Speech from the Dock

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Speech from the Dock

19 September 1803

Robert Emmet

The widespread rebellion fomented by the United Irishmen in 1798 was put down by the Crown forces savagely and with great difficulty. The rebellion failed for a variety of reasons, including the lack of adequate French military assistance, British intelligence activity and repression, and the sectarian animosities that raged in the 1790s. The rising that Robert Emmet led in Dublin in July 1803 was suppressed with little loss of life and little difficulty. But Emmet redeemed his failure with a speech from the dock (after his conviction for high treason) that later nationalists of all stripes found ennobling and inspiring.

SEE ALSO Emmet, Robert; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803

My lords, as to why judgment of death and execution should not be passed upon me according to law, I have nothing to say; but as to why my character should not be relieved from the imputations and calumnies thrown out against it, I have much to say. I do not imagine that your lordships will give credit to what I am going to utter; I have no hopes that I can anchor my character in the breast of the court. I only wish your lordships may suffer it to float down your memories till it has found some more hospitable harbour to shelter it from the storms with which it is at present buffeted. Was I to suffer only in death after being adjudged guilty, I should bow in silence to the fate which awaits me; but sentence of the law which delivers over my body to the executioner consigns my character to obloquy. A man in my situation has not only to encounter the difficulties of fortune but also the difficulties of prejudice. Whilst the man dies, his memory lives; and that mine may not forfeit all claim to the respect of my countrymen, I seize upon this opportunity to vindicate myself from some of the charges alleged against me.

I am charged with being an emissary of France. It is false—I am no emissary. I did not wish to deliver up my country to a foreign power, and least of all to France. Never did I entertain the remotest idea of establishing French power in Ireland. . . . Were the French to come as invaders or enemies, uninvited by the wishes of the people, I should oppose them to the utmost of my strength. Yes! My countrymen, I should advise you to meet them upon the beach with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. I would meet them with all the destructive fury of war. I would animate my countrymen to immolate them in their boats before they had contaminated the soil of my country. If they succeeded in landing, and if [I were] forced to retire before superior discipline, I would dispute every inch of ground, burn every blade of grass, and the last intrenchment of liberty should be my grave. What I could not do myself, if I should fall, I should leave as a last charge to my countrymen to accomplish, because I should feel conscious that life, even more than death, would be unprofitable when a foreign nation held my country in subjection. . . . My object and that of the rest of the Provisional Government was to effect a total separation between Great Britain and Ireland—to make Ireland totally independent of Great Britain, but not to let her become a dependent of France.

My lords, you are impatient for the sacrifice. The blood which you seek is not congealed by the artificial terrors which surround your victim; it circulates warmly and unruffled through its channels, and in a little time it will cry to heaven. Be yet patient! I have but a few words more to say—my ministry is now ended. I am going to my cold and silent grave; my lamp of life is nearly extinguished. I have parted with everything that was dear to me in this life for my country's cause, and abandoned another idol I adored in my heart—the object of my affections. My race is run—the grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom. I am ready to die—I have not been allowed to vindicate my character. I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world—it is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dares now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace; [let] my memory be left in oblivion, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.

Reprinted in Irish Historical Documents Since 1800, edited by Alan O'Day and John Stevenson (1992), pp. 15–16. © Alan O'Day and John Stevenson. Reproduced by permission.

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Speech from the Dock

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Speech from the Dock