Thursday, September 19, 2013
Emmet's speech: is it real?
Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock the night before his execution in 1803 is an icon in Irish nationalist historiography. In preparation for today, the 210th anniversary, I've done a bit of digging. It's the speech that concludes:-
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.
This day last year I posted the full text. Yet soon after doing so, I began to entertain doubts. Is it genuine? What is the source? Has the speech that has come down to us - it extends to five pages - been "improved"? My suspicious mind had me to wondering if the whole thing is just a bit too good to be true.
After spending a good few hours in University College Cork’s Boole Library, I am somewhat reassured. It turns out that there are several versions of the speech, based on notes taken by Emmet’s friends present in court. No one version, even those taken in shorthand at the time, agrees exactly with another. The unforgettable final paragraph (quoted above) may be an exception to this; though the most recent account I've found ascribes it to just one note-taker. 
It seems we are indebted for the speech to Dr Richard Robert Madden (1798-1886) who published The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times in seven volumes between 1842 and 1846. This has been described “an adulatory rather than a scholarly” account. But so far as I can tell historians agree that Dr Madden submitted all the versions of Emmet’s speech to trustworthy persons still alive, and we can be confident that the text that has come down to us contains the substance of the speech, and much of the actual language.
Dr. Madden says: No published report gives any adequate idea of the effect its delivery produced on the minds of his auditors. Emmet pronounced the speech in so loud a voice as to be distinctly heard at the outer doors of the court-house; and yet, though he spoke in a loud voice, there was nothing boisterous in its delivery, or forced or affected in his manner; his accents and cadence of voice, on the contrary, were exquisitely modulated. His action was very remarkable; its greater or lesser vehemence corresponded with the rise and fall of his voice. 
“The man is telling the truth”
The trial stretched over one long day, 19 Sept, from 9:30 in the morning till 10:30 at night. Not even a lunch break (huh? what about the judges & jury?) It would have taken longer had not Emmet instructed his lawyers to make no defence of his actions. Leon Ó Brion  tells us:
Whenever they wished to overthrow a witness he stopped them, saying, “Don’t, don’t, the man is telling the truth”. He would not even allow them to make the normal speech at the conclusion of the case for the Crown. “Don’t try to defend me”, he said “it's no use”.
Ó Broin strikes a skeptical note as to the veracity of the speech as we have it. Setting the scene for the speech from the dock, he says
Outside in the streets there was a great mass of people, a silent mass, but every single person was sympathetic to the prisoner. These were the people the government wanted to win over to its side. It was of them, also, that Emmet was thinking. He knew how important it was that he should pick and weigh his words carefully. But what he did not know was that neither enemies nor friends would give him the last word. The government improved on his uncomplimentary references to France, and his friends altered his ideas in other ways, with the result that it is not possible to be sure that we have his speech exactly as it was delivered. The various versions only agree as regards the peroration.
As to the government improving on his uncomplimentary references to France, see below; but I haven't found in what ways his ideas were altered by his friends.
Authorities feared an escape plot
Emmet started his speech at 10 pm, was very tired and asked for judgement to be delayed till the next day. His speech was supremely important to him; perhaps he wanted time to write it; certainly he will have wanted time to collect himself. But his request was denied. It's likely the authorities feared an escape plot. So, a remarkable performance at the end of a long day, in the knowledge that tomorrow he would almost certainly hang.
Tradition has it that the speech was extempore, but the historian Ruán O’Donnell doesn't go along with this. It was prepared he says; though to an extent Emmet did need to extemporise in response to frequent interruptions from chief justice Lord Norbury.
The accusations ringing in Emmet’s ears were that he was selfishly ambitious, had betrayed his country, was an emissary of France, and that he alone was responsible for all the blood that had been shed. [T]he speech profoundly stirred all those who heard it. It even moved [chief justice] Norbury, a callous, brutal man who was capable of jesting when consigning poor wretches to the gallows. Now, having sentenced Emmet to be hanged, drawn and quartered the next afternoon in Thomas Street, the scene of the insurrection, he was deeply touched by the tragedy of the situation and burst into tears. That was dramatic enough, God knows, but there was more to come. A group of young men moved over to the dock to bid the prisoner farewell – these were the Trinity students who wore the King’s uniform – and they had to answer later to the authorities for shaking hands with a condemned traitor. 
Unknown to Emmet at least one of his two lawyers (and according to some historians both of them) were actually Castle spies. This made no difference to the trial so far as I can see, as we have already seen that he instructed his counsel not to cross examine witnesses, or state any case. This was probably part of a secret commitment Emmet had made to Wickham, the Chief Secretary. Emmet would accept responsibility for the rising, and in exchange Wickham would suppress an intercepted letter to Emmet’s lover Sarah Curran. It seems that both Wickham and Emmet honoured this compact.
In a notorious incident at the end of the trial his lawyer MacNally, leaning over the rail of the dock, “Judas-like, kissed him on the cheek”. O’Donnell has it the other way round: “Before leaving the court Emmet embraced his duplicitous defender, MacNally, and kissed him on the forehead.” 
Three artists attended the trial to draw portraits. One was Henry Brocas who had been commissioned by the government anticipating a requirement for a suitable image for its propaganda. The prosecution wanted to make use of the trial to denigrate the whole revolutionary movement. Here's Brocas's famous print of the scene in court:
Someone in the government press office has added a speech bubble. You'll find images of this print sometimes with, and sometimes without, the bubble, which says: “If the FRENCH land in Ireland, Oh my Countrymen! meet them on the Shore with a Torch in one hand – a Sword in the other – receive them with the all the destruction of War - Immolate them in their Boats before our Native Soil should be polluted by a Foreign Foe”.
Now whilst Emmet did say something about opposing the French, what he actually said was: “Were the French to come as invaders or enemies, uninvited by the wishes of the people, I should oppose them to the utmost of my strength ...” and he goes on to deny that the French would have come as invaders or enemies. See page 4 of full text of speech.
That’s the extent of my digging on Robert Emmet’s trial and speech.
 Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803, Ruán O’Donnell, Irish Academic press, 2003
 Library Ireland
 Leon Ó Brion The Unfortunate Mr Emmet (1958) Ch 27
 Ó Brion p 164
 O’Donnell p 159