Robert Emmet was the youngest of 18 children born to a prominent Anglo-Irish Protestant family. His father, Dr. Robert Emmet, was state physician of Ireland. In 1793 Emmet enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin. He excelled in his studies and won a reputation as a fiery orator. Emmet was influenced by the liberal views of the Enlightenment and the conduct of an older brother who was a member of the Society of United Irishmen. In 1796 Emmet joined the radical group.
Inspired by the examples of the American and French revolutions, the United Irishmen demanded an Ireland free of English influence and governed by a reformed Parliament representing both Protestant and Catholic opinion, elected by a democratic franchise. Frightened by the increasing militancy of the United Irishmen, the intensity of Catholic discontent, and the threat of internal insurrection supported by French invasion, the Irish government adopted measures restricting civil liberties. The Earl of Clare, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, began to investigate student opinion at Trinity, and in 1798 Emmet was forced to leave the college.
Emmet maintained United Irishmen connections but apparently did not participate in the 1798 revolution. After the Irish and British parliaments passed the Act of Union, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1800) and completely destroying the legal existence of the Irish nation, Emmet and his friends considered revolution even more imperative. He left for the Continent to confer with Irish exiles. Napoleon and other French leaders expressed a willingness to assist an Irish revolution. In 1802 Emmet returned to Dublin to create an army of liberation, hoping for French assistance:
Emmet used his own funds to buy weapons, mostly pikes. He asked the Dublin proletariat to strike a blow for liberty. Unfortunately, he failed to establish effective communications with United Irishmen outside the metropolitan area and was unaware that the government had infiltrated his organization. When authorities discovered a cache of arms, Emmet decided to raise the standard of revolt. On July 23, 1803, he issued a proclamation establishing a provisional government for an Irish Republic; he put on a general's uniform of green and white with gold epaulets and led his band of about 80 men out to battle. No help arrived and the revolt was crushed by British soldiers. Emmet managed to escape but refused to leave for America, insisting on remaining close to his fiancée, Sarah Curran, daughter of the famous barrister, John Philpot Curran. On August 25 British soldiers captured Emmet.
On Sept. 19, 1803, the government brought Emmet to trial. Sadistic Lord Norbury was the judge, and Leonard MacNally, an informer, was defense counsel. The jury delivered a guilty verdict. Before sentencing, Emmet brilliantly defended his nationalism. He said that he was prepared to die for the future of Irish freedom, closing with the words: "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." On September 20 he was hanged.
www.robertemmet.org (Be sure you have your speakers on)
HOW EMMET COUNTY MICHIGAN GOT ITS NAME
THE ROBERT EMMET CONNECTION
By Jim Gillespie
Blissfest Music Organization & The Robert Emmet Society
It seems there are always interesting stories regarding the naming of things. This is certainly true about the naming of Emmet County Michigan back in the mid-19th century. It seems that Henry Schoolcraft, a geographer and ethnologist, was surveying northern Michigan for the territorial government in 1840 and naming counties as he went along. While up in this neck of the woods, he named our county after a notable local Odawa Chief from the Cross Village area by the name of Tonedagana, famous (or infamous) for signing treaties ceding parts of Michigan to the United States government.
Now about that time a State Representative by the name of Charlie O'Malley (is that Irish or what?) and his brother Tulie, who was the local Sheriff, wanted to honor the homeland and all the Irish who built the railroads and helped settle the area. Both of these men were from Mackinac Island which was the seat of power in those days. By the way, it seems that the county seat moved around a bit over the years, starting at St. James, Beaver Island, then moving to Mackinaw City and Harbor Springs (Little Traverse) before finally settling in Petoskey.
The O'Malley brothers convinced the local folks that the county should be re-named for the great Irish patriot and martyr Robert Emmet who, inspired by the American and French revolutions, led a rising against the British rulers of Ireland in 1803. Though the revolt failed miserably, the young Mr. Emmet became famous in song and verse in the early decades of the 19th century. His short, but heroic life and, particularly, the way he bravely faced execution, made him an inspiration to all Irish patriots who fought for Irish freedom through the early 1920s.
In 1843, Charlie O'Malley was able to add the name change as an amendment to a bill in the territorial legislature. This amendment also changed the names of four other counties in Northern Michigan to honor the Mr. O’Malley’s homeland including Clare, Roscommon, Wexford and Antrim. In addition, a number of other counties in Michigan which originally all had Native American names were changed at the same time.
Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock at his trial is one of the most famous pieces of oratory in Irish history. Emmet has been particularly beloved in Irish folklore because he likely would have escaped to America had he not attempted to rescue his true love, Sarah Curran. Once captured, he was quickly tried for treason as leader of the failed revolution and hanged (and then beheaded) on September 20, 1803 at the age of 25. His love affair was immortalized in the Thomas Moore songs - “She is far from the land (where her young hero sleeps”) and “Oh, breathe not the name.”
Thomas Emmet, Robert’s older brother, was also active in the Nationalist movement. Exiled to France, he eventually moved to the U.S. and became a very successful lawyer, arguing in the Supreme Court against Daniel Webster in the famous Gibbons vs. Ogden (1824) case that opened up interstate commerce. One of his sons eventually served on the Supreme Court.
A wonderful historical novel about Robert Emmet’s life and one true love of Robert Emmet was written by Greta Curran Browne in 1990. Entitled Tread Softly on my Dreams, the book also provides good information about impoverished Ireland in Robert Emmet’s time and the relationship of the native Irish with their British rulers. A good historical introduction to Robert Emmet and his legacy can be found in Marianne Elliott’s 2003 book entitled Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend. Further information about the beginning of Emmet County can be found at the Little Traverse Bay Historical Museum in Petoskey.