Emmet and the historians
While his reputed skill as a negotiator and persuader may very well have helped secure this outcome, it is also likely that the new accord was facilitated by the positive news he had brought from Ireland. At the very least, Emmet could claim that the revival of United Irish structures had reached the point where a coordinated response to the French was again within reach. He may well have sought their imprimatur for the specific secret proposals he intended laying before Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris on before of the new Executive Directory … Addis Emmet, O’Connor and the other Irish rebels incarcerated at Fort George clearly assented given the ease with which the diplomatic contacts that had been painstakingly developed by the original leadership were put at Robert Emmet’s disposal in 1801–2.
This is all very interesting and may well be a fine piece of historical detective work, but the problem is that it may not even be true that Emmet went to Fort George at all. O’Donnell’s footnote offers Madden’s The United Irishmen, published in the 1840s, as the source. Marianne Elliott writes that while ‘Emmet’s great-nephew later claimed that Robert visited his brother in Fort George…there is no contemporary evidence for this and it would have been impossible after September/October 1799, when the London government introduced new restrictions on visits and communications with the Fort George prisoners.’
Since Elliott and O’Donnell are in fundamental disagreement, it is interesting to see what Patrick M. Geoghegan, in Robert Emmet: A Life, has to say about the matter. Robert Emmet, he says, arrived at Fort George in mid June 1800, just as tensions were coming to a head between his brother and Arthur O’Connor. ‘Fortunately he succeeded in preventing violence,’ Geoghegan writes, ‘and he used his extraordinary powers of persuasion to bring about a temporary reconciliation. This was one of his greatest abilities, for as Madden records: “Robert Emmet had a singular talent for composing differences, and making people who spoke harshly and unkindly of one other acquainted with each other’s good qualities, and thereby causing them to come to terms of accommodation.”’
Madden, it should be remembered – and it is not pointed out here by Geoghegan or by O’Donnell – could reliably ‘record’ nothing. He was not two years old at the time of the supposed visit. He was, Marianne Elliott says, ‘a passionate admirer of Thomas Moore’; his work, she says, is ‘heroic history par excellence … the tone was rather like that found in traditional saints’ lives … Even within such hagiography, Madden’s treatment of Emmet is excessively uncritical, if not unreal. It reads like a work of bad fiction because much of it is just that.’ In a footnote, Geoghegan mentions that a biography of Thomas Addis Emmet is sceptical about Robert Emmet’s visit to his brother, but in his text he quotes Madden’s patent nonsense about Emmet’s character without comment. The problem two of these historians have (besides the matter of basic credibility regarding the visit) is that if Emmet did not visit his brother, then there is nothing that can be usefully said about him in this period. We simply do not know where he was or what he was doing. It is hard perhaps to write a history of nothing, but quoting a well-known hagiographer is not the way. Geoghegan, incidentally, cites Madden as his only source in more than one hundred of his footnotes.