The weather was suitably Irish at last week’s rededication of the Robert Emmet statue at Massachusetts Avenue and S Street NW. The speakers and honored guests — including the Irish ambassador, the president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum — couldn’t help but mention how appropriate were the coolth and the drizzle.
Emmet was an Irish patriot/revolutionary/terrorist (delete as appropriate) executed in 1803 by the British, who cut off his head after hanging him then displayed for two days in Dublin the blood-soaked butcher’s block on which that sanguinary act occurred.
Emmet’s head remained unburied long enough for a death mask to be made, and it is said the death mask was studied by Jerome Connor, the Irish sculptor who created the statue that was rededicated in last Wednesday’s rain.
Washington is full of monuments. Most are to American heroes, but many of them are not. A memorial to victims of the Titanic? Sure. To the founder of homeopathy? Why not? To temperance? I’ll drink to that.
And then there’s Emmet. He was an eloquent warrior in the fight for Irish liberty, an architect of the doomed 1803 rebellion that would cost him his life. He was, like so many around the world, inspired by the American Revolution.
What I found odd was the story of the Emmet statue itself, how it was commissioned and where it spent the first half of its life. When it was first unveiled, on June 28, 1917, the statue was the centerpiece of the rotunda in the National Museum. We call that building the National Museum of Natural History. For nearly 50 years, Emmet had pride of place where today stands an African bush elephant.
Why would the Smithsonian display an Irish independence fighter before there even was an independent Ireland? Never underestimate the power of special interests. Irish American groups raised funds for the statue. Irish American politicians in Congress persuaded the Smithsonian to sponsor it.
The artist Connor worked in a studio at the southeast corner of New Jersey and C Street NW, in a house that was reputed to be one of the last structures in the city directly connected to the slave trade. Human chattel had been kept in pens in the basement. News reports at the time proudly proclaimed that the Emmet statue was the first to be cast in the city using native, District sand. Other sculptors had sand brought in from elsewhere.
The Evening Star proclaimed the Emmet statue a “spirited work, strongly modeled and expressive.” It was suggestive of “the romantic, rebellious and self-sacrificing spirit of the race.”
The unveiling was attended by President Woodrow Wilson. Irish tenor John McCormack sang two Emmet-inspired songs: “Oh, Breathe Not His Name” and “She Is Far From the Land.” The crowd wanted the national anthem, but McCormack’s accompanist, E.H. Droop, couldn’t play it in his key. A woman named Alice Burbage was plucked from the audience to play it.
By the 1950s it must have seemed odd to have Emmet in the museum. The statue was put into storage, then taken out in 1966 — the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising that set Ireland on the path to statehood — and installed in a fetching little triangle of green overseen by the National Park Service. The location is not far from the Irish Embassy. It’s also not far from the British Embassy. Reporters at the 1966 rededication noted that the British ambassador had sent his regrets.
Now another 50 years have passed and it’s the centennial of the Rising and of the park service. The park has been renovated. A large evergreen that was dripping sap onto the statue was removed, replaced by Irish yews. Emmet is much more visible to passersby. A sign tells his story.
Ancient history, surely. But at last week’s dedication, applause greeted one speaker’s mention of Bobby Sands, the Provisional IRA member and hunger-striker who died in prison in 1981, and of a “32-county Ireland,” that is, one that includes Northern Ireland.
Emmet’s statue may be a hunk of inanimate bronze, but in Washington, bronze is never totally inanimate.
The first WilmerHale duckling emerged from its shell on Friday afternoon. By Saturday, it was joined by 11 brothers and sisters. Overseen by Duck Watch volunteers wearing high-visibility vests, momma duck and her brood waddled to the pond at Constitution Gardens.
It took about four hours for the mallard mother and the dozen ducklings to travel the seven blocks, said Paula Goldberg of wildlife rehabilitation group City Wildlife.
“They all made it down there successfully,” Paula said.
It’s probably a little lonely outside WilmerHale now, but what a perfect excuse for a lunchtime constitutional to Constitution Gardens.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.