The search for Robert Emmet

When Bill Darlison muses about co-incidences that cannot be explained by science I worry that he is backsliding into superstition. However the search for Robert Emmet has brought out a little superstition in me. Five years ago I was telling Bill that I was researching strong links between our congregation and the Society of United Irishmen. He asked me to speak about it at a service I chose the Sunday 21st September 2003 because it was the nearest Sunday to the 200th anniversary of the execution of Robert Emmet. Little did I know that Emmet had strong links to this church and that we were the possessor of a precious document signed by ‘Bold Robert Emmet’ himself. For most of Robert’s life he was in the revolutionary underground so there are very few if any other copies of his signature extant.
Bridget Spain rang me recently to tell me she had found the marriage certificate of Mary Ann Emmet and Robert Holmes in the vestry. The wedding took place in our church on 21st September 1799. (note that date again ) Robert and his father signed it as witnesses. I was overjoyed but not entirely surprised. I knew it had been there in the 1930’s but suspected it had been lost.
There are a number of references in our records to the Emmet Holmes family. By crosschecking with other sources in particular the correspondence of Dr William Drennan a member of our congregation and a leading United Irishman I can tell you the following story.
Robert Holmes was arrested on suspicion of involvement in Emmet’s rebellion in 1803. His imprisonment was hard for his wife Mary Anne Emmet. Her parents had died and her brother Robert had been executed that same year. Her surviving brother Thomas Addis had been banished from Ireland on pain of execution. Mary Anne had two children in her charge, her own daughter and her orphan niece Katherine or Kitty. Mary Anne was pregnant at this time and though she appears to have been unaware of it, she was also dying of consumption. On 2nd February 1804 her son Hugh was baptised in the Dublin Unitarian Church and Robert Holmes is recorded as the child’s parent. Holmes had been liberated from Kilmainham gaol just two days before the birth of his only son. The baptismal register records both baptisms and a small number of notable weddings. Mary Anne’s marriage and the baptism of her son Hugh are therefore recorded in the same register.
William Drennan informed his sister Martha McTier in September 1804 that baby Hugh Emmet Holmes had died. Less than six months later, on the evening of Sunday the 10th of March 1805, Mary Anne herself succumbed to her illness. Is it any wonder that Drennan described the Emmet/Holmes family as a ‘striking instance of suffering’ and observed that, for them, it had been a long winter?
Our register also holds a clue to the resentment which many felt at the behaviour of William Plunkett, the prosecutor at Robert Emmet’s trial. When Plunkett rose to sum up for the prosecution, Emmet had, in effect, conceded defeat and was already doomed. Plunkett gratuitously berated and insulted the prisoner before the inevitable verdict and death sentence. He sneered at Emmet’s provisional government of ‘the bricklayer, the baker and the old clothes man’. His diatribe annoyed Emmet and for the only time during the trial Emmet’s resolute demeanour was shaken. Martha McTier thought Plunkett did it ‘to shine’ but she regarded him as ‘a servile disgusting imitation’.. Whether Plunkett was betraying an old family friend or his own politics to impress his masters in Dublin Castle remains a matter of dispute.
Thomas Addis and Jean’s son Christopher Temple was baptised in the Dublin Unitarian Church (Strand Street) on 16th October 1790. Plunkett’s children were baptised there also and their names appear in the same register as young Hugh Emmet/Holmes and Christopher Temple Emmet. Martha McTier lived in Belfast but when visiting her brother in Dublin attended services at the Dublin Unitarian Church.
Revd. John Moody officiated at the baptisms and at Mary Anne Emmet’s wedding and funeral. Rev Moody’s brother Boyle Moody, also a Unitarian minister, fought with the rebel forces in county Down in 1798 and died from the treatment he received after the defeat of the rebellion.
In 1805, with most of the Emmet family dead and Thomas Addis banished, a refuge had to be found for Robert’s orphaned niece Kitty. She was subject to nervous attacks and according to William Drennan ‘her terrors increased much at night since her uncle Roberts lamentable end’. Drennan’s wife Sarah had wanted to offer Kitty a refuge in her own home. Sarah was born in England but was related to the Hutton family who are commemorated by a plaque in our church. Drennan was warned by his sister Martha not to take Kitty in ‘as her name in your house would invite calumny’. Drennan always felt that his reputation for political radicalism had prevented him from making a decent living as a physician in Dublin. He followed Martha’s advice. Drennan advised that for medical reasons Kitty should reside outside of Ireland and she was taken Sarah Drennan’s home town Wem in Shropshire. Kitty Emmet went to live in Bath with the redoubtable Irish Unitarian minister Revd. William Hazlitt. Hazlitt was a colourful and controversial figure but I will keep his story for another day.
The marriage certificate which Bridget found was in a safe which also contained a print of Rev John Owen which proclaimed proudly that before being minister to this congregation he was Chaplin to his Excellency Oliver Cromwell. It is possible that this portrait hung in our church when the Holmes and the Emmets came to services.

Fergus Wheelan
Dublin Unitarian Church January 2009


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