Emmet is born at 109 St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin on March 4, 1778. He is the youngest son of Dr. Robert Emmet, a court physician, and his wife Elizabeth Mason. He attends Oswald’s school in Dopping’s-court, off Golden-lane and enters Trinity College, Dublin, in October 1793 at the age of fifteen. In December 1797, he joins the College Historical Society, a debating society.
While he is in college, his brother Thomas and some of his friends become involved in political activism. Emmet becomes secretary of a secret United Irish Committee in college and is expelled in April 1798 as a result. That same year he flees to France to avoid the many British arrests of nationalists that are taking place in Ireland. While in France, he garners the support of Napoleon, who promises to lend support when the upcoming revolution starts.
After the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Emmet is involved in reorganising the defeated Society of United Irishmen. In April 1799, a warrant is issued for his arrest. He escapes and soon after travels to the continent in the hope of securing French military aid. His efforts are unsuccessful, as Napoleon is concentrating his efforts on invading England. He returns to Ireland in October 1802.
In March of the following year, Emmet begins to prepare a new rebellion, with fellow Anglo-Irish revolutionaries Thomas Russell and James Hope. The revolutionaries conceal their preparations, but a premature explosion at one of Emmet’s arms depots kills a man, forcing Emmet to advance the date of the rising before the authorities’ suspicions are aroused.
Despite being unable to secure help from Michael Dwyer‘s Wicklow rebels and many rebels from Kildare turning back due to the scarcity of firearms, the rising begins in Dublin on the evening of July 23, 1803. Failing to seize the lightly defended Dublin Castle, the rising amounts to a large-scale disturbance in the Thomas Street area. Emmet witnesses a dragoon being pulled from his horse and piked to death, the sight of which prompts him to call off the rising to avoid further bloodshed. However, sporadic clashes continue into the night until finally quelled by British military forces.
Emmet flees into hiding, moving from Rathfarnham to Harold’s Cross so that he can be near his sweetheart, Sarah Curran. He is captured on August 25 and taken to Dublin Castle, then later removed to Kilmainham Gaol. Vigorous but ineffectual efforts are made to procure his escape.
Emmet is tried for and found guilty of high treason on September 19, 1803. Chief Justice John Toler, 1st Earl of Norbury sentences Emmet to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, as is customary for conviction of treason. The following day, Emmet is executed in Thomas Street near St. Catherine’s Church. He is hanged and beheaded after his death. Out of fear of being arrested, no one comes forward to claim his remains.
Emmet’s remains are first delivered to Newgate Prison and then returned to Kilmainham Gaol, where the jailer is under instructions to be bury the remains in a nearby hospital’s burial grounds if no one claims them. No remains have been found there and, though not confirmed, it appears that he was secretly removed and reinterred in St. Michan’s Church, a Dublin church with strong United Irish associations. There is also speculation that the remains are buried secretly in the vault of a Dublin Anglican church. When inspected in the 1950s, a headless corpse is found in the vault but can not be identified. The widely accepted theory is that Emmet’s remains are transferred to St. Peter’s Church in Aungier St. under cover of the burial of his sister in 1804. In the 1980s the church is deconsecrated and all the coffins are removed from the vaults. The church has since been demolished.