KENNEBUNK — On this anniversary of Irish patriot Robert Emmet’s execution, Sept. 20, 1803, the sound of his voice is still cascading down the echo chamber of history and reverberates throughout America. After Britain’s shambolic U.K.-EU divorce is finalized, the names “Robert Emmet” and “Brexit” may forever be linked, as speculation grows that England exiting the European Union could trigger a referendum that leads to Ireland’s unification.

The possibility of a border around Northern Ireland, “where the people are British, but the cows are Irish,” has sparked a groundswell of support for the six counties of Ulster to join the Republic of Ireland. The Lord Mayor of Belfast, John Finucane, proposed in July that the Irish government must lead the way in making plans and preparations for Ireland’s unification: “A unity referendum is coming, and we must prepare for it.”

The island of Ireland with its seamless border would answer Robert Emmet’s plea on the eve of his execution: “I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world – it is the charity of its silence! Let no man write my epitaph (until) my country takes her place among the nations of the earth.”

No other Irish historical figure has made as deep an imprint on the consciousness of Irish America as Emmet. Abraham Lincoln recited Emmet’s dock speech from memory. Dozens of towns, counties, parks and schools bear Emmet’s name, from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas, and in Chicago, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In San Francisco, his speech is read out every year before his statue in Golden Gate Park on Sept. 20.

The name “Robert Emmet” was as common as “Michael” or “John” into the 20th century. My favorite uncle was christened “Robert Emmet Lyons” in 1909 in South Dakota.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson blames the Irish backstop issue – guarantee of no border checks in Ireland – as the tail that wags his Great Britain dog. When Parliament rejected his demand that “no deal” is better than “no Brexit,” bedeviled Johnson maneuvered to suspend it to stymie Brexit scrutiny. He was vexed with the same question Winston Churchill faced in 1921 while trying to negotiate an acceptable treaty to end the Irish War of Independence: “How is it that the English political parties are shaken to their foundations and even shattered in almost every generation by contact with Irish affairs? How is it she has forced generation after generation to stop the whole traffic of the British Empire to debate her domestic affairs?”


Churchill’s answer to his question remains fresh on the table of today’s Brexit negotiations: “Ireland is not a daughter State. She is a parent nation. The Irish are an ancient race.” The Anglo-Irish treaty led to the formation of the Irish Free State. Six Northern counties are still claimed by the U.K.

There remains more than a stretch of water separating the two islands. England continues to use the Emerald Island as an ideological battleground to maintain its supremacy over a part of Ireland it seized centuries ago. This leaves the Irish to live with the consequences of a partitioned country.

W.B. Yeats in his speech “Emmet the Apostle of Irish Liberty” at New York’s centenary celebration of Emmet’s death, Feb. 28, 1904, foretold to 4,000 assembled sons and daughters of Ireland:  “The nations of the world are like a great organ. A little while ago, a few centuries ago, the organ pipe that we call the empire of Spain was sounding, and it had thrilled the world with its music; and then that fell silent; (then) the pipe that we call the empire of England began to sound. And we need not doubt that the Divine hand will move again, and that the pipe that is called Ireland will once more begin to sound, and that its music will fill the world.”

After Brexit, the empire of England will sound no more. Ireland united will eventually take her rightful place among the nations of the earth and the sounds of its music fill the world. My late uncle Bob would have been pleased, for as Robert Emmet predicted: “The man dies, but his memory lives.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.