In the old Kilshannig Graveyard in north Cork, sitting among the other weather-beaten headstones is one dedicated to Sarah Curran - fiancée of Irish rebel Robert Emmet. The strange part of this tale is that Sarah Curran is not buried in Kilshannig graveyard!
She lies in the Curran family plot in the Protestant cemetery in the nearby village of Newmarket. There are two rumoured reasons behind this. The first is that after Sarah succumbed to consumption in 1808 at the age of 26, her headstone which was commissioned in Cork city was then delivered to the wrong graveyard. The second rumour is that the stone wasn’t paid for in full so those delivering it decided to put it in Kilshannig graveyard until payment was made, but centuries later the headstone is still in the same spot!
For years before her death, Sarah had been estranged from her father, the Newmarket born lawyer John Philpot Curran. Although he was a supporter of the United Irishmen he regarded Robert Emmet as too much of a radical and denounced his daughter's engagement to him.
In 1803 Emmet orchestrated a short-lived rebellion and in the aftermath of that failed insurrection, he went on the run. He came out of hiding to meet Sarah Curran but an informer ruined this meeting and Emmet was promptly arrested and executed.
Even though Sarah Curran’s headstone is in one graveyard and her final resting place is in another, the grave of her martyred fiancé Robert Emmet is a mystery.
Emmet was publicly executed on September 20th 1803 on Thomas Street, Dublin. He was hanged and then had his head cut off. The executioner displayed the severed head to the crowd and told them that ‘this is the head of the traitor Robert Emmet.’
Such an undignified end for Emmet did not stop there as his body was taken to Kilmainham Gaol and from there it vanished without a trace.
One rumour goes along the lines that the body of the dead patriot was buried in a paupers graveyard known as Bully’s Acre in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. As most of Emmet’s family and friends were also arrested and those who were still free were too afraid to come out of hiding, the theory is that Emmet’s unclaimed corpse was unceremoniously dumped in Bully‘s Acre.
Another rumour claims that when the heat surrounding the failed rebellion had simmered down, some of Emmet’s relatives secretly dug up his remains and re-interred them in St Michan’s church.
St Michan’s had strong links to the United Irishmen movement and there is a plain headstone without inscription in its graveyard which is said to mark the grave of Robert Emmet, but again that is only a rumour!
Emmet’s mother hailed from Kerry and a rumour arose in the latter half of the last century regarding where the severed head of Emmet ended up. Local whispers in South Kerry claimed that the head of Robert Emmet was secretly buried in the grounds of his mothers ancestral home of Ballydowny in Aghadoe.
The strongest theory on Robert Emmet’s last resting place is that his remains were secretly interred in the Emmet family vault in St. Peters church near St Stephen’s Green.
The theory is that when his sister Mary Anne died a year after his execution, Emmet was re-interred under the cover of the burial of his sister at St. Peter‘s. The church went into ruin during the early 20th century until the 1980s when it was turned into a nightclub. In the 1990s the nightclub closed down and the Dublin YMCA hostel stands in its place today.
Another theory indicates St. Paul’s church in Dublin as Robert Emmet’s final resting place. In 1903 excavations took place there and a coffin with a headless body was discovered in a vault with five other bodies. Five of the six bodies were registered except for the headless one and the vault was the property of Dr Edward Trevor who had been prison physician at Kilmainham during Emmet’s short stay there.
In 1803 before he could be sent for trial, Emmet had hatched a plan of escape from jail but Dr Trevor discovered such plans and ultimately ruined any hope of escape for Emmet when he informed the authorities.
The theory of Dr Trevor concealing Emmet’s body in his own vault flared for a short while before it faded from public imagination and the mystery of the headless unknown body in Dr Trevor’s vault has never been tested to prove if it was indeed that of Robert Emmet.
While Sarah Curran has the distinction being interred in one cemetery but having a gravestone in another, the final resting place of Robert Emmet remains unknown. Perhaps the last few words of the famous speech Emmet gave from the dock before he was sentenced to death can contain a clue to his burial place:
‘Let my character and my motives repose in obscurity and peace till other times and other men can do them justice. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.'
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