Emmett, Ireland and Easter

Make Way for the Elephant

Robert Emmett, Irish patriot, was hanged, drawn and quartered in Dublin, Ireland, convicted of leading a failed rebellion for Irish freedom in 1803. He was 25 years old.

Emmett was a protestant from a wealthy family, hardly the type to commit “high treason.” But he identified strongly with Catholics in their fight for representation in the British Parliament.

There stands in a very small park in northwest Washington, DC, a statue of Emmett posed in arguably his most famous moment as he addresses the court upon a sentence of death. His “Speech from the Dock” is a renowned part of Irish history.

Emmett by Connor

A Smithsonian Home

Robert Emmett by Jerome Connor was commissioned by US citizens of Irish descent and was presented to the US in 1917 at a particularly delicate time. Coming just one year after Ireland’s 1916 Easter Week Rebellion, the most serious disturbance there since 1798, it must have been the subject of diplomatic discussions as Great Britain struggled in the Great War.

The Emmett statue’s first American home was in the great hall of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History (NMNH).

The National Museum

Of course, in 1917 the building was not the NMNH, but rather the “US National Museum” housing a variety of exhibits.

The dome and central hall where the Emmett statue would be placed is the inspiration of Charles McKim of the famed architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. McKim was brought into “simplify” and bring “sobriety” to the design.

The museum was closed during World War I, being the home of the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, making it the perfect place to hide away a statue with political implications.

What Would Smithson Think?

It’s unlikely that the Institution’s original benefactor would have been unduly exercised at the statue’s placement there as he was anything but conventional.

James Smithson was born in secret in Paris in 1765, being the illegitimate son of Hugh Percy, the Duke of Northumberland.

(That fact alone makes the Smithsonian twice as interesting as it otherwise would be.)

James Smithson

Smithson was a peripatetic traveler and amateur mineralogist who, like many others, managed to get caught up in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, being imprisoned on both occasions.

Smithson’s founding bequest for the Institution was not outright, but rather contingent upon his only surviving heir dying childless. For good or ill, he did.

Into Hiding

In fairness, the Connor statue of Emmett must have been well underway during the 1916 Easter rebellion and not a reaction to it. Both the New York Morning Herald and the Washington Post in March 1916 editions mention that Brendan Tynan, an actor, was used as the model.

Alas, Robert Emmett was consigned to storage when the now infamous elephant arrived to take his place at the NMNH.

In storage he stayed till 1966 when the statue was re-dedicated at its current location on Massachusetts Avenue at 24th street NW, his back to the British Embassy, just up the street.

“…My tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion…”

Robert Emmet, Speech from the Dock

Sources: Smithsonian, Wiki, Siris


  • Dennis says:


    Being of Irish heritage, I appreciate your interesting history lesson this morning. I will have to look up “The Speech from the Dock”. The fact that the statue’s back faces the British Embassy is subtle. My Irish roots inform me it would have been better if they could have modified the statue so he is dropping trou and bending over. Best, D

  • tom walter says:

    Good prehistory on the Emmett statue, Eric. Thanks.

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