For over 200 years, the location of Robert Emmet's body has been one of the biggest mysteries in Irish revolutionary history.

His final resting place has been the source of intense interest and there have been many attempts to locate it. 

A new collection of vintage photographs documents those attempts from over 100 years ago. 

Read more: Raise a glass to Robert Emmet, the Irish rebel leader executed on this day in 1803

But first, what about the man himself? What was it about Robert Emmet that has generated such an acute interest in the discovery of his remains?

Emmet led a doomed rebellion against British forces in Ireland in 1803, just five years after the famous and much larger rebellion of 1798. 

With little support and little supplies, Emmet's rebellion was little more than a street riot and was quickly quashed by the superior British forces. 

Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet (left) during the 1903 excavation at St. Peter's Church. Credit: Representative Church Body Library/Colin O’Riordan via Ireland Anglican

Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet (left) during the 1903 excavation at St. Peter's Church. Credit: Representative Church Body Library/Colin O’Riordan via Ireland Anglican

Emmet was discovered shortly afterwards hiding in a house in Dublin's suburbs. He had allegedly foregone the opportunity to flee to France to instead stay with his sweetheart Sarah Curran to whom he was engaged. 

Later that year, Emmet was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. His speech from the courthouse, called Speech from the Dock, is one of the most enduring speeches in Irish revolutionary history and is especially pertinent given the unknown whereabouts of his grave. 

It reads: "Let no man write my epitaph, for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them.

"Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done."

Excavators carry out a dig at St. Peter's Church. Credit: Representative Church Body Library/Colin O’Riordan via Ireland Anglican

Excavators carry out a dig at St. Peter's Church. Credit: Representative Church Body Library/Colin O’Riordan via Ireland Anglican

Emmet was executed the very next day on Thomas Street in Dublin. He was first hung before his head was removed to serve as a message to any aspiring revolutionaries. 

His remains were brought to Bully's Acre - where the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham currently stands - and this is where the mystery of his final resting place begins in earnest. 

One thing that is certain is that his remains are not in Bully's Acre. 

It is believed that they were first moved to St. Michan's Church - a church with historic ties to Irish revolutionaries - but that the arrangement didn't last long. 

Read More: Robert Emmet and Sarah Curran - a grave mystery

There is a tombstone at the church today with the name Robert Emmet inscribed on it, but whether or not Emmet is actually resting there is a different matter. 

Some hypothesize that a headless corpse found in a vault in St. Paul's Church was that of Emmet. The body was found in the vault of Dr Edward Trevor,  a resident doctor at Kilmainham Gaol in the early 1800s, and only five of the six bodies in the crypt were registered. 

Proponents of this theory believe that British authorities secretly placed Emmet's remains here, with Trevor's consent, to prevent his grave from becoming a republican shrine. 

Many historians believe that Emmet was secretly reinterred under the cover of his sister's burial in 1804. It was Emmet family tradition that deceased members of the family were placed in the family crypt in St. Peter's Church in Dublin. 

The exterior of St. Peter's Church - crucial in the identification of the dig. Credit: Representative Church Body Library/Colin O’Riordan via Ireland Anglican

The exterior of St. Peter's Church - crucial in the identification of the dig. Credit: Representative Church Body Library/Colin O’Riordan via Ireland Anglican

This is why, on the centenary of Emmet's execution in 1903, his great nephew Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet requested an archaeological dig at St. Peter's Church to finally solve the mystery of his ancestor's grave. 

The dig, however, proved inconclusive, although it did inadvertently provide a snapshot into life in the early 20th century.

Almost 120 years after that dig, historians were able to identify photographs of it thanks to a chance encounter between a photographer and the Diocesan Communications Officer for Dublin & Glendalough, Lynn Glanville.

Read More: Robert Emmet’s legacy still critically important to Ireland and Irish America

Colin O'Riordan, the photographer, found a Victorian box full of old photographers of an excavation site while working at the Irish Press in the 1980s. The photographs had long remained a mystery to him, but the chance encounter with Lynn Granville led to their identification in February 2019. 

The photographs have now been restored and digitized and are on display at the Representative Church Body Library. 

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