“Bold Robert Emmet”


"The struggle is over, the boys are defeated, Old Ireland's surrounded with sadness and gloom... And I, Robert Emmet, awaiting my doom." Emmet, "the Darling of Ireland," recounts the failure of his rebellion and awaits execution


Zimmermann: "The ballad is sometimes sung to the American tune 'The Streets of Laredo'." See that song for more information on the history of that tune.

Zimmermann p. 40: ... Robert Emmet's rising, on 23rd July, 1802. After a skirmish in the streets of Dublin the revolt fizzled out. Emmet was executed on 23rd September. In spite of his failue, he became the favourite hero of the Irish patriots, "the darling of Erin" (song [Zimmermann] 91); but this glorification did not take place immediately. In 1803, nowhere in the country does there seem to have been much enthusiasm for the rising." - BS

Robert Emmet's fruitless revolt is usually treated as a sequel to the 1798 Rising. This is oversimplified. The British government reacted to 1798 by proclaiming the Union of Ireland and Britain.

Ironically, a series of Catholic Relief Acts in 1778 and 1782 had given Catholics more rights, and under the (informal but working) constitution of 1782, Britain no longer could compel Ireland into Union. But the English managed to pull it off anyway, by much the same means as they had earlier used to form the union with Scotland: Bribery, by-elections, and every other sort of political trick. Robert Kee, on p. 158 of _The Most Distressful Country_ (being Volume I of _The Green Flag_) note the "inadequacy of the word 'corruption'" to describe the level of under-the-counter payoffs.

To make it worse, the statute that finally passed altered Pitt's original Union proposal, eliminating the provisions for Catholic Emancipation. (This even though Viceroy Cornwallis, who had finally suppressed the rebellion, argued that they should be kept. But the only way to get the proposal through the parliaments -- especially the all-Protestant Irish parliament -- was to use the Union as a stick to beat the Catholics.)

Union was passed in 1800, and came into effect in 1801. The terms were actually quite favorable to Ireland in terms of seats in parliament; had there been an Irish party, it would almost always have held the parliamentary balance of power in Britain. But the Irish, with no program of their own, could neither fit into the British political system nor form a strong party. And the Catholic/Protestant problem continued to plague them. As a result, Ireland found itself politically neutralized.

Emmet of course did not know this. He, like the vast majority of Irishmen, knew only that he didn't like the changes. But, once again, he had no answer to the problems of Union, and so was unable to produce either a working political party or a working rebellion -- only about thirty people were killed, mostly by ambush. These included the Lord Kilwarden, Chief Justice of Ireland (Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, p. 92; Kee, p. 167, adds that Kilwarden was a "remarkably humane man," while Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, _A History of Ireland_, p. 215 note that he was "not an unpopular man").

Another element of Emmet's personal tragedy was that he very nearly left the country, which would have saved everyone a lot of trouble. But with his brother Thomas Addis Emmet (1764-1827), a leader of the United Irish rebellion, in exile and unable to return, Robert decided that he could not leave their aging parents alone and grieving (Kee, p. 162). Obviously, as it turned out, he did leave them alone, and grieving even more.

Emmet also started a sad tradition that persisted in Ireland for more than a century: The Rebellion By Gimmick. Emmet's forces had fold-up pikes (that could be hidden under a coat) and black powder rockets, and similar "secret weapons." What they didn't have was a real organization -- which, on the one hand, meant that the government didn't know of their existence, but on the other, meant that they had absolutely no way to accomplish anything. All he did was assemble a small mob and watch it be dispersed.

Emmet is remembered less because of his defiant acts (after all, there were many others equally rebellious and entirely obscure) but because of a brilliant farewell speech which eventually was widely quoted by nationalists: "Let no man write my epitaph.... When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written" (Golway, p. 92; Fry/Fry, p. 215; Kee, p. 168, with the note that Emmet's words probably were not taken down with perfect accuracy. Not that it mattered; what counts is what people *thought* he said).

Charles Townshend (in _Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion_, pp. 8-9) suggests that the simplicity of Emmet's message contributed to his fame: "Theobald Wolfe Tone, a serious political thinker, was less widely accepted than the simple heroism of his youthful successor Robert Emmet. Tone, a child of the Enlightenment... aimed to reconstitute Irish identity through eroding the separate traditions of 'Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter [.'] The secularization this envisaged was less attractive than his simple slogan 'break the connection....' Emmet?s failed rebellion of 1803 became an icon of romantic activism, its incompetence ignored while the brutality of the British reaction was played up. (Emmet never got his tiny force out of its assembly point, Thomas Street, toward his target, Dublin Castle; his hoped-for 2,000 insurgents had dwindled to 20 by the time they reached the end of the street.)?

It is perhaps not coincidental that Emmet became one of the chief inspirations for the future head of the 1916 RebellionPadraig Pearse (Townshend, p. 23); for Pearse's hazy notion of a mystic sacrifice redeeming Ireland, see the notes to "The Boys from County Cork."

It is ironic that Robert's brother Thomas, whose association with rebellion was much older and deeper, lived. Emmet was one of the United Irish leaders taken when the British raided their Dublin leadership in early 1798. (That may not have been smart on the British part; Emmet was a cautious man who was trying to cool things down. By taking him, the British left the leaderless United Irish chapters to rise in desperation.)

Thomas Emmet spent some time in prison, but was released in 1802, went briefly to France, then emigrated to the United States in 1804, where he found success in the legal profession.

According to Hoagland, Tom Maguire was born c. 1870 and went on to join the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (the chief independence organization in the late nineteenth century -- a largely secret group), and later became part of the Irish parliament. But I've seen no absolute proof he wrote this song; much depends on when it actually first appeared. - RBW

Historical references

  • 1778 - Birth of Robert Emmet, younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet (a leader of the United Irishmen)
  • 1798 - Robert Emmet expelled from Trinity College; he eventually goes to France
  • 1798 - the (failed) Irish Rebellion
  • 1802 - Emmet returns to Ireland
  • 1803 - Emmet attempts a new rebellion. The revolt is quickly crushed, and Emmet eventually hanged

Cross references


  1. PGalvin, p. 32, "Bold Robert Emmet" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. OLochlainn 87, "Bold Robert Emmet" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Moylan 155, "Bold Robert Emmet" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Zimmermann 91, "The Last Moments of Robert Emmet" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. ADDITIONAL: Kathleen Hoagland, editor, One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry (New York, 1947), pp. 626-627, "Bold Robert Emmet" (1 text)
  7. Roud #3066
  8. BI, PGa032


Author: Sometimes ascribed to Tom Maguire (Source: Zimmermann, Hoagland)
Earliest date: c.1900 (Zimmermann)
Keywords: rebellion Ireland death
Found in: Ireland