While eastbound drivers in Thomas Street on Friday 3rd March gawped, traffic slowed in the westbound lane to allow az small procession pushing a gallows, trundling along on wheels. There were surprisingly few witty comments, even the notoriously quick Dubliners too surprised to come up with a witty bon mot (or even a focal maith).
The procession stopped at the Robert Emmet plaque, in the railing wall of the former Protestant St. Catherine’s Church, approximate place of execution of Robert Emmet on 20th December 1803.
Despite continuous rain a small crowd had gathered on the pavement in front of the monument and the gallows, with a small platform less than a foot high, was placed facing them. Dublin artist Elayne Harrington, also known as the well-established street poet/ rapper artist from Finglas, Temperamental MiscElayneous, stood on the platform to announce that the event was to honour Robert Emmet and was a project as part of the Liberties Street Project, a continuation of the IPIP (In Public In Particular) program at the National College of Art and Design, Thomas Street, Dublin 8.
Harrington thanked people for attending despite the weather and, after outlining the program for the event, announced Diarmuid Breatnach, who took up position with the gallows and hanging noose just behind him.
Breatnach is best known as a co-founder of the Save Moore Street From Demolition campaign, maintaining a campaign table with a petition and leaflets on the market street for a few hours every Saturday but is also known as an acapella singer, particularly in Dublin traditional-folk circles.
After thanking MiscElayneous for the invitation and the crowd for attendance, Breatnach proceeded to reiterate that the event was taking place very near the spot where, at the age of 25, Robert Emmet had been hung and then decapitated by the British colonial administration in 1803.
Harrington reminded him to stand on the low platform which Breatnach did, drawing a laugh from the crowd when he indicated the hanging noose and commented: “Me Ma always said I’d end up like this.”
Breatnach asked the audience to imagine the scene of the execution in 1803 and referred them to a painting of the scene available on the Internet, showing a huge crowd, with people looking out of windows in nearby buildings and mounted redcoats keeping the crowd back from the gallows. Many of in the crowd would have been supporters but the better-known would not have been there – they were in jail or in hiding.
The execution was carried out there, Breatnach said, because the whole Thomas Street and Liberties was known as a revolutionary area, which Breatnach went on to describe (see video below).
Executions, said Breatnach, have been carried out down through the ages on Irish people resisting invasion, colonialism and imperialism and fighting for social justice. The gallows have become an enduring image in Irish history and a number of songs (Breatnach mentioned ten from the 19th century up to the present) refer to it.
The state we have now, said Breatnach, set up in 1922, preferred shooting, which was the method by which it eliminated its opponents at the time, 81 of them in official executions. Hanging remained however in this state but the last execution was in 1954.
Breatnach stated that we are often taught history as a dead subject, something in the past to which we are largely unrelated but he believed history to be a living thing, in the stones of walls and streets, in the air and in the words people have left us. And in our songs.
Breatnach selected three songs that mentioned Robert Emmet: The Three Flowers, written early last Century by Norman G. Reddin (two verses); Bold Robert Emmet perhaps by Tom Maguire around 1916 but certainly published in 1934; and Anne Devlin in recent decades by Pete St. John. Breatnach sang the three songs one after the other with MiscElayneous accompanying on her bodhrán.
During the applause which greeted the end of Breatnach’s performance, Elayne Harrington replaced him on the stage, thanked him and introduced herself as Temperamental Miscellaneous and spoke about her contribution, which was to be an extract of Emmet’s famous speech from the dock in the Green Street Courthouse, but re-worked into more modern Dublin idiom. Harrington then launched into a spirited rendition of her piece (see video below for the full performance).
No matter what words I utter, it’ll fail to change your mind and I wouldn’t have it any other way. You’ve made me a bed and I’ll lie in it. ………….
There’s plenty I could tell why my reputation should be kept clean from the utter lies and slander which’ve been lashed upon it. ……………
I wouldn’t dream that I could impress upon a court as trapped in its own self and corrupted, a fair impression of my character. …………………….
If merely dying was the case, after being deemed in the wrong and you in the right I’d take it on the chin and I wouldn’t breathe a word but that same law that not only wants to get rid of me also aims at filthying my name and sullying the memory of me. ……………..
In the hope that my memory won’t fade and that it might retain its honour among my brothers and sisters, I’ll stand up for myself and my integrity and weaken those charges against me. ……………
…. our cloths are entwined, mine and the martyred heroes of the gallows and battlefield, consecrated by sacrifice … for protection and guardianship of their homestead and their righteousness. ………..
This is what I hope: for my memory and name to serve those who live on by it being a source of empowerment …. witness the malignant malicious government that gains its false riches through sin alone, that treats a people as wolves to be domesticated and blooded to the taste of their fellows, to dance to their tune and to the death knell ……………..
Concluding the event, Harrington thanked the attendance and invited them to place small pots of growing flowers she had provided in front of the monument, which they did.
WHY THE EVENT?
What had led Elayne Harrington to choose this act as part of her course?
“I was interested in Robert Emmet and his uprising ever since I heard a Dublin tour guide dismiss Robert Emmet while briefly mentioning his uprising”, explained the rapper from Finglas.
“I came to think that although Emmet failed in his objective, he had attempted a brave and good thing and his speech was really impressive. His uprising attempt took place in the area where my college is and he was executed just down the road, so that’s how I came to think of this event.
“I’m thankful to my course tutor and fellow students for supporting me in this act and to another tutor who helped me with the construction of the gallows. I am grateful to Diarmuid Breatnach also, who has been very supportive and contributed to the performance and I was really glad that my Da was able to be here and help today too.”
Why did Harrington call this “the first of the verbal execution series”?
“I see this as an event that can be brought to other places – like the gallows I built, it is transportable” she says with a grin but then turns serious. “The performances can be adapted also to other occasions of which Irish history is full.”
We’ll be watching this space!
VIDEO OF EVENT
(complete event outside St. Catherine’s)