The glorious failure of the 1798 rebellion had a profound impact on the young Robert Emmet. He romanticised the nationalist ideals held by the organisers, as demonstrated by an ode he wrote to them:
“And those who were laid at rest
Oh! Hallowed be each name;
Their memories are forever blest –
Consigned to endless fame.”
Today there are many reminders of Robert Emmet’s 1803 Rebellion in Dublin, inclusive of the monument at Saint Catherine’s Church, marking the place where Emmet was hanged and beheaded at the age of twenty-five. In a 1914 speech, Pádraig Pearse recalled that “a friend of mine knew an old lady who told him how the blood flowed down upon the pavement, and how she sickened with horror as she saw the dogs on the street lap up that noble blood.”
Emmet had a tremendous impact on Pearse and others of the 1916 Rebellion. His rebellion had been planned as an urban insurrection, designed to seize the historic Dublin Castle, viewed by nationalists as a symbol of foreign occupation. It wasn’t only Emmet’s words that influenced later rebels, but his planning. In one Bureau of Military History statement, Pádraig Pearse is remembered as stating that, “Dublin has one great shame to wipe out and that is that no man risked his life to save Robert Emmet.”
Arms depots were established in hired premises around the capital where munitions were made and stored for the use of elite rebel assault groups. The plan was thorough and feasible but never implemented.
Disaster struck on 16 July 1803 when powder used to propel signal rockets ignited and blew up the Patrick Street depot. Several people were killed, and several wounded, as well as, the secret of the depots fatally compromised. Emmet feared that the element of surprise had been lost and, with great reluctance, decided to mount a unilateral uprising without waiting for the French.
Fermanagh, Cavan, Cork, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary were all deemed likely to take part in the rising along with counties which had risen five years before. Indeed, over-optimistic reports of United Irish militancy in the north of Ireland may have convinced Emmet that he might succeed where his brother’s coterie had failed in 1798. The date of the insurrection was set for 23 July, a Saturday and festival day, which would provide cover for the gathering of thousands of Kildare, Wicklow and county Dublin rebels.
The crucial difference between the 1803 and 1798 insurrections was that the Act of Union had taken place in the interim. That of 1798 was a rebellion against an Irish government in College Green, whereas that of 1803 was directed against a British administration in the brand-new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. From the British perspective, the Union was designed to solve the Irish problem.
When Pádraig Pearse read the proclamation from the GPO, he was also self-consciously following in the footsteps of Emmet. Pearse had this enormous sense of a legacy from the past that needed to be vindicated. The last pamphlet that Pearse wrote before 1916 is Ghosts. The most powerful of these ghosts is Emmet.
‘There has been nothing more terrible in Irish history than the failure of the last generation. Other generations have failed in Ireland, but they have failed nobly; or, failing ignobly, some man among them has redeemed them from infamy by the splendour of his protest. But the failure of the last generation has been mean and shameful, and no man has arisen from it to say or do a splendid thing in virtue of which it shall be forgiven. The whole episode is squalid. It will remain the one sickening chapter in a story which, gallant or sorrowful, has everywhere else some exaltation of pride.
‘Is mairg do ghní go holc agus bhíos bocht ina dhiaidh,’ says the Irish proverb. ‘Woe to him that doeth evil and is poor after it.’ The men who have led Ireland for twenty-five years have done evil, and they are bankrupt. They are bankrupt in policy, bankrupt in credit, bankrupt now even.’ –’Ghosts’, Pádraig Pearse
Photo: Site of Robert Emmet’s principal depot in 1803. These depots were used to manufacture and store war material. Taken from “Footprints of Emmet” published in 1903. South Dublin Libraries Collections.