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Famous trials

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Michael Davitt

Robert Emmet

On September 20th 1803, Robert Emmet was executed following his leadership of a failed rising and the murder of the Lord Chief Justice. His trial in Green Street Courthouse, Dublin was one of the most famous to occur there with his speech from the dock subsequently inspiring many republican causes. This was the same courthouse and dock in which he was ultimately sentenced to death.

Some research sources claim Emmet had been born in St. Stephen's Green, Dublin in 1778, while others say he was born in Cork. Regardless from where he came - he quickly became publicly known for his strong republican views, his opposition to English rule and particularly for his remarkable skills as an orator in the Historical Society soon after his entry to Trinity College in 1793. In 1798 he risked the ire of the Lord Chancellor who had summoned him to attend before him when he visited Trinity. By this stage Emmet was a leading member of the United Irishmen and as a protest at this visit and summons, it is said that he had his name removed from the college registry, a brave act given that, at the very least it meant professional suicide and at worst could lead to a serious encounter with the forces of law in Dublin. Other recollections state that he was actually expelled from the university for his membership of the United Irishmen.

In April 1799, despite the issue of a warrant for his arrest from Dublin Castle, Robert Emmet was safe, at least for the short term, with his brother Thomas who was in exile on the continent. He had fled Ireland immediately after his hastened departure from Trinity and remained abroad where he became the central focus of Irish revolutionaries in exile following the failure of the May 1798 rebellion.

Attempts were made in 1802 by a delegation led by him to try and recruit Napoléon and Talleyrand to support the Ireland's cause. The Irish leaders ensconced in France disagreed as to the best way forward and Emmet himself was not convinced of the willingness and 'bona fides' of Napoléon's support. With diminishing hope of military help from France, Emmet returned home in October 1802 determined to personally organise a rising. He established and financed several depots of basic arms around the city which included firearms and gunpowder but largely consisted of pikes. The war between Britain and France recommenced in May 1803 with a consequent expectation that an invasion of Britain would take place in August of that year - Emmet and his followers prepared for a rising to coincide with this.

As in many Irish risings, things didn't go to according to plan; the leaders disagreed over tactics, support from outside Dublin did not materialise and the perennial issue of treachery again reared its ugly head. Emmet was forced to proceed with the rising earlier than planned when one of his depots blew up. On July 23rd 1803 he led 100 followers, a mixed bag in military terms, from Marshalsea Lane to attack Dublin Castle, with subsequent plans for attacks on Islandbridge barracks and Pigeon House Fort. Emmet wore a gentlemanly green uniform to lead the 'Emmet Rebellion'. It was late evening, and many Dublin residents were on their way to and from engagements, including the unfortunate Chief Justice Arthur Wolfe. The insurgents pulled him and his nephew from their coach and killed them there and then.

Following the unsuccessful rising, Emmet fled to the mountains and went into hiding. He returned to a safe place in Harold's Cross in order to contact his fiancée Sarah Curran with whom he planned to escape to America. However, Major Henry Sirr found his hiding place and arrested him- letters from Sarah in Emmet's possession helping to identify him. He was tried for treason and found guilty. On September 20th 1803 he was hanged and beheaded outside St. Catherine's Church in Thomas Street, but not before his damming speech from the dock which ended with the inspirational words; 'When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written".

Michael Davitt and the collapse of 'The Sligo State Trials'

A Land League meeting in Gurteen, Co. Sligo on Sunday November 2, 1879, led to one of the most remarkable trials ever held in Sligo. Among the defendants was Michael Davitt who had been arrested and brought to Sligo jail to face charges of sedition as a result of his Gurteen speech. The proceedings, attended by Parnell, became known as 'The Sligo State Trials', which collapsed after a week-long barrage of ridicule and scorn hurled at the presiding magistrate by an eccentric but brilliant solicitor, John Rea, whose courtroom tactics had earned him the reputation of Ireland's best criminal lawyer.

On 18th November Michael Davitt received a message from E. Dwyer Gray, editor of 'The Freeman' warning him that he would be arrested the following morning for his speech in Gurteen. Davitt ignored the advice given to him to leave the country "until the storm blows over" and at 5 a.m. the next morning he was arrested and brought to Sligo Jail. He discovered that Daly and Killeen were also in custody and when brought before the magistrate that day they were remanded until the following Monday on a charge of sedition.

Parnell immediately denounced the arrests and called a huge protest meeting in the Rotunda, Dublin, forty-eight hours later, whipping up such public outrage that the authorities dropped their penal servitude plan and instead put Davitt and the others on trial in Sligo courthouse. Davitt's plan, later outlined in his book 'The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland', was to turn the proceedings into ridicule and cover the administration's laws with public contempt. Selected for the job was John Rea, a Belfast solicitor, a Protestant, and a man who was as eccentric as he was brilliant. Magistrates dreaded him with good reason and single-handedly he turned the trial into a farce and made it an international laughing-stock.

The trial began in Sligo on Monday, 24th November, 1879, and was subsequently described by Davitt as "one of the most successful legal farces ever acted off a theatrical stage." Rea represented Killeen, Davitt represented himself helped by Parnell, and a Mr. Louden represented Daly. Public interest was so intense that twenty-seven newspaper reporters were packed into the cramped press facilities.

The day started with the Sligo brass band and a huge crowd escorting the prisoners from the jail to the packed courthouse. At the end of the first day's hearing the 'circus' paraded back to Cranmore jail through the streets, accompanied by bands and guarded by police. Parnell, Dillon and the prisoners were followed and cheered by the whole town. That night a huge public meeting was addressed by Parnell and Dillon who fiercely denounced the prosecution.

Meanwhile, the 27 newspaper reporters were unwittingly playing their part in undermining the trial. Detailed reports of the hearing appeared in newspapers in Ireland, Britain and the United States. Protest meetings were called for Limerick, Cork, Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Dundee and elsewhere, and cables of support began to pour in from the United States. Davitt was delighted by this and wrote that, "we could not have done the League work of propaganda and of covering the law with ridicule as effectively if we had spent £5,000 on the task. Our enemies were our best friends in this sense and it became a most anxious consideration with us how we could best prolong the priceless entertainment."

Every night the prisoners returning to Cranmore were greeted by huge crowds. Parnell and Dillon continued their scathing condemnations of the authorities at packed public meetings in the town. One by one the defendants were committed for trial and allowed out on bail until only Killeen remained. By now the proceedings had become so discredited that even the newspaper reporters hissed from the press benches whenever the Crown representative tried to make his case. Realising that to continue the strategy of ridicule any further might defeat its purpose, Parnell ordered the attacks to be curtailed, much to the disgust of Rea who felt he could prolong the farce for a further week.

'The Sligo State Trials' ended with Killeen released on bail after being committed for trial. The collapse had a profound impact on the Land League's fortunes. Davitt wrote: "The priceless assistance rendered to the League by the blundering tactics of the Sligo prosecution broke down almost all barriers hitherto operating against its progress outside Connacht. Its influence in the country grew by leaps and bounds. Dublin Castle had grappled with it and had been thrown badly in the encounter, was laughed at by the public in the disgrace of its defeat. Its prestige had suffered while that of the League became enormously enhanced. The landlords had forced the action of the Government in the trials, and the result would tell against them. They had attempted to kill the 'no rent' feeling and instead they had helped to create a power that was destined to kill the rent system."