Robert Emmet: the making of a legend by Marianne Elliott

The alluring myth of a heroic failure
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The Independent Culture

In the late summer of 1803, a bungled uprising took place in a crowded quarter of Dublin. It was characterised by mishap and confusion. Rockets intended for signalling exploded prematurely and alerted the authorities. French aid, a recurrent chimera, failed to materialise. A division of fighters from Kildare, judging the preparations inadequate, changed their minds and went home.

More rebels, running wildly in pursuit of redcoats, precipitated an unconnected riot by passers-by. A plan to capture Dublin Castle fell apart. The whole thing lasted no more than minutes; and when it was over, rebel pikes - a powerful reminder of 1798 - were left strewn about the streets.

This event has gone down in history as Robert Emmet's Rebellion. For an enterprise so chaotic and ineffectual, its reverberations were immense. It had its own momentum, however: not just a carry-over from the large-scale failed rebellion of five years earlier, but a response to the intervening Act of Union which had left Ireland without a parliament. And no sooner had its instigator died on the scaffold than all kinds of myths began to crystallise about the young, doomed hero.

Emmet became an embodiment of invincibilty, uprightness and chivalry. His famous "Let no man write my epitaph" speech from the dock, a resounding declaration of political principle, set the whole thing going. By the end of the 19th century, Emmet's idealised portrait had pride of place in many Irish cottages alongside St Patrick and the Mother of God.

The emotional charge tended to overwhelm the facts of Emmet's short life: his upbringing in upper-middle-class, Protestant Dublin; his espousal of Enlightenment principles; his expulsion from Trinity College for political involvement; his activities in Paris among United Irish exiles; his entanglement with Sarah Curran, which cost him his best chance of escape after the rising. The legend gained a boost from the plangent songs of Emmet's friend Thomas Moore: "She is Far From the Land", for example, with its implication that Sarah pined away after her sweetheart's execution. In fact, she married an army captain and died in childbirth.

One of Marianne Elliott's aims, in this admirable study of the Emmet phenomenon, is to show how the legend evolved through a process of accretion, gathering in such items as the steadfastness of Emmet's young housekeeper, Anne Devlin, who refused to disclose his wherabouts to troops. It was helped by a plethora of charnel detail: the beheading on a butchers' block, blood dripping on the cobbles of Thomas Street, the disappearance of the body and the search (without result) for Emmet's tomb.

The highly coloured ingredients of the Emmet story have made it something of a debunkers' delight. Elliott, while demystifying many misapprehensions, goes out of her way to restore humanity to a figure imbued with all the glamour of the heroic failure and the lost cause. She shows him, minus his insurgents' breeches and green cockade, as a scholarly, rather plain-looking, not very sociable young man, with "a passion for chemistry and military tactics".

Patricia Craig's life of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury