Review: Robert Emmet and the rising of 1803

Ruan O' Donnell- Irish Academic Press


The 1803 rebellion came to be associated with one man, Robert Emmet because that suited both the government of that time and later day nationalists in search of a romantic nationalist interpretation of the rebellion. As with the great rebellion of 1798, the process of burying the radical ideas of the rebellion was bound up in creating mystical notions of blood sacrifice and individual heroism.

The bi-centennary of the 1798 rebellion saw the radical ideas that lay at the roots of it being recovered. Instead of a romantic nationalist rising for the four green fields and the faith of our fathers it was put in the context of the wave of European / Atlantic radicalism that demanded equality for all. The United Irishmen were revealed not as narrow nationalists but as part of an international democratic upsurge against monarchy and colonialism that transformed the world we live in. See http://struggle.ws/rbr/rbr4_1798.html

The traditional history of 1803 is little more than a 'blood sacrifice' intended to confirm Ireland's right to independence. Ruan O'Donnell's book concentrates on exploding the myth that the rising was doomed from the start. It was planned not as a noble gesture of a handful of nationalists but rather as a mass uprising intended to decapitate the British state in Ireland at the very moment of a French invasion and liberation of the country. What went wrong?

The United Irishmen succeeded in keeping the plans for the rising secret until there was an explosion at their main secret arsenal in Dublin. This convinced them that they must rise as soon as possible. If everything else had gone to plan there was a chance of success.

The key munitions that were missing were the guns needed to fire the vast stores of musket balls and gunpowder that had been secured. When the rank and file mobilising in Dublin discovered that very few guns were to be had many of them voted with their feet and returned home.

At least 30 United Irishmen including Emmet were executed in the period after the rising. His courtroom speech and the spirit of self-sacrifice it contained was to make him the best known of the United Irishmen. The speech gave a romantic nationalist cloak under which the radical social program of the United Irishmen could be hidden.

Emmet is a safe figure for those who rule Ireland today. The 200th anniversary of his trial and execution happened to fall as the High Court was jailing bin tax protesters. Yet it was official Ireland in the form of the Minister for Justice, the Taoiseach and a Supreme Court judge that were the honoured guests at these events. The trial was re-enacted in the very same spot, Green Street court, as 200 years before. This is still used by the state for political trials, but nowadays without jury or the right to a speech from the dock. It's otherwise known as the Special Criminal Court.

Andrew Flood

Some Anarchist history and theory on revolution

Labour history of Ireland


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This edition is No78 published in November 2003

Workers Soldiarity 78