This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

July 2003


23 July 1803:   Robert Emmet attempts seizure of Dublin Castle.

By the fall of 1798 it looked as if the last sparks of the great uprising by the United Irishmen had at last been extinguished. Uprisings in Wexford, Meath, Dublin, Down, and Antrim had all been crushed in the spring, and the long-awaited expedition of French forces in the west was forced to surrender at Ballinamuck on 8 September. All that remained was a small force under Michael Dwyer eluding capture in the Wicklow Mountains.

Also at large was the young Robert Emmet. The brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, a key figure in the United Irishmen, Robert had no opportunity to play an active part in the rising, aside from getting himself expelled from Trinity College for his outspoken republican views.

Despite the passage of an Act of Union with England, Robert knew that Ireland still seethed with unrest, and he was convinced that a reorganized revolt stood a good chance of success. In August 1800 he showed up in Hamburg. The free port of Hamburg had long been the United Irishmen’s operations center and point of entry onto the European mainland, and there were still operatives there who could connect him with the French government. Revolutionary France was still at war with England, and there was still the chance that a more committed military effort by the French could save the day for the United Irishmen.

Emmet made his way to Paris bearing a detailed plan for a French-supported Irish revolt. Unfortunately, the French government was now headed by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon had already demonstrated his strategic disinterest in Ireland back in 1798 when he opted for a disastrous expedition to Egypt instead of sending French troops to support the rebellion in Wexford.

Still, Napoleon didn’t dismiss Emmet’s plans outright — he was then toying with the idea of an invasion of England, in which an Irish insurrection could prove a most useful diversion of English forces. But the canny Bonaparte didn’t give Emmet any positive assent either. Instead, he told him to draw up a detailed memorandum and left him waiting in limbo. After cooling his heels in Paris for two years without any further word from Napoleon, Emmet abruptly returned to Ireland in the autumn of 1802, disillusioned about the French but still determined to strike for Irish freedom.

In the repressed Ireland of 1802, the remnants of the United Irishmen lay in tatters, and their old strategy of organizing a nationwide clandestine army was now out of the question. Instead, Emmet planned to bring together a small, tightly-knit force in Dublin City and make one bold lunge at the center of English administration and power in Ireland — Dublin Castle. A successful seizure of the Castle would hopefully throw the English into disarray long enough to enable the rebels to link up with surviving elements of the United Irishmen outside Dublin, notably Michael Dwyer’s diehards in the Wicklow Mountains, and from there spark off a national uprising. Hopefully by this point the ever-opportunistic Napoleon would rise to take advantage of the situation and send serious quantities of French arms and soldiers to Ireland.

To ensure a speedy deployment on the day of revolt, Emmet gathered munitions into secret depots located close to the scene of the action in Dublin. But bad luck intervened when one of his depots exploded on the night of 16 July 1803. Trying to stay one step ahead of the government, Emmet had already scheduled the attack for 23 July. His preparations were far from complete, but now there was little to do but go forward as best he could. Confusion, bad communications, and second thoughts among some of the would-be attackers took their toll, and by the evening of 23 July he found himself with only a fraction of the men he thought he could muster.

Robert Emmet’s lightning strike on Dublin Castle broke down into separate and uncoordinated actions. When his force mustered at the Patrick Street depot began melting away Emmet gave the order to disband and make for Wicklow. Meanwhile, as the government hastily deployed cannons to guard the gates of Dublin Castle, a two-hour long battle raged along Thomas Street pitting some 300 rebels from the Thomas Street depot, unaware of Emmet’s order to disperse, against the soldiers from the nearby James Street Barracks.

Apart from a skirmish along the Coome near St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the other action of the night was the killing of Lord Kilwarden and his son-in-law, hauled from their carriage and stabbed to death by the pikes of an out-of-command group of rebels. Unable to link up with Michael Dwyer in Wicklow, Robert Emmet was captured on 25 August, and on 20 September he was publicly executed at the scene of the battle on Thomas Street. Some twenty one of his followers were tried and executed separately throughout September and October.

Though some historians doubt its authencity (there was no stenographic record made at his trial), Robert Emmet’s place in history was assured by his reported “Speech From the Dock.” In it he asked the world only for “the charity of its silence. 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 rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, 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.”

His epitaph remains unwritten.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

The next installment of the ongoing Owain Glyn Dwr Sexcentenary featuring July’s 600th anniversaries of the fall of Carmarthen Castle and the Battle of Shrewsbury, will be posted for the August edition of This Month in Celtic History.

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