O! BREATHE not his name! let it sleep in the shade,
Where cold and unhonoured his relics are laid;
Sad, silent, and dark be the tears that we shed,
As the night dew that falls on the grave o’er his head.
But the night dew that falls, though in silence it weeps,
Shall brighten with verdure the grave where he sleeps;
And the tear that we shed, though in secret it rolls,
Shall long keep his memory green in our souls. –Thomas Moore
Robert Emmet was born on 4 March 1778 in Dublin, and was executed for high treason on 20 September 1803. Emmet’s corpse subsequently disappeared, and the whereabouts of his final resting place is one of the perpetual mysteries of Irish history. Emmet’s grief-stricken fiancée, Sarah Curran, harshly treated by her father who opposed the match, disowned her; and is the subject of Thomas Moore’s song, ‘She Is Far From the Land’. Anne Devlin, his loyal servant, who endured torture in Kilmainham Gaol without giving information to the authorities, where Emmet himself urged her to inform on him to save herself as he was already doomed, remained loyal to him and did not betray Emmet. The British authorities had met and been overthrown by the spirit of unconquered Ireland, housed in the heart and mind of an Irish girl.
Emmet was tried at Green Street Courthouse in Dublin (still in use as the Special Criminal Court) on 19 September, the trial being presided over by Lord Norbury, the Chief Justice. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty of high treason, and before sentence of death was pronounced, Emmet was allowed deliver his justly celebrated speech from the dock. Emmet closed his remarkable speech with resounding words which have a direct bearing on the mystery of his burial place:
“I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world: it is 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 and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, 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. I have done.”
No time was lost in carrying out the sentence of the court, and on the day following the trial, 20 September, Emmet was taken from Kilmainham Gaol to the place of his execution, opposite St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street. The terrors of the law were not yet complete, for after death Emmet’s body was taken down and the head cut off and displayed to the crowd by the hangman Thomas Galvin with the words, ‘This is the head of a traitor, Robert Emmet’.
Emmet’s remains were conveyed first to Newgate Prison and then back to Kilmainham Gaol, where the jailer George Dunn was under instructions that if no-one claimed them they were to be buried in Bully’s Acre, a nearby unofficial popular burial-place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. As family members and friends of Robert had also been arrested, including some who had nothing to do with the rebellion, no one came forward to claim his remains out of fear of arrest. Emmet’s body was buried after some hours in Bully’s Acre.
Emmet’s remains were soon after taken secretly from Bully’s Acre and purportedly reinterred in St Michan’s, a church with strong United Irish associations, in whose vaults lie the remains of the Sheares brothers. St Michan’s is a fascinating church, as the antiseptic condition of its vaults causes bodies to remain in mummified condition, and to this day visitors are shown an uninscribed marker in the churchyard which they are informed marks Emmet’s grave. However, as legend began to supplement hazy memories, it was claimed that other cemeteries in fact had the honour of providing Emmet’s last resting place, including St Anne’s in Dawson Street, and Glasnevin Churchyard (not to be confused with the subsequently established Glasnevin Cemetery), St. Paul, North King Street, and, St. Anne’s in Blennerville, Co Kerry.
A headless skeleton was discovered in the former Church of Ireland churchyard at Blennerville near Tralee in the early 1960s. Subsequently, some 20 years later, a skull was unearthed by a local garda in the churchyard during a community clean-up. The skull had been placed in a mahogany box with brass handles, fuelling further speculation that this might match the body of the beheaded Emmet. No testing was carried out at the time, and the box and skull were re-buried where they were discovered.
The patriot’s mother, Elizabeth Mason, was born in Ballydowney near Killarney and there were also connections with leading Tralee families of the time, many of whose crypts are in the churchyard at Blennerville. Robert Emmet Park in Blennerville was named in his honour, which occupies the site of the churchyard of St. Anne’s, demolished in 1930. The legend is that Emmet’s headless body was transported to Co Kerry by Patrick MacMahon.
Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, the grand-nephew of the patriot, had a distinct prepossession in favour of St Peter’s Church/Graveyard on Aungier Street. So far as it is known, the family vault had not been open since the remains of his mother were deposited there a few days before Robert Emmet’s death.
Speculation has continued regarding the whereabouts of Emmet’s remains.
Photo: Robert Emmet’s (alleged) grave, St. Michan’s Church, Church Street, Dublin