of the people of Ireland, who seek, through the agency of the First Consul to disunite these countries

“I have”, said he, “been accused of being actuated by a wish to bring about a revolution of this country, through the means of French influence. I deny that either myself or the Provisional Government, had any such idea in contemplation. Our own resources were sufficient to accomplish the object. As to French interposition, it cannot be too much deprecated: and I exhort the people of Ireland to beware of such assistance. I urge them in the strongest manner to burn their house; - nay, even the very grass on which a Frenchman shall land. Various opportunities have occurred to me of witnessing the misery and desolation they have produced in every country where they have gained an entrance, under the fallacious pretences of aiding the inhabitants who considered themselves in a state of oppression.” - Bulletin published and distributed by Dublin Castle after the execution of Robert Emmet. 



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