Great Irish Romances: Robert Emmet and Sarah Curran

by AOH Historian Mike McCormack

The bold Robert Emmet was a man with two loves: His love for Ireland and a desire to see her free from colonial domination, and his love for Miss Sarah Curran.  Sarah Curran was the youngest daughter of John Philpot Curran, a distinguished lawyer who had defended various members of the United Irishmen who came to trial after their failed rebellion of 1798.  The United Irishmen was a society of Catholic and Protestant activists against the Crown who made plans with the post-revolutionary French government to expel the British forces and establish an independent Ireland.  Curran’s association with the defendants of that unfortunate rising left him with a hostile opinion of the rebels and their cause.  As a result he was totally against his daughter associating with young Emmet.

Robert Emmet, son of a Dublin doctor, was influenced by his nationalist brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, and Thomas’ friend Wolfe Tone. He had joined the United Irishmen while a student at Trinity College, Dublin where he was a classmate of Richard Curran.  It was Richard who had introduced Robert to his sister, Sarah.  For the couple, it was love at first sight -- for, when the rising failed, Emmet went into hiding in France where he confided in a letter to a friend, the Marquise de Fontenay, that he had "tender ties" at home in Ireland.  He returned to Ireland in October of 1802 where he soon emerged as the leader of the remnants of the United Irishmen in Dublin.  Plans were made to stage a major uprising in the fall of 1803.

Once back in Ireland, Robert visited Sarah's family at Rathfarnham, even though Sarah's father did not welcome him.  As a result, their courtship was conducted through letters and clandestine meetings.  Sarah and Robert became engaged, but kept it a secret because of her father's disapproval.  Sarah was enthusiastic about Robert's revolutionary plans. Her patriotism, youth, and great charm endeared her to all Emmet’s friends.  Emmet's assistant, Anne Devlin (right, click on image for a larger view) who posed as his housekeeper, was interviewed by Dr. R.Madden 40 years after the uprising for his History of the United Irishmen.  Miss Devlin, whose father had been imprisoned in 1798 for harboring rebels and who was the niece of Emmet’s compatriot Michael Dwyer, said of Miss Curran, "You could not see Miss Curran and not help liking her ... her look was the mildest, and the softest, and the sweetest look you ever saw."  The love letters between the two were partly in coded language; his contained love poems and hers expressed her fear of angering her father and her anxiety about Robert's safety.  She wrote,

I passed the house you are in twice this day, but did not see you.  If I thought you were in safety, I would be comparatively happy, at least. I cannot help listening to every idle report.  I cannot tell you how uneasy I shall be until I know that you have got this.  Let me know immediately.  I request you to burn it instantly.  Goodbye my dear friend, but not forever. 

Emmet kept all her letters inside his coat at all times just as he wore a lock of her hair that she had sewn into the cravat that he wore around his neck.

Meanwhile, Emmet and a chemistry professor from Trinity had developed a new rocket-powered bomb which they felt would provide the edge in a rising.  However, an accidental explosion in their arms depot forced a premature rising on 23 July which was quickly put down.  Emmet again went into hiding.  How difficult it must have been for him to realize that his love for Ireland might cost him his love for Sarah.  He sent her a message asking her to elope with him to the United States.  But they never got the chance to leave the country.  Courageously coming down from hiding to see his ailing mother and Miss Curran, Emmet was arrested with unsigned love letters from Sarah in his possession.  On August 30, after his arrest he was asked, "By whom were these letters written that were found upon your person?"  He replied only that they were written by "a delicate and virtuous female."  They were, however, full of information that could identify Sarah as the writer.  On September 8, Emmet wrote a letter from his cell in Kilmainham jail, Dublin to "Miss Sarah Curran, the Priory, Rathfarnham" and gave it to George Dunn, a prison warden he trusted, to deliver it.  In the letter, he wrote,

My dearest Love,  I don't know how to write to you.  I never felt so oppressed in my life as at the cruel injury I have done you.  I was seized and searched with a pistol over me before I could destroy your letters. I was threatened with having them brought forward against me in Court.  I offered to plead guilty if they would suppress them.  This was refused.  My love, can you forgive me?   Not that they can do anything to you even if they would be base enough to attempt it, for they can have no proof who wrote them, nor did I let your name escape me once.   Destroy my letters that there may be nothing against yourself, and deny having any knowledge of me.  My dearest love, I would with joy lay down my life, but ought I to do more? Do not be alarmed; they may try to frighten you; but they cannot do more.  God bless you, my dearest love. 

Dunn betrayed Emmet and gave the letter to the authorities!  Sarah was taken to Kilmainham Jail, and as Robert was walked across the prison yard, she was escorted though an open door into the yard and walked toward him.  With their hearts bursting, the two lovers walked past each other without the slightest hint of recognition.

On September 9, the Curran house was searched.  With British soldiers downstairs, Sarah's sister Amelia only just succeeded in burning Emmet's letters.  Nothing incriminating was found, but J.P. Curran, furious that Sarah had threatened their lives and his career, disowned her and treated her so harshly that she sought refuge with friends in Cork.  The authorities condemned Emmet to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

(Left: Emmet's execution, click on graphic for a larger view.) 

His final speech in court became an inspiration to generations of Irish revolutionaries and is widely quoted today, "When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written."  After Emmet's death, abandoned by her family and living with friends in Cork, she met a soldier named Robert Sturgeon who offered her marriage and a home.  Realizing that she should no longer exist on the charity of friends, she accepted his offer in November of 1805 and he took her away from Ireland.  They moved to Sicily, but she never fully recovered from her grief.  The Irish poet, Thomas Moore, who knew them both, wrote a ballad that ensured her memory in Irish culture:

She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers around her are sighing,
But coldly she turns from their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.

In a far off land, one of America’s great authors, Washington Irving, was so moved by the story of Sarah Curran and Robert Emmet that he wrote "The Broken Heart" as evidence that such a malady can be terminal.  Sarah died of consumption (tuberculosis) on May 5, 1808 and is buried in County Cork.

Read about other Great Irish Romances at our Grá XOXO headquarters page.


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