looking back

Looking Back – Robert Emmet

By Kinen Carvala

What was an escapee from a British prison doing giving a speech at a statue unveiling in Golden Gate Park in 1919? 

A statue near the Academy of Sciences celebrates Robert Emmet who is described on the statue’s base as “Irish patriot executed in Dublin.”

Emmet’s story is entwined with Ireland’s complicated political history. Though the family was upper class, Emmet’s father had imparted sympathy for lower classes to his sons. His older brother Thomas was part of the United Irishmen rebellion in 1798, at a time when Ireland and Great Britain were still separate kingdoms but under one monarch. The Act of Union in 1801 merged both into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, eliminating the parliament of Ireland.

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The statue of Robert Emmet stands across the street from the Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park. The inscription on the base of the statue reads: “Robert Emmet, Irish patriot executed in Dublin Sept. 20, 1803. Aged 25 years.” In his ongoing series on the monuments of Golden Gate Park, Kinen Carvala tells the story of why Emmet was convicted of treason and put to death. To read other stories behind the park’s statues, wisit http://www.RichmondSunsetNews.com and search “Looking Back.”  Photo by Michael Durand.

Not only was France transformed by its recent revolution, Napoleon and the United Irishmen had the U.K. as a common enemy. The magazine “History Ireland” stated that Robert Emmet and United Irishmen’s efforts were never able to connect with Napoleon for plans to invade Britain, and Emmet’s preparations were revealed when a Dublin gunpowder depot exploded on July 16, 1803. Emmet nevertheless attempted to seize Dublin Castle on July 23; rebels encountered a fleeing Lord Kilwarden, who prosecuted leaders of the 1798 Rebellion and fatally stabbed him.

After Emmet was sentenced to death for treason, he was allowed to give a speech. His speech in the courtroom cited an earlier struggle for independence from Britain: “I wished to procure for my country the guarantee which Washington procured for America.” Emmet was executed on Sept. 20, 1803 at age 25.

More than a century passed between Emmet’s speech and Golden Gate Park’s unveiling of the statue depicting him giving that speech. 

A Home Rule movement to establish an Irish parliament within the U.K. was resisted by (mostly Protestant) self-identified Unionists in Ireland uneasy with the prospect of being outvoted by the Catholic majority in Ireland. World War I not only paused Home Rule implementation, it raised questions among working classes throughout the British Empire as to exactly what was the cause for which conscripted British men were risking their lives.

The execution of many leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin swayed Irish public opinion toward breaking entirely from the U.K. instead of Home Rule, according to Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. After prominent statesman and political leader Éamon de Valera surrendered his 100 men or so after the Rising, British prosecutors thought of him as a schoolmaster (his day job), rather than as  a rebel leader, according to Ronan Fanning’s biography on de Valera. De Valera was not executed, and his fellow prisoners came to view him as a well-educated leader.

Despite British attempts to foster goodwill by releasing de Valera along with other rebels from prison in June 1917, support in Ireland for establishing an independent Irish republic grew, and a political party called Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”) emerged. Swiftly chosen as a candidate for one available British Parliament seat, de Valera won the seat in July 1917 and was elected president of Sinn Féin in October. When de Valera was imprisoned again for organizing resistance to conscription, he escaped and made his way to the U.S.

The U.S. president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, in his Fourteen Points speech supported various peoples of Europe having self-determination after World War I tore empires apart. De Valera referred to himself as the “official head of the Republic established by the will of the Irish people” while speaking at New York’s Waldorf Astoria on June 23, 1919. De Valera’s party had established a Dáil Éireann (“Assembly of Ireland”) for advocating independence from the British in January 1919 and elected him president of Dáil Éireann in April. De Valera gave many public appearances in the U.S. in 1919 to raise American financial support for the young Irish state.

Earlier waves of Irish immigration had left their mark on the U.S., like a town named Emmetsburg in Iowa. Jerome Connor immigrated to the U.S. in 1888 and trained to be a sculptor. When a Robert Emmet Statue Committee formed in the U.S., Connor was chosen to sculpt the statue. When a statue by Connor of Emmet was presented in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 1917, one of many attending officials was California senator (and former San Francisco mayor) James D. Phelan. Phelan would give a copy of the statue as a gift to San Francisco for Golden Gate Park.

When de Valera came to the Bay Area in July 1919, he spoke at Emmet’s statue unveiling to a crowd that was estimated at 80,000 people and considered the largest gathering yet in Golden Gate Park. The Chronicle reported that the crowd crushed ivy plants because there was nowhere else to stand. De Valera also spoke at the Home for the Aged at Lake Street and Fourth Avenue. 

The independent Irish state did not cover all of the island of Ireland’s 32 traditional counties; six counties in the island’s northeastern part had significant Unionist populations and remained part of the U.K. when the island was partitioned in 1921. The official name of the U.K. took on its present form: “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” 

Chronic violent conflict over status of Northern Ireland (the six counties) starting in the 1960s was eventually resolved by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, whereby the people of Northern Ireland may be “accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.” The political party Sinn Féin still has a goal of an all-island Republic of Ireland, alluded to in the name of the Richmond District bar Ireland’s 32 on Geary Boulevard.

The Robert Emmet statue is in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse, next to Music Concourse Drive, across from the Academy of Sciences.

The Muni 44-O’Shaugnessy bus stops at the Music Concourse.


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