There’s a bit of a mystery about this week’s Thursday Doors post. I remember the road I was on when I took some drive by shots of this old ruined castle but I’m not sure which county I was in at the time. However that’s not the mystery I have in mind right now. I also managed to capture a pretty clear image of this old thatch being repaired. Or maybe it’s a brand new one, I’m not sure, but that’s not the mystery either.
At this time of year I love watching leafless treelines in the distance as we travel on our journey (don’t worry, I’m always the passenger in the car). I usually see familiar shapes and can let my imagination run wild, like in this next image I was sure there was at least one building. If you look long enough you might even see two but it’s just trees and hedges – so no mystery about that.
The mystery I’m referring to in this post is about a man called Robert Emmet. This beautiful old barge that has been moored at the local marina over the winter bears his name. The disappearance of his body is one of Ireland’s most intriguing historical mysteries.
Robert Emmet was an Irish patriot and orator who was tried and hanged in 1803 at the age of twenty-five for instigating an ill-fated rebellion. These are the most well known words from his speech in the dock: “Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”
Emmet came from a wealthy Presbyterian, Anglo-Irish family who sympathized with Irish Catholics and Protestant Dissenters. The unjust penal laws (which discriminated against non-Anglicans, mostly Catholics and Presbyterians) were still in force in Ireland in the early 1800s. On January 1st 1801, in the wake of the failed United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, the Irish Parliament was abolished and Ireland became part of a new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland by way of the 1800 Act of Union. The promise that these unjust laws would be abolished with this Act was not put into practice and caused a lot of anger and resentment.
Following the uprising of 1798, Emmet was involved in reorganising the defeated United Irish Society, which led to his arrest in 1799. He escaped to mainland Europe in the hope of securing French military aid but his efforts were unsuccessful. In 1803 Emmet organised a short-lived unsuccessful rebellion which led to him going on the run. He came out of hiding to meet his fiancee, Sarah Curran, but an informer betrayed him and Emmet was promptly arrested and sentenced to death for high treason.
After he was publicly hanged outside Saint Catherine’s Church in Dublin, on September 20th 1803, Robert Emmet was decapitated and his head displayed to the crowd by the hangman. Because his family and friends were either under arrest or feared for their lives, no one came to claim his body. It is thought that his remains were interred by the authorities in a paupers’ burial site known as Bully’s Acre, in the grounds of what is now the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Another theory is that when it was safe to do so, some of his friends discreetly moved his body to another church in Dublin, St Michan’s, which was associated with the United Irishmen. There is a plain headstone without inscription in the church’s cemetery, which is said to mark the grave of Robert Emmet. However, this has never been verified.
There is another theory that Robert Emmet’s final resting place is Saint Paul’s in Dublin. Excavations that took place there in 1903 revealed a coffin with an unregistered headless body in a vault with five other registered bodies. It’s worth noting that this vault was the property of Doctor Edward Trevor, the prison physician in Kilmainham Gaol during Emmet’s incarceration there. Those who believe this theory feel that the British authorities had Robert’s remains secretly placed there to prevent his grave from becoming a shrine to the republican movement.
Many historians believe that Emmet was secretly reinterred in the family crypt in Saint Peter’s Church, Dublin in 1804, under the cover of his sister’s burial. In 1903, on the centenary of his execution, his great-nephew, Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, requested an archaeological dig at the church to finally solve the mystery of the whereabouts of his ancestor’s grave. Disappointingly, the results were inconclusive.
In the early 1960s a headless skeleton was discovered in an old churchyard in Blennerville, County Kerry. Twenty years later, a skull was inadvertently dug up during a tidy up of the churchyard by the local community. It was in a mahogany box with brass handles. This led to speculation that it was the match for the headless body and that both were likely to belong to Robert Emmet. The box and skull were placed back in the ground where they had been discovered, without any tests being carried out. Emmet’s mother, Elizabeth Mason, was born in County Kerry and had many connections with prominent local people at the time. Some of these families had crypts in the same churchyard where the box and skull was found. This may have fuelled the legend that her son’s headless body was transported to County Kerry by a certain Patrick McMahon. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of Robert Emmet’s grave is still a mystery today.
I was intrigued by the verse on the side of the barge and looked it up. The words are taken from The Boatmen that are Gone, a song written by Kit Ennis, who was a lock keeper in the 1920s. It laments their passing as you can see from another verse.
With hearts within their bosom that knew no art or guile
With honest faces that always bore a kindly welcome smile
Hearts that will never beat again, may the clay lie lightly on
Those poor toil worn bodies of the boatmen that are gone
Their lonesome cold and bitter life with cheerful hearts they bore
And for their loved ones left at home no men could suffer more
‘Till Saint Michael sounds his final call we cannot look upon
The faces of those friends of ours the boatmen that are gone.*
I hope you enjoyed this week’s Thursday Doors and its mystery, thanks for stopping by and don’t forget to pay a visit to Dan’s blog, too.