Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend by Marianne Elliott - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

Whose Ireland

Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend


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ROBERT EMMET IS probably the most famous of all Irish nationalist martyrs. A United Irishman, who to some extent followed in the footsteps of Wolfe Tone, and similarly encouraged Napoleon to invade Ireland, he hatched an ill-conceived plot to seize Dublin Castle and take the viceroy prisoner as soon as a French invasion force landed. In 1798 the French arrived after the native insurrection had already failed, but in 1803 they went one better and did not come at all. Forced into premature, 'spontaneous' rebellion, Emmet and his followers failed lamentably to set Dublin alight, even though they took the authorities by surprise, and Emmet fled to the Wicklow Mountains. Foolishly returning for a clandestine tryst with Sarah Curran, daughter of the lawyer-orator John Curran, Emmet was arrested, tried and hanged at the age of twenty-five. He thus became an archetypal figure in Irish hstory and legend, linking the tragic early deaths of the mythcal hero Cu Chulainn, the later executed Fenians, the rebels of Easter 1916, and the more recent hungerstrike victims like Bobby Sands. Not surprisingly, he is a hero to Irish Republicans and indeed all Irish Catholics who loathe and despise what England has done to its neighbouring island over more than eight hundred years.

Scarcely less surprisingly, Emmet is an object of suspicion and alike or, at the very least, iconoclasm for the Ulster Unionists and their fellow-travellers, the academic revisionists in Irish history. Marianne Elliott is in this tradition and she quotes at length the alternative view of Emmet expressed by the playwright

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