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Annual Robert Emmet Commemoration (Washington DC, September 2021)

I am happy to be here this morning to commemorate Robert Emmet and his legacy, part of which is the century-long independence of the sovereign republic I have the honour of representing in the United States. One of the highlights of my career in the Irish diplomatic service came in April 1998 when I was present in Belfast for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which has bequeathed a generation of peace to the people of Northern Ireland. The preservation of peace and the promotion of reconciliation through the institutions of that agreement is front and centre in the Irish Government’s approach to Northern Ireland. In recent years, our government’s priority has been to protect the agreement from fallout from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. The Good Friday Agreement provides for Irish unity by consent and there is provision for the holding of a referendum on the subject when the time is right for this. Both Governments are committed to accepting the outcome of such a referendum.

To return to the subject of this morning’s commemoration, on account of the quick suppression of the rebellion organised by Robert Emmet, who was executed in Dublin 218 years ago tomorrow, he ought not to have a hold on our historical imagination, but he has. Why is that? It has to do with the power of words, which are especially important for politically-disadvantaged peoples like the 19th century Irish and their kin here in the United States.

Robert Emmet’s famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ reverberated in this country almost as soon as its powerful words were uttered. This may have had something to do with Emmet’s evocation of George Washington – “I wish to procure for my country the guarantee which Washington procured for America”, but it was probably the out-and-out demand for independence that mattered most to the Irish community in this country. Irish American newspapers like Shamrock kept Emmet’s memory in the mind’s eye. It was not only Irish Americans who were familiar with Emmet’s powerful words: Abraham Lincoln knew his speech by heart.

There is a record of Emmet’s speech being performed by a Mrs Hamilton, an Irish immigrant in a New York theatre in 1806, just three years after Emmet’s death. It is said that some 20 writers produced plays with Emmet’s life as their subject, many of those works originating in America with titles like Robert Emmet: The Martyr for Irish Liberty and The Rebels: the Insurgent Chiefs of 1803. These were not dramatic writing of the highest order, but their emergence testifies to Emmet’s enduring appeal to Irish Americans.

There were Emmet societies across America, including in Savannah where a Robert Emmet Association was formed in 1877, where it brought together the upwardly mobile members of the Irish community. On a recent visit to Montana, I visited the cemetery in Butte which has an imposing monument to the leading members of the local Robert Emmet Literary Association, which was an affiliate with the Irish American Fenian organisation, Clan na Gael.

In the 1850s, two exiled members of the Young Ireland movement, Michael Doheny and John O’Mahony, formed the Emmet Monument Association, which was a precursor of the Fenian Brotherhood. As one historian has put it, the only “monument” the Association intended to erect was “an independent Irish republic.”

My point is that Irish America became a staunch source of support for political movements in Ireland and Robert Emmet was perhaps the most potent symbol of Ireland’s political aspirations that were shared and often shaped by Irish American influence.

A point to bear in mind is it was not just Fenianism that attracted Irish American support, although, more than any other Irish political movement, it was an Irish and American joint venture. Movements such as Repeal in the 1840s, the Land League in the 1880s, the Gaelic League and the Home Rule movement also enjoyed significant Irish American support.

Emmet’s nephew, also named Robert Emmet, a New York lawyer and political activist, was a leading figure in the American Repeal movement and later in the Irish Republican Union, set up in 1848 to “promote revolutions for the establishment of republican governments throughout Europe”. Much later, another Emmet, New York physician, Thomas Addis Emmet, Robert Emmet’s grandnephew was elected President of the Irish National Federation of America, a body dedicated to supporting Home Rule. And in 1917, Colonel Robert Temple Emmet, was part of a delegation that met British Foreign Secretary to urge Britain to offer Ireland a “generous settlement”. Irish American lawyer, John Quinn said at that time that “the Irish question had in a sense become an American question” and that Ireland was “the one outstanding obstacle to complete and cordial relations” between the US and Britain. In his report back to London Balfour stressed the capacity of Irish Americans in the absence of a settlement in Europe ‘to cause dissension and mistrust between the United States and Great Britain.’

It is clear to me from the late 19th century onwards, as US power in world affairs increased, the spectre of Irish America and its potential to complicate Britain’s relations with America weighed heavily on British Ministers, and not just during the period after 1916, but also during the Home Rule crises.

That 19th century tradition of Irish American concern for Ireland’s fortunes has continued to benefit independent Ireland this past century. From the 1970s onwards, Irish Americans were instrumental in breaking down official reticence in Washington about US involvement with Northern Ireland. That involvement turned out to be a critical ingredient in advancing the cause of peace and political agreement in Northern Ireland.

And in our day, Irish Americans have been influential in encouraging American support for an open border in Ireland. That was critical in securing agreement last year on the Northern Ireland protocol, an agreement that guarantees an open border in Ireland in perpetuity. Our focus now is on ensuring that the Protocol is properly implemented so as to ensure that the open border does not come under pressure in the future. In that respect, we will continue to look to Irish America to support the cause of peace and political progress in Ireland.

As the Irish writer, Shane Leslie, a supporter of Home Rule but not of outright independence, once wrote of Robert Emmet: ”His nation made his name their battle cry, his sorrow their sorrow, his glory their glory.” Nowhere was that more apparent than in Irish America where, as Leslie also wrote during a visit to America, the Irish in America “remembered Robert Emmet and knew where they stood’. It is great to see that Irish Americans continue to remember Robert Emmet and, with the support of the National Parks Service and the Smithsonian Institution, he is fittingly commemorated here in the heart of Washington DC.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States.

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