Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Robert Emmet: Let no man write my epitaph

"Trial of Robert Emmet. Emmet replying to the verdict of high treason, Sept. 19, 1803."
(c. 1866, print, Library of Congress)

This day 209 years ago Robert Emmet made his famous address from the dock on the eve of his execution. Emmet was a member of the United Irishmen who in 1803 led an ill-fated rebellion in Dublin. Tried by a British Court in Dublin's Session House on September 19, 1803, he was hanged the following day in Thomas Street. He was 25 years old.

The speech was delivered to the court after it had convicted him of high treason. It is described as impromptu, and doubtless in large part it was, though the peroration in my opinion was clearly composed. 

The speech concludes:

My lords, you are impatient for the sacrifice. The blood which you seek is not congealed by the artificial terrors which surround your victim; it circulates warmly and unruffled, through the channels which God created for noble purposes, but which you are bent to destroy, for purposes so grievous, that they cry to heaven.

Be yet patient! I have but a few words more to say. I am going to my cold and silent grave. My lamp of life is nearly extinguished. My race is run. The grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom!

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 repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, 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.

Full text of the speech, including interruptions from the court. Formally, Emmet was exercising his right to make a plea for clemency; but in actuality he accepted the sentence of execution as already an accomplished fact, and used his address to establish his reputation in the eyes of his countrymen and of history, and to clear his name from the supposition that he intended to sell Ireland’s independence to the French.

Eileen's father's favourite song "Bold Robert Emmett" features the story that Emmet could have made good his escape after the failed rebellion, but for turning back to say farewell to his fiancĂ©e Sarah Curran. According to The World’s Famous Orations, 1906 (the source I've used for the speech), two years afterward Sarah Curran married an officer of some distinction in the Royal Staff Corps, Major Sturgeon, but she died in Sicily a few months later—it is said of a broken heart.

The same book notes that at his execution Emmet, in passing out of his cell, met a turnkey who had been kind to him. Fettered as he was he could not shake hands with him, but in stead kissed him on the cheek. The turnkey is said to have fainted then and there and not to have recovered until after Emmet was hanged and his head severed from his body.

Page 137 of The Worlds Famous Orations Vol VI Ireland 1775-1902, William Jennings Bryan Editor in Chief, New York, 1906

1 comment:

  1. What an eloquent and brave speech to give under such circumstances.