City of Rebels

Revolution was in the air in the late 18th century: first America cast off the colonial shackles, then triumphantly, newly republican France stretched out an anarchical hand of friendship, which Ireland’s home grown rebels, inspired and restless, gratefully grasped.

Theobold Wolfe Tone, young, idealistic and impassioned was one such rebel. Born a stone’s throw from the River Liffey in 1763, he studied law at Trinity College and at 22 eloped with 16 year old Matilda Witherington. But quiet domesticity was not for him, nor was the law - his passion was politics and he had one aim: ‘to break the connection with England’. Tone formed the United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791 but fled certain arrest in 1795, first going to America and then to France. In Paris he held the republicans to their promise and in 1796 sailed for Ireland with a large fleet and a force of 15,000. Nature conspired against them however and they were forced to retreat.

In Ireland merciless suppression of the natives forced them to take up their pikes and scythes in Spring 1798. Summer saw bloody battle after bloody battle, more help arrived from France but all to no avail. Once more Wolfe Tone came at the helm of another French expedition but was defeated off the coast of Donegal, arrested, sent for trial in Dublin and sentenced to hang. By the Bloody Bridge he passed en route to his prison, his fate sealed in his own mind. He chose to cut his throat. The British response to ungrateful Ireland was to deprive her of the home parliament through the Act of Union.

Yet, over the water in France, the spirit of revolution still burned in the heart of one exiled United Irishman and Dubliner - Robert Emmet. Garnering more French support in 1802, he stole up the Liffey in a small rowing boat, under cover of darkness and into the heart of Dublin. His mission was to prepare the ground for the French attack and by summer of 1803 his troops were armed and ready.

Fate, once again decided otherwise. An unfortunate explosion at an arms depot, a whispered conversation overheard in a tavern and disorder in the ranks sealed their fate. Emmet himself led a band of rebels upon Dublin Castle, but having come upon and murdered the Lord Chief Justice, the men fell to rioting and Emmet fled into the mountains. Everything lost, Emmet prepared for exile in America but risked returning to Dublin for his sweetheart, Sarah Curran.

Robert Emmet was captured and sentenced to hang. From the dock of the Green Street Courthouse he delivered his famous oration, telling his fellow Irishmen that:

‘when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then shall my character be vindicated, then may my epitaph be written’.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 14th September 2013