Photo by University of Limerick
In Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798, Ruan O’ Donnell argues that Robert Emmet has not received the credit he is due from historians for fomenting and facilitating rebellion during Ireland’s inaugural period of revolution. Tucked away in the book’s preface, O’Donnell’s thesis asserts that a broader view of Emmet’s dealings in the revolutionary period necessitates Emmet’s reassessment. But O’Donnell doesn't stop at redefining Emmet. O’Donnell also redefines the rebellion. He shows, in extravagant detail, that the struggle was really a wider conflict than a group of disjointed battles during the summer of 1798—the battle wasn’t over after Humbert’s capitulation, and the battle had begun long before the mobilization of rebels on May 23.
Again, it is O’Donnell’s opinion that the only way one can really understand Emmet or his role in the Rebellion of 1798 is to acquaint one’s self with everything and everyone surrounding Emmet; accordingly, O’Donnell’s study emigrates from rather than immigrates to Emmet—he is the hub. He starts this endeavor with a chapter that details Emmet’s early life by delineating the prominent figures in it and chronicling the evolution of their revolutionary sentiment. According to O’Donnell, the enormous tree of associations and contacts began with Emmet’s grandfather. Then, given the activities of his father and elder brother, this base of contacts grew even wider. O’Donnell shows how the family’s wealth, geographical location, associates, and connections abroad facilitated Emmet’s revolutionary involvement.
From here, O’Donnell ventures to a chapter describing the United Irishmen by drawing the connections between Emmet, its leaders, and its ideology. O’Donnell shows the intimate involvement of the Emmet family in the group’s creation. He presents evidence indicating the omnipresence of Irish nationalism in Emmet’s life from an early age. He then describes an important turning point in Emmet’s life: his voluntary withdrawal from Trinity College and subsequent disbarment from institutions of higher education elsewhere. From this point on Emmet was inextricably intertwined with the revolutionary cause, because he was one of the few United Irishmen who had logical incentives, in addition to emotional incentive, to see through the success of the revolution.
Next O’Donnell dives into a chapter recalling the summer and early fall of 1798, again showing the important actors, developments, and Emmet’s ties to them. O’Donnell’s discussion takes a clearer pro-rebel bias at this juncture, describing the myriad atrocities committed by loyalist forces but then gathering few facts about the crimes against humanity that rebels presumably committed. Once that year’s battles were dealt with, O’Donnell starts to detail the major events between 1798 and 1803 by tracing lines of connection between them and Emmet. According to O’Donnell, it was in these years that Emmet’s role in the revolutionary struggle expanded and escalated. Then the final chapter analyzes the preparations on and influences from the continent apropos of the revolutionary struggle, mostly in regard to the uprising planned to take place in 1803.
The culmination of all this analysis is an image of Emmet not as a warrior but as a shadowy mastermind, a puppet-master pulling the strings almost strictly behind the scenes. O’Donnell asks the reader to understand Emmet by observing him in context, and once given that context—1793-1803—and the evidence he arraigns, the picture he articulates is difficult to shake off. After reading and contemplating this study, it is difficult to view the Rebellion of 1798 strictly as a summer-time struggle. O’Donnell's study adds not only real depth to Emmet but also to the Rebellion of 1798, elucidating the tenor and extent of the conflict.
O’Donnell achieves these aims over the course of five chapters, each broken down into smaller subsections making it an ideal study for researchers in pursuit of specific information. As a side note, this biography is a repository of names and affiliations and might be useful to someone wanting to ascertain particular participants in the rebellion. Finally, O’Donnell’s work is well organized and well suited to twenty-first century students. Its non-linear organization makes it a valuable tool to a wider range of inquirers.