On a recent return trip to Dublin, Ireland, I happily killed some time strolling through the city oasis of St. Stephen’s Green. On my way out of the lush park, I meandered past a statue so familiar it brought me to a screeching halt. There stood a petticoat waistcoat-clad Robert Emmett (1778-1803)–bold jaw, foot forward, ready for battle. Now where I had seen this Irish patriot before?
But, of course. Where else but in DC, where memorials and monuments are so ubiquitous that many get passed without so much as a second glance. I too had been guilty of repeatedly strolling by this mystery man who reigns over a cozy triangular park near Massachusetts Avenue and 24th Street NW, having never stopped to learn his story. I vowed to visit him next time I found myself on embassy-lined Mass Ave.
Nestled beneath the branches of a Yoshino cherry tree, the DC Emmet stands on a granite pedestal just a few blocks from the Irish Embassy. This “boy martyr of Erin” appears mid-speech, one hand open in rhetorical gesture, the other somewhat clenched to display his “revolutionary spirit.” Emett’s father instilled in his sons a passion for Irish independence at a time when men and women-Catholic and Protestant-fought for freedom from Britain. Trinity College expelled the young Robert for his involvement in the 1798 rebellion and, in 1802, Emmet traveled to France as a member of the United Irishmen’s Party. Here he unsuccessfully appealed for French aid from Napoleon and Talleyrand. The following summer Emmet led an uprising outside of Dublin that British troops swiftly crushed. Emmet was executed (either hung or beheaded, accounts vary) on September 20, 1803 at the ripe age of 25.
Many remember Emmet as an excellent orator and for his famous “speech from the dock” at his trial, with some of those words now inscribed on the statue’s pedestal. Emmet declared, “I wished to procure for my country the guarantee which Washington procured for America…I have parted from everything that was dear to me in this life for my country’s cause…When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then let my epitaph be written.”
In 1916 American citizens of Irish ancestry commissioned Jerome Connor, an emigre from County Kerry, to create a sculpture to commemorate Irish independence. Reportedly using Irish actor Brandon Tynan as a model and Emmet’s death mask and trial sketches for the face, Connor cast the 7-foot-tall sculpture at the Washington Navy Yard. The creation was so well-received that San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park scored a copy in 1919 and Ireland’s St. Stephen’s Green got a replica as a gift from U.S. Congress in 1922. A fourth statue now stands tall in the Palo Alto County Court House square (next to its own “Blarney Stone”) in Emmetsburg, Iowa, a town full of Irish pride and named for, you guessed it, Robert Emmet.
The original Emmet statue was presented to The Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1917 “as a gift to the American people.” At the dedication, attended by President Woodrow Wilson, Senator James D. Phelan of California commented, “We should see that the heroes of the world…should find a place within the Nation’s capital.” Initially placed on view in the rotunda of the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of National History), the statue was transferred to the National Park Service and moved to its present site on April 22, 1966, also the 50th anniversary of independence of the Irish Republic. For countless St. Paddy’s Days, while most DC revelers headed out to paint the town green, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal Irish-Catholic organization, led a procession to the park to lay a wreath and shamrock at the feet of Robert Emmet.
So next time you come across “just another statue” in this memorial-crazed capital, remember that, in someone’s eyes anyway, you’re in the presence of a hero.