Emmet and the historians
The post-revisionist line on Emmet, begun by Anthony Cronin in 1978 and offered with rich detail in the books by Ruan O’Donnell and Patrick M. Geoghegan, is nonetheless an interesting one. Emmet, it is true, was fired by ideas of civil liberty and religious freedom; he had studied closely the central texts and tracts proposing such liberties and freedoms; he was inspired by the American and French revolutions, which succeeded in using mass agitation and violence for political aims; he knew, as no other Irish revolutionary did, that the taking and holding of the centres of power in Dublin represented the key to victory; he understood the need for secrecy in a society filled with spies and informers; he had studied military strategy and many of his ideas on how the city could be taken were serious and well thought out; he made careful alliances with forces in the city and with the United Irishmen, and, as much as he could, with the French government, including Bonaparte, Talleyrand and Bernadotte; his speech from the dock, which comes in various versions, but which was transcribed, according to Marianne Elliott, by an experienced law reporter from the prosecution team in a form reasonably close to the one we know, is an astonishing piece of eloquence, perhaps the finest of its kind.
Thus Emmet’s rebellion, long derided as ‘a free-ranging outburst by a leaderless and drunken rabble’, as Ruan O’Donnell puts it, can instead be marked, according to O’Donnell, ‘as one of the few occasions when Irish insurgents combated regular soldiers on the streets of the national capital’. And Emmet himself, instead of being the romantic hero whose very foolishness and failure inspired Patrick Pearse a hundred years later, can be read as a hard-headed revolutionary: we should study his life rather than his death. ‘If Ireland had been a free country,’ Anthony Cronin wrote, ‘or Irish society had been a free society in which a man of honour could have cared to rise, there is absolutely no doubt whatever that Emmet would have distinguished himself as a politician of humane instinct and near-to-dazzling genius.’
In her introduction to Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend, Marianne Elliott writes about her own early researches in the French archives, from which she built an image of Robert Emmet, not as the ‘gentle youth’ his college friends remembered, nor as ‘the arch-bungler’ and ‘bit of an eejit’, in Anthony Cronin’s phrases, nor as the doomed hero who appears in the work of Coleridge, Southey, Moore and Shelley, but ‘as a single-minded negotiator with talents as a military tactician, at least on paper, and a young man who commanded the respect of a number of hardened senior figures in the French government and military command’. This is the version of him put forth in O’Donnell’s and Geoghegan’s biographies. Elliott herself remains sceptical.
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If we were in any doubt about the potency of Emmet’s legend, it could be dispelled quickly by the scene of Emmet’s execution in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses: