Emmet and the historians
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The first contemporary effort to rehabilitate Emmet took place in 1978, on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, in a column in the Irish Times by Anthony Cronin. Cronin was fully aware that, at the time of writing, heroism ‘pure and undefiled’ was ‘at a low rate of discount’, as was Romanticism; and martyrdom was ‘a joke in poor taste’. Thus there would not be much fuss about ‘the arch-bungler’ Emmet in that year. ‘Emmet,’ Cronin wrote, ‘in the popular estimation nowadays, was a bit of an eejit, and the less said about him the better.’ Nonetheless, Cronin was struck by ‘the contrast between the idealism of Robert Emmet and the self-seeking, the brief-hunting, the placemanship, the cool run-of-the-mill chicanery and corruption of everyone who surrounded him with the exception of his own hostlers, butchers and brickmakers’. Cronin insisted that Emmet at twenty-four was ‘at the head of what in hard fact did very nearly become a mass movement of daunting proportions, with a fair chance of success’.
In his two-volume work tracing Emmet’s role in the rebellions of 1798 and 1803, Ruan O’Donnell sets out to study that mass movement, placing Emmet at the centre of conspiracy in Ireland over a period of several years. He also places the rebellion Emmet led in July 1803 in a continuous line of seditious and revolutionary activity in Ireland beginning a decade earlier, rather than treating it as a strange and isolated incident, as other historians have done. His two volumes contain detailed accounts of the many conspirators, and O’Donnell is fascinating on their origins, loyalties and actions.
O’Donnell’s narrative figures Emmet’s career as a cross between a chess-board and a spider’s web, with Emmet as skilful player and chief spider. It is important to remember, however, that it was the government who made the slow but eventually masterful moves, and Emmet who was the fly; and important also to bear in mind that it seemed like that at the time to many who knew Emmet. It is hard to accept O’Donnell’s thesis that Emmet’s career between 1797 and 1803 is somehow seamless, that he was an inevitable leader of an Irish revolutionary movement and that he was pragmatic and deliberate in his plotting and preparation. It can, in fact, be argued that the reason why there is so little about Emmet in government papers, the reason he is so oddly invisible in the years between his expulsion from Trinity College in 1798 for suspected membership of the United Irishmen and his journey to France in 1801, is not that he was so cunning a conspirator, but simply that he was inactive. He was at home in his father’s house; he was reading; he was following events closely but in the shadow of his older brother.