The ghost of Emmet and Easter Week:
There are many reminders of Robert Emmet’s 1803 insurrection in Dublin today, not least the monument at Saint Catherine’s Church, marking the place where Emmet met his end at the age of only twenty-five. P.H Pearse recalled in a 1914 speech that “a friend of mine knew an old lady who told him how the blood flowed down upon the pavement, and how she sickened with horror as she saw the dogs on the street lap up that noble blood.”
For Pearse and others of the 1916 generation, Emmet was an enormous influence. His rebellion had been planned as an urban insurrection, designed to seize the historic Dublin Castle, viewed by nationalists as a symbol of foreign occupation. It wasn’t only Emmet’s words that influenced later rebels, but his planning. In one Bureau of Military History statrement, Pearse is remembered as stating that “Dublin has one great shame to wipe out and that is that no man risked his life to save Robert Emmet.”
Pearse was not alone in looking to 1803 for inspiration; in the pages of The Workers’ Republic only weeks before the Rising, James Connolly wrote that “we now know beyond all doubt that had Robert Emmet pushed on to the Castle on the day of his rising he would have captured that edifice of evil omen, and roused all Ireland by the blow.” A few short weeks after he penned those words, Connolly’s own Citizen Army would storm the gates of the Castle, as Emmet had envisioned his men doing.
Marshalsea Lane and the Emmet depot:
Yet while there are reminders of Emmet in the city today, the landscape of Dublin has also changed. Some places, like Marshalsea Lane discussed in this post, are now unrecognisable.
In the run-up to Emmet’s abortive rebellion, secret munitions factories and depots were established on his orders,producing and hiding the weapons of war Emmet felt his movement would require. One of these was located in Marshalsea Lane, located just off Thomas Street, between Bridgefoot Street and Watling Street.
Emmet, in the aftermath of the failure of the 1798 United Irish rebellion, had quite wisely left the country for a period. His presence in Dublin in 1803 was, he hoped at least, unknown. Even the funeral of his own father in January of that year could not be attended for fear of apprehension.
Emmet’s Marshalsea Lane depot was located behind a pub, The White Bull Inn, described as being “on the right hand side of a court off Thomas Street, between the numbers 138 and 139.” From the pub, there was a secret entrance to the depot. Seamus Cullen, author of an excellent study of 1803 in Kildare, has suggested that this premises had a number of advantages to the movement, including the fact the proprietor of The White Bull, Mary Dillon, was sympathetic to the movement. Emmet’s men took the lease of the building on 24 March 1803, and the running of it was taken up by Michael Quigley, a Kildare-born veteran of the 1798 rebellion. Of the depot, Cullen has noted:
Quigley moved into the building and from then on went by the alias of Captain Graham. Barney Doogan who had served with Quigley during the ‘98 rising in north Kildare, joined the conspiracy at this time. Both Doogan and Condon also moved in to the depot and together with Quigley and Howley began working on the manufacture of pikes. In order to conceal the weapons in the depot Quigley built false walls in the building with Howley assisting with the carpentry work. Other assistants were recruited, mainly carpenters who planed timbers for pike handles. Some of the assistants worked for only their keep and others, particularly the carpenters, were paid. Emmet supplied Quigley with the money to pay their wages. At first, Quigley and Doogan were the only two from the depot who would have contact with Emmet or the people in the other depots.
Emmet maintained contact with other United Irish forces, such as the well-organised and disciplined United Irishmen in Kildare, and the forces of Michael Dwyer in the Wicklow mountains. Dwyer,a 1798 veteran, was maintaining a guerilla campaign since the failure of the 1798 rebellion.
The weapons of Emmet:
In secret, Emmet was moving forward with planned urban warfare, and the weapons his men were developing were often innovative in design. One source tells us of “a species of explosive machines, consisting of beams of wood bored by a pump augur, and filled with powder and small stones, intended to be exploded in the face of advancing troops at the moment of action.” Essentially, Emmet’s men sought to barricade the streets with hidden explosives, causing nightmares for any advancing troops on foot or horse. Large quantities of pikes were forged, and “carried from their places of manufacture to the depots in hollow logs prepared for their reception, and which were drawn through the streets like ordinary lumber.”
In addition to the Marshalsea Lane depot, another functioned in the district at Patrick Street, where the authorities would discover hundreds of pikes of a peculiar design. The rebels of 1798 have entered folklore as the ‘pikemen’, and in 1803 Emmet’s men developed pikes described as “having an iron hinge at about half their length, by which they doubled up, and though when extended they were six feet long, by this contrivance it was possible to carry one of them undiscovered under a man’s coat.” Along with these pikes and explosive devices, Emmet’s men also development war rockets. It was recalled that on testing one of these black-powder rockets in a secluded area, it “went off like a thunderbolt, throwing flames and fire behind it as it advanced.”
“But he left behind, for all his efforts, a drunken, pillaging riot.” The 1803 rebellion in action:
The tragedy of this period of sedition and planning is that it delivered so little. When Emmet’s rebellion took place on 28 July 1803, it emerged with a whimper and not a bang. When one of Emmet’s munition factories witnessed a fatal explosion on 16 July 1803, it forced his hand, largely out of a fear that the conspiracy would unravel before the authorities. In the days before the insurrection, Emmet was living at the Marshalsea Lane depot. It was likely there that he penned the Proclamation of his rebellion. While Emmet’s rebellion is now remembered as a brief riot, this document is deserving of more study. It noted that “From the date and promulgation hereof, tithes are for ever abolished, and church lands are the property of the nation.” It was at Marshalsea Lane that Emmet’s uniform was produced, described as being “a green coat, laced on the sleeves and skirts..and gold epaulets, like a general’s dress.”
Plagued by a culture of informing which had hampered the rebellion of five years previous, and in the face of great challenges, Emmet led a small band of men from the Marshalsea Lane depot on 28 July. R.R Madden, the great historian of the United Irish movement, has written that Emmet and his men were found “not of one mind; there was division in their counsels, confusion in the depots, consternation among the citizens who were cognizant of what was going on, and treachery tracking Emmet’s footsteps, dogging him from place to place unseen.”
Remembered primarily as a riot on Thomas Street, Emmet was horrified by the sight of a British dragoon pulled from his horse and killed, while Lord Kilwarden, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, was similarly dragged from his carriage and hacked to death. Amidst scenes of chaos, Robert Emmet fled, having attempted to call an end to a revolt. Those who dismiss the events entirely as little more than a riot ignore the large scale planning that preceded it however,or the impressive vision of Emmet’s proclamation. As Ruan O’Donnell has noted, what actually occurred “was by no means an index of the revolutionary potential of the conspiracy”.
Following Emmet’s rebellion, an account of the Marshalsea Lane depot was penned by the Chief Secretary, who reported that “until a week before the insurrection not more than a dozen persons on the whole were admitted to the depot, and no more than seven or eight were there at any one time. These persons, though chiefly of a humble class in life,were entirely confidential, and of known attachment to the cause.” It went on to note:
They brought in from time to time, in small bundles or baskets, or under their great-coats, pike heads, pistols, blunderbusses, and ammunition. Boards were brought there of a length and thickness to be cut into pike handles, and a few beams which were afterwards hollowed in different ways – some to contain pikes, some to be charged with combustibles and laid in the streets to impede or destroy the military.
Only a short distance from the Marshalsea depot his followers had done well to conceal, Emmet was executed on 20 September 1803. The Castle had withstood his plans, but his place in history was secure.