If "Romeo and Juliet" is the greatest love story in the world, then it must be conceded that the story of Robert Emmet and Sarah Curran has the elements of greatness in it, for we have here the two helpless young lovers caught in the meshes of a destiny they could not escape ; we have political differences which are far worse than those of family ; and in addition there is the motive of unstained patriotism; and the story of Sarah Curran is as beautiful as anything in the pages of fiction or poetry. In 1798, Ireland was in such a condition that even Lecky, a loyalist, says that it would be difficult to conceive a more dreary or a more ignoble picture than the country then presented. Misrule and injustice had roused to bitter resentment all those Irish who loved their country, and in Ireland patriotism burns with a fire that is born of many sorrows.
At last the miseries of the poor, the injustice shown towards all classes, the ruin and desolation which were spread over the whole face of the land under a government of which now all Englishmen are ashamed, brought about that heroic attempt at freedom which has come down to us in song and story as " The Ninety-eight."
The rebellion was suppressed, and the leaders were granted their lives on condition that they left their country for ever.
Among those who were thus transplanted to America was a brilliant young man called
Thomas Addis Emmet. He was the son of Dr. Emmet, a man of means and good birth, who, according to an old-fashioned writer, had "imbibed opinions favourable to republicanism." In this quiet phrase is expressed the passionate ardour, the burning rage of a man who sees his country oppressed and misunderstood. The Emmet household looked upon Ireland as knights in the days of chivalry looked upon ladies in distress.
So it came about that Dr. Emmet would look round his table and say to his children : " What would you do for your country ? Would you kill your sister ? Would you kill me ? " In this atmosphere the children grew up, until the eldest, put to the test, proved himself of the mettle his father would have had him, and sailed into exile a criminal convicted of loving his country. • But there was a younger brother, called Robert, then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was studying for the Irish Bar, and was already conspicuous not only for his abilities but for the wonderful power of oratory which already, in his earliest twenties, became noticeable. He was dark, with flashing eyes, and hair combed down in a straight lock across half his forehead. When he spoke his face lighted up and became the scene of a thousand expressions. Many a time he has been called a miscreant, his opinions dubbed diabolical and atrocious. These things are, of course, a matter of party policy. But for those who are not blinded by prejudice, Robert Emmet stands out as a hero actuated only by what was noble and good. He may have been tragically mistaken in his thoughts, but in his feelings there was no flaw.
At the time of his brother's banishment Trinity College was suspected of being a hotbed of disaffection. An inquiry was instituted, and among those who withdrew their names from the college books was Robert Emmet. For the next three years he lived in France, then in the throes of the Revolution, where his opinions were strengthened by the upheaval that was going on around him.
When he came back to Ireland, in 1803, he was still of an age at which most young men are just beginning the world, but in one sense he was an old man, for he had lived through a French revolution, and even before that had thought enough about the distresses of his native country to fling up for her sake all the brilliant prospects of a career at the Irish Bar. He came back to Dublin comparatively wealthy, for his father had recently died, and in his will Robert inherited 3,500. The trouble of '98 had blown over, but an uneasy silence rested on Ireland.
Young Emmet had plenty of friends, at whose houses he was welcomed. John Philpot Curran, the famous barrister, had been a friend of Dr. Emmet, and his son Richard now struck up a friendship with Robert. Mr. Curran was a very witty man. Byron described him as "ugly, copious, full of wit and ardour and fire ; the man of fifty faces and twice as many voices." Young Emmet was soon introduced to his household. The Currans lived in the Priory, Rathfarnham, and young Emmet, used to the unity in family life which is born of an overpowering common interest, must have found the Currans a family under a cloud.
Early in life Mr. Curran had been a man of generous affections and emotions. He had married the daughter of a house in which he was tutor. He had been well known as a patriot, but these ardours left him as he grew older. He became famous at the Irish Bar; briefs poured in upon him ; he was less and less at home, and at last, when he did return one day, his mind, as was his wont, still wrapt up in his work and his triumphs at Dublin, he found his wife gone. Pretty, pleasure-loving, and rather shallow, she had found the quiet country house and the solitude in which her husband left her utterly intolerable. She tried to find consolation in religion, and summoned the vicar of a neighbouring parish. But she was not religious by nature. In person she was young, pretty, and unhappy ; the vicar was also young and human, and in the end they fled together from the neighbourhood of cold Mr. Curran.
For a year or two the household was broken up. The children went to friends.
Mr. Curran, from being reserved and rather neglectful, became bitter, sarcastic, and severe. His youngest son went in awe of him till the day of his death, and of his daughters even the eldest feared him, and the youngest, a sensitive, loving, timid creature, although she adored him in a manner which almost amounted to obstinacy, was continually terrified by his cold rebuffs. When Robert Emmet was brought to the house the family had only recently been reunited. Fresh from the turmoils of France, he found this family life very quiet and beneficent, and even the shadow of Mr. Curran's severity could not spoil the pleasant times the young people spent together.