9. The Emmet Conspiracy
“The Rich always betray the Poor.”
– Henry Joy M’Cracken’s Letter to his sister, 1798.
The Emmet Conspiracy – the aftermath of the United Irish movement of 1798, was even more distinctly democratic, international and popular in its sympathies and affiliations. The treacherous betrayal of the United Irish chiefs into the hands of the Government, had removed from the scene of action practically all the middle-class supporters of the revolutionary movement; and left the rank and file to their own resources and to consult their own inclinations. It was, accordingly, with these humble workers in town and country Emmet had to deal, when he essayed to reorganise the scattered forces of freedom for a fresh grapple with the despotic power of the class government then ruling Ireland and England. All students who have investigated the matter are as one in conceding that Emmet’s conspiracy was more of a working-class character than its predecessors. Indeed it is a remarkable fact that this conspiracy, widespread throughout Ireland, England, and France, should have progressed so rapidly, and with such elaborate preparations for armed revolt, amongst the poorer section of the populace, right up to within a short time of the date for the projected rising, without the alert English Government or its Irish Executive being able to inform themselves of the matter.
Probably the proletarian character of the movement – the fact that it was recruited principally amongst the working class of Dublin and other large centres, as well as amongst the labouring element of the country districts, was the real reason why it was not so prolific of traitors as its forerunner. After the conspiracy had fallen through, the Government, of course, pretended that it had known of it all along – indeed the British Government in Ireland always pretends to be omniscient – but nothing developed during the trial of Emmet to justify such a claim. Nor has anything developed since, although searchers of the Government documents of the time, the Castlereagh papers, the records of the secret service and other sources of information, have been able to reveal in their true colours of infamy many who had posed in the limelight for more than a generation as whole-souled patriots and reformers. Thus Leonard McNally, barrister-at-law, and legal defender of the United Irishmen, who acted for all the chiefs of that body at their trials, was one of the Catholic Committee and elected as Catholic delegate to England in 1811, looked up to and revered as a fearless advocate of Catholic rights, and champion of persecuted Nationalists, was discovered to have been all the time in the pay of the Government, acting the loathsome part of an informer, and systematically betraying to the Government the inmost secrets of the men whose cause he was pretending to champion in the court-room. But this secret was kept for half a century. Francis Magan, another worthy, received a secret pension of £200 per year from the Government for the betrayal of the hiding-place of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and lived and died revered as an honest, unoffending citizen. A body of the Royal Meath Militia stationed at Mallow, County Cork, had conspired to seize the artillery stationed there, and with that valuable arm, join the insurgents in a body. One of their number mentioned the plot in his confessions to the Rev. Thomas Barry, parish priest of Mallow, and was by him ordered to reveal it to the military authorities. The leader of the plotters, Sergeant Beatty, seeing by the precautions suddenly taken that the plot was discovered, fought his way out of the barracks with nineteen men, but was subsequently captured and hanged in Dublin. Father Barry (how ironical the title sounds) received £100 per year pension from the Government, and drew this blood-money in secret for a lifetime before his crime was discovered. It is recorded that the great Daniel O’Connell at one time turned pale when shown a receipt for this blood-money signed by Father Barry, and yet it is known now that O’Connell himself, as a member of the lawyers’ Yeomanry Corps of Dublin, was turned out on duty to serve against the rebels on the night of Emmet’s insurrection, and in Daunt’s Recollections he relates that O’Connell pointed out to him a house in James’s Street which he (O’Connell) had searched for ‘Croppies’ (patriots).
The present writer has seen in Derrynane, O’Connell’s ancestral home in County Kerry, a brass-mounted blunderbuss, which we were assured by a member of the family was procured at a house in James’s Street, Dublin, by O’Connell from the owner, a follower of Emmet, a remark that recalled to our mind that “search for Croppies” of which Daunt speaks, and gave rise to a conjecture that possibly the blunderbuss in question owed its presence in Derrynane to that memorable raid.
But although latter-day investigators have brought to light many such treasons against liberty as those recorded, and have revealed depths of corruption in quarters long unsuspected, nothing has yet been demonstrated to dim the glory or sully the name of the men and women of the working class, who carried the dangerous secret of Emmet’s conspiracy and guarded it so well and faithfully to the end. It must be remembered in this connection, that at that period the open organisation of labourers for any purpose was against the law, that consequently the trade unions which then flourished amongst the working class were all illegal organisations, whose members were in constant danger of arrest and transportation for the crime of organising, and that, therefore, a proposal to subvert the oppressive governing class and establish a republic founded upon the votes of all citizens, as Emmet planned, was one likely to appeal alike to the material requirements and imagination of the Irish toilers. And, as they were already trained to secrecy in organisation, they naturally made splendid material for the revolutionary movement. It is significant that the only serious fight on the night of the ill-fated insurrection took place in the Coombe district of the Liberties of Dublin, a quarter inhabited exclusively by weavers, tanners, and shoemakers, the best organised trades in the city, and that a force of Wicklow men brought into Dublin by Michael Dwyer, the insurgent chieftain, were sheltered on the quays amongst the dock-labourers; and eventually managed to return home without any traitor betraying their whereabouts to the numerous Government spies over-running the city.
The ripeness of the labouring element in the country at large for any movement that held out hopes of social emancipation may be gauged by the fact that a partial rebellion had already taken place in 1802 in Limerick, Waterford, and Tipperary, where, according to Haverty’s History of Ireland, “the alleged grounds for rebellion were the dearness of the potatoes”, and “the right of the old tenants to retain possession of their farms”.
Such were the domestic materials upon which the conspiracy of Emmet rested – working-class elements fired with the hope of political and social emancipation. Abroad he sought alliance with the French Republic – the incarnation of the political, social, and religious unrest and revolution of the age, and in Great Britain he formed alliance with the ‘Sassenach’ reformers who were conspiring to overthrow the English monarchy. On November 13, 1802, one Colonel Despard, with nineteen others, was arrested in London charged with the crime of high treason; they were tried on the charge of conspiracy to murder the King; although no evidence in support of such a charge was forthcoming, Despard and seven others were hanged. According to the Castlereagh papers Emmet and Despard were preparing for a simultaneous uprising, a certain William Dowdall, of Dublin, described as one of the most determined of the society of United Irishmen, being the confidential agent who acted for both. Mr. W.J. Fitzpatrick in his books Secret Service Under Pitt and The Sham Squire brings out many of these facts, as a result of an extensive and scholarly investigation of Government records and the papers of private families, yet, although these books were published half a century ago, every recurring Emmet anniversary continues to bring us its crop of orators who know all about Emmet’s martyrdom, and nothing about his principles. Even some of the more sympathetic of his panegyrists do not seem to realise that they dim his glory when they represent him as the victim of a protest against an injustice local to Ireland, instead of as an Irish apostle of a world-wide movement for liberty, equality and fraternity. Yet this latter was indeed the character and position of Emmet, and as such the democracy of the future will revere him. He fully shared in the international sympathies of that Dublin Society of United Irishmen who had elected a Scottish reformer to be a United Irishman upon hearing that the Government had sentenced him to transportation for attending a reform convention in Edinburgh. He believed in the brotherhood of the oppressed, and in the community of free nations, and died for his ideal.
Emmet is the most idolised, the most universally praised of all Irish martyrs; it is, therefore, worthy of note that in the proclamation he drew up to be issued in the name of the ‘Provisional Government of Ireland’ the first article decrees the wholesale confiscation of church property and the nationalising of the same, and the second and third decrees forbid and declare void the transfer of all landed property, bonds, debentures, and public securities, until the national government is established and the national will upon them is declared.
Two things are thus established – viz., that Emmet believed the ‘national will’ was superior to property rights, and could abolish them at will; and also that he realised that the producing classes could not be expected to rally to the revolution unless given to understand that it meant their freedom from social as well as from political bondage.