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ROBERT EMMET (1780-1803)


OBERT EMM ET, as an orator, was practically “a man of one speech,” but that was a great speech, an extraordinary effort for a man of only twenty-three years of age. He was fighting for his life and his country, two causes abundantly well calculated to rouse a man to the supreme exercise of his faculties, and as a masterpiece of extemporaneous eloquence this impassioned speech has no superior in any language. Emmet. was one of the chiefs of the “ United Irishmen.” Inspired by the misguided fervor of youth, he put himself at the head of a party of the rabble of Dublin, who killed a number of people, including the Chief Justice. The party was quickly dispersed, and Emmet. -who missed the opportunity to escape by lingering to bid farewell to his lady-love, a daughter of Curran, the orator—was arrested, put on trial, found guilty of high treason, and executed the next day.


[After the verdict of guilty was rendered, Emmet was asked, in the usual form, “What have you, therefore, now to say, why judgment of death and execution should not be awarded against you according to law P” He rose and delivered an extended address to the Court, interrupted at intervals by Lord Norbury, chief among his judges, who permitted himself to be incensed by the condemned man's remarks. From this death plea we select some of the more thrilling passages.]

What have I to say, why sentence of death should not be pronounced on me, according to law 2 I have nothing to say which can alter your predetermination, or that it would become me to say with any view to the mitigation of that sentence which you are here to pronounce, and which I must abide. But I have that to say which interests me more than life,

and which you have labored—as was necessarily your office in the present


circumstances of this oppressed country—to destroy. I have much to say, why my reputation should be rescued from the load of false accusation and calumny which has been heaped upon it. I do not imagine that, seated where you are, your minds can be so free from impurity as to receive the least impression from what I am going to utter. I have no hope that I can anchor my character in the breast of a Court constituted and trammelled as this is. I only wish, and it is the utmost I expect, that your Lordships may suffer it to float down your memories, untainted by the foul breath of prejudice, until it finds some more hospitable harbor, to shelter it from the rude storm by which it is at present buffeted. Were I only to suffer death, after being adjudged guilty by your tribunal, I should bow in silence, and meet the fate that awaits me without a murmur. But the sentence of the law which delivers my body to the executioner will, through the ministry of that law, labor, in its own vindication, to consign my character to obloquy : for there must be guilt somewhere, whether in the sentence of the Court, or in the catastrophe, posterity must determine. A man in my situation, my Lords, has not only to encounter the difficulties of fortune, and the force of power over minds which it has corrupted or subjugated, but the difficulties of established prejudice. The man dies, but his memory lives. That mine may not perish, that it may live in the respect of my countrymen, I seize upon this opportunity to vindicate myself from some of the charges alleged against me. When my spirit shall be wafted to a more friendly port ; when my shade shall have joined the bands or those martyred heroes who have shed their blood, on the scaffold and in the field, in defence of their country and of virtue ; this is my hope : I wish that my memory and name may animate those who survive me, while I look down with complacency on the destruction of that perfidious Government which upholds its dominion by blasphemy of the Most High ; which displays its power over man as over the beasts of the forest ; which sets man upon his brother, and lifts his hand, in the name of God, against the throat of his fellow, who believes or doubts a little more, or a little less, than the Government standard, a Government which is steeled to barbarity by the cries of the orphans and the tears of the widows which it has made. I appeal to the immaculate God, to the throne of Heaven, before which I must shortly appear, -to the blood of the murdered patriots who have gone before, that my conduct has been, through all this peril, and through all my purposes, governed only by the convictions which I have uttered, and by no other view than that of the emancipation of my country from the superinhuman oppression under which she has so long and too patiently travailed; and that I confidently and assuredly hope that, wild


and chimerical as it may appear, there is still union and strength in Ireland to accomplish this noblest enterprise. Of this I speak with the confidence of intimate knowledge, and with the consolation that appertains to that confidence. Think not, my Lords, I say this for the petty gratification of giving you a transitory uneasiness; a man who never yet raised his voice to assert a lie will not hazard his character with posterity by asserting a falsehood on a subject so important to his country, and on an occasion like this. Yes, my Lords; a man who does not wish to have his epitaph written until his country is liberated will not leave a weapon in the power of envy, nor a pretence to impeach the probity which he means to preserve even in the grave to which tyranny consigns him. [In the succeeding part of his speech Emmet' was severe in his arraignment of

the British Government, and was frequently interrupted by Lord Norbury, whose remarks he answered with fervent indignation. He concluded with the following


I have been charged with that importance, in the efforts to emancipate my country, as to be considered the keystone of the combination of Irishmen, or, as your Lordship expressed it, “the life and blood of the conspiracy.” You do me honor overmuch. You have given to the subaltern all the credit of a superior. There are men engaged in this conspiracy who are not only superior to me, but even to your own conceptions of yourself, my Lord –men, before the splendor of whose genius and virtues I should bow with respectful deference, and who would think themselves dishonored to be called your friends,--who would not disgrace themselves by shaking your blood stained hand 1

[This so exasperated Lord Norbury that he attempted to stop the speaker, but

the enthusiasm was so great that he dared not insist, and Emmet proceeded, shaking his finger at Lord Norbury.]

What, my Lord, shall you tell me, on the passage to the scaffold which that tyranny, of which you are only the intermediate minister, has erected for my murder, that I am accountable for all the blood that has been and will be shed, in this struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor P Shall you tell me this, and must I be so very a slave as not to repeat it 2 I, who fear not to approach the Omnipotent Judge to answer for the conduct of my short life, Lam I to be appalled here, before a mere remnant of mortality ?—by you, too, who, if it were possible to collect all the innocent blood that you have caused to be shed, in your unhallowed ministry, in one great reservoir, your Lordship might swim in it !

[This invective was so severe that the judge interfered, insisting that Emmet

be less personal. After a moment's pause the speaker composed himself and proceeded as follows:]


Let no man dare, when I am dead, to charge me with dishonor. Let no man attaint my memory by believing that I could have engaged in any cause but that of my country's liberty and independence, or that I could have become the pliant minion of power in the oppression and the miseries of my countrymen. The proclamation of the Provisional Government speaks for my views. No inference can be tortured from it to countenance barbarity or debasement at home, or subjection, humiliation or treachery from abroad. I would not have submitted to a foreign oppressor, for the same reason that I would resist the domestic tyrant. In the dignity of freedom I would have fought upon the threshold of my country, and its enemy should enter only by passing over my lifeless corpse. And am I, who lived but for my country—who have subjected myself to the dangers of the jealous and watchful oppressor, and now to the bondage of the grave, only to give my countrymen their rights, and my country her independence,—am I to be loaded with calumny, and not suffered to resent it 2 No. God forbid

[At this point Lord Norbury told Emmet that his principles were treasonable.

that his father would not have countenanced such sentiments, that his language was unbecoming, to which Emmet replied with feeling:]

If the spirits of the illustrious dead participate in the concerns and cares of those who were dear to them in this transitory life, O, ever dear and venerated shade of my departed father, look down with scrutiny upon the conduct of your suffering son, and see if I have, even for a moment, deviated from those principles of morality and patriotism which it was your care to instill into my youthful mind, and for which I am now to offer up my life

My Lords, you seem impatient for the sacrifice. The blood for which you thirst is not congealed by the artificial terrors which surround your victim ;-it circulates, warmly and unruffled, through the channels which God created for nobler purposes, but which you are bent to destroy, for purposes so grievous that they cry to Heaven. Be ye 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.

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