Irish Eclectic

The Brothers Emmet: One Escaped for a Woman’s Love, One Didn’t

We are part of The Trust Project
Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

Our focus this issue is on two brothers, Robert and Thomas Addis Emmet.

Robert, the youngest son of Dr. Robert Emmet and Elizabeth Mason, was born in Dublin in 1778. His family were members of the “Anglo-Irish Ascendancy”; wealthy and Protestant, members of the minority ruling class in Ireland. Yet, they had strong sympathy with those who sought to keep Irish political autonomy alive in the late 18th century. 

Robert’s elder brother, Thomas, 14 years his senior, was a staunch Irish nationalist, and Robert grew up in a home where political debate was encouraged and guests like famed Irish revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone were openly welcomed.

Both brothers attended Trinity College in Dublin, though only Thomas completed his studies. He entered the field of law, and was quickly recognized as a man of talent. An eminent member of the United Irishmen, the group responsible for the disastrous Rebellion of 1798, Thomas was arrested early that year. Robert was expelled in April for his involvement in the rebellion and fled to France. Thomas remained imprisoned until 1802, one year after the Act of Union moved Ireland firmly under the hand of the British Parliament.

In France, Robert continued to plot ways to throw off British rule. Thomas, upon his release, went to Brussels, and there learned of his younger brother’s attempts to stage another rebellion. Success depended upon the French aiding the Irish, a promise they had barely delivered upon in 1798. Nor would they in 1803.

The 1803 Rebellion was an abortive affair from the very beginning. Great Britain opened its coffers to informants and double agents, who infiltrated the loose ranks of the revolutionaries. Soon all the details were known to the British authorities.

On July 23, 1803, only 200 men rose in Dublin, and the rebellion lasted little more than a day. Robert went into hiding, and, despite encouragement to flee to France, decided he would see his fiancée, Sarah Curran, one last time before he left. Captured on Aug, 25, he was tried and found guilty of high treason on Sept. 19, 1803. The Crown bribed his chief defence attorney to further ensure the case against him. 

Robert is best remembered for his famous speech: “I am here ready to die. Let my character and my motives repose in obscurity and peace, till other times and other men can do them justice. Then shall my character be vindicated; then may my epitaph be written.”

He was sentenced to the brutal punishment then reserved for those who raised their hand against the British Lion: to be hung, drawn and quartered. This sentence was carried out in Thomas Street in Dublin the following day. When dead, he was beheaded, and his remains left on the street to be picked at by carrion birds. Afraid of further retribution, no one stepped forward to claim what was left of the battered body. The exact location where he was finally interred remains a mystery to this day.

Thomas, who had remained in Paris, sailed for America upon learning of his brother’s arrest and brutal execution. He pursued a distinguished legal career there, and rose to become New York’s attorney general. He died in 1827. 

He was one of many who kept his brother’s memory alive, both in Ireland and the United States. A memorial to him stands in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan, where many believe he is buried, although he is not. His first resting place was at St. Mark’s on the Bowery in Manhattan’s East Village. In 1922, his grandson, Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, arranged for his grandfather’s body to be re-interred in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, the final resting place of countless Irish revolutionaries.

As for Sarah Curran, though depicted in story and song as grief-stricken over her loss, she seems to have quickly recovered. In 1805 she married a British officer, and bore one child who died very young. She passed in 1808, a victim of tuberculosis.

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx, and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at

We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.