Robert Emmet was only twenty-five when he was brutally executed by the British in the middle of a busy road – Dublin’s Thomas Street – on 20 September, 1803. He had been the leader of an abortive uprising that summer and also managed to evade capture for several weeks afterwards, until he was ultimately undone by leaving his secure hiding place to be closer to his sweetheart.
These days, he is remembered more as a romantic figure, not for the circumstances of his capture as much as a stirring piece of oratory he delivered the night before he was killed – at the end of his trial for treason. This actually does him something of a disservice, because the unsuccessful rebellion he led came much closer to succeeding than was originally assumed.
All of this, of course, is wonderful raw material for a novelist and made the perfect historical backdrop for my latest book Liberty Boy.
My previous books were set in Argentina and Chile and New Orleans and Honduras – places I knew nothing of before reading about them. I thought I’d have a bit of an advantage writing about home turf for a change, but much of what I’d been taught in school had to be jettisoned. I had learned that Robert Emmet’s rebellion was a failed vanity project, a foolhardy attempt at unseating the British, an ill-thought-out, madcap scheme which stupidly endangered the lives of his men and never had any realistic chance of succeeding.
It’s only more recent scholarship which showed that Robert Emmet actually had a very intricate scheme to capture Dublin – after which the rest of the country was to rise, once any possible British response was neutralized. And it’s only now that we understand that Emmet called off the uprising at an early stage to prevent a much greater loss of life once he realized the day was likely to be lost, and employed a whole range of diversionary tactics to ensure the main body of men could make an orderly retreat and melt into the countryside.
At the time, no one really knew what had happened. Even the British administration in Dublin Castle wasn’t sure, which was quite embarrassing for them when they had to report to Westminster. For example, initially they weren’t sure if it was just a drunken riot on Thomas Street they were dealing with – the usual Saturday night session getting out of hand – or an actual rebellion.
The confusion surrounding these events wasn’t helped by both sides engaging in propaganda. A classic example of this is Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock. It’s nearly more famous than the man himself, but no one is quite sure precisely what he said. How can this be?
A number of people were transcribing his words in court, and a number of different printers distributed copies of his speech in the aftermath the trial, but it’s quite easy to make mistakes at the end of a twelve-hour trial and many of those involved had agendas of their own. The British were the first to the presses, which might seem strange until you examine the accusations that they may have added passages to Emmet’s speech which were insulting to the French, so as to dissuade Napoleon from making common cause with the Irish rebels.
Liberty Boy takes place in the aftermath of the failed rebellion, and the characters in my book are ordinary Dubliners trying to make sense out of what has happened. The confusion over what had transpired was quite a challenge, until I realized it was a blessing in disguise. Because if the history itself is contentious, then you have instant conflict between your characters. If people can’t even agree on what happened, then there is little chance they will share the same views.
And it was very important to convey a range of views here, because Robert Emmet’s rebellion was also notable for another reason: it was the last time that Irish Catholics and Protestants came together to make common cause against the English. After 1803, everything changed. Republicanism started to become more ruthless, and more sectarian – sowing the seeds for everything (good and bad) that happened since: the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
When we think of anti-war movements, we usually think of unpopular conflicts, such as Iraq or Vietnam. It’s easy to forget that what we generally label as “good” wars (such as World War II) also had groups of people opposed to them – or those who were just ambivalent about the whole thing.
With novels and movies and TV shows, we usually get the plucky rebel or the hard-ass general. They are easy heroes to reach for. But with Liberty Boy I wanted to try something different. I started thinking: what about someone who didn’t care for the rebels or the English? What about someone who just wanted to work and save money and get the hell out of Ireland? Surely there were a lot of people like that too. And when I discovered that twenty rebels were hung in the three weeks leading up to Emmet’s execution – most of them on Thomas Street, and nearly every day, one after the other – I had my idea. What if he was a market trader and the British have built a gallows right over his patch?
We like to believe in our own autonomy. That we have freedom to shape events, and the world around us. That we can choose our own path, live under our own code. But sometimes events shape us. Or as historian Howard Zinn put it: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
David Gaughran, October 24, 2016
Liberty Boy is available now from Amazon.
David Gaughran is Irish and lives in Dublin, where it rains every day and conversation is a sport. He is the author of the historical adventures Liberty Boy, Mercenary, and A Storm Hits Valparaiso, as well as bunch of other stuff too. Visit DavidGaughran.com to sign up to his mailing list.