Robert Emmet Uninscribed

Marianne Elliott examines the facts and the myth of the unlikely Irish nationalist hero who vowed his ‘tomb remain uninscribed until my country takes her place among the nations of the earth’.

The Republic of Ireland is a young nation. It was born amid bloodshed and this is reflected in the events and people it chooses to commemorate. This year it commemorates the bi-centennial of the most iconic of its icons: the United Irishman Robert Emmet (1778-1803). To many the status Emmet has achieved is somewhat surprising. University educated (he was expelled from Trinity College in 1798 in a purge of suspected radicals), from a professional Protestant family, he led a doomed rebellion in 1803 and was subsequently tried and executed. That would have been sufficient to ensure for him at least a significant status in nationalist martyrology, but hardly the ‘godlike’ status of legend. There were other, far more substantial figures, who never made it. We know little about Robert Emmet the man. In the revolutionary decade preceding his outbreak he was totally overshadowed by his elder brother and leading United Irishman, Thomas Addis Emmet. He has left no political writings, he was only twenty-five when he died and we are not even sure what he looked like. How and why did he attain the status that he has in Ireland’s imagination?

The development of the Emmet legend commenced immediately after his death, fiction and fact  becoming indistinguishable in the retelling. In fact, the very absence of actual detail underpins the legend. It is essentially one of heroes and heroines, villains, false friends and tragic romance. It fits easily into Ireland’s gothic tradition, which, unlike that in England, lasted most of the nineteenth century and, most importantly, it was promoted by the Romantic movement, so essential to the rise of modern nationalism.

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