Irish America Magazine
Sept/Oct. 1993

A Small Town Struggles to Preserve Its Irish Heritage

     When Emmetsburg, a small mid-western town in Iowa, undertook the task of refurbishing their statue of Irish patriot Robert Emmet, they were not prepared for the obstacles they would face and the length of time it would take. Now, after five years, the final chapter will be written with the rededication of the statue during the St. Patrick's Day celebration in March, 1994. Liz Culligan reports.

The History
     When the people of this predominantly Irish settlement decided to name their pioneer town they choose Emmetsburg in honor of the Irish patriot Robert Emmet.
     It was deemed that a statue of the patriot was necessary and so a committee formed of local Ancient Order of Hibernian members commissioned Jerome Connor for the job. Connor, a noted Irish sculptor who had just completed a statue of Emmet for the National Committee of Irish in America, agreed to cast another image from the same mold for the Emmetsburg people.
     It was during the World War I period, however, and materials were in short supply and more costly, so Connor upped the agreed upon price. Raising the extra funds proved difficult and an impatient Connor sold the statue to a group in San Francisco where it still stands in Golden Gate Park.
     The irate citizens of Emmetsburg upon learning of the fate of their statue, sent a delegation to Washington to confront Connor and he wisely agreed to cast another and ship it to the town.
     Upon its arrival in Emmetsburg, in 1916, however, some objections were raised about the chosen site in the Court House Square and the statue was stored in the basement of a grocery store until a decision could be made.
     Time passed and the statue was all but forgotten, except by the grocer [ a man named O'Brien was the grocer-may have been John Joseph O'Brien, grocer in 1882 and still grocer in 1930], who had to work around it in his storage area. Finally in 1936, he seized the opportunity to sell it to an Emmet Society group in Minnesota [for thirty-five dollars.]
     Once again the statue did not reach its planned destination, the Capitol at St. Paul. Fate decreed it was to stand in the backyard of a residence in White Haven, Minnesota, for some 22 years until one hot July night when it was quietly stolen away and appeared back in Emmetsburg.
     The year was 1958, when planners for the town and county centennial decided festivities would not be complete without Robert's return. This time he was met with open arms and anchored securely in concrete on the court house square. [It was anchored in cement so it would be impossible to remove if the police arrived to retrieve it. It is said that Father Farley paid the men from St. Paul for it but never told anyone. As for the men who stole the statue, it has remained shrouded in mystery. Supposedly they were well-respected community businessmen and rumored to be Don Pierce, Phil Kerber, Joe Morrow and Jack Kelly.]

Robert Emmet
     Born in 1778, the son of a prosperous doctor who worked among Dublin's poor, Robert Emmet was a younger brother to Thomas Addis Emmet, a leading member of the United Irishmen who was exiled to France after the 1798 rebellion. Robert joined his brother in France and hoped to enlist Napoleon in assisting a new insurrection. He returned to Ireland in 1802, and when an attempt to capture Dublin Castle failed in 1803, he was captured and hanged.
    Emmet's speech from the dock at his trial would become an inspiration to later generations seeking Irish freedom. "We fight that all of us might have our country, and, that done, each of us shall have our religion, " he said, ending with, "When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written."

The Sculptor
     As a small boy Jerome Connor modeled figures and horses and men from clay along the river banks in his native Ireland. Later he was to find fulfillment in a land far from the place of his birth, the United States. His long hours of labor spent in the yards of a monument company, a means of earning a living proved to be a valuable apprenticeship as it was here that he learned the expertise needed for a career in sculpturing.
     He first found expression in the medium of stone, but his greatest accomplishments were in bronze where he was able to capture deep feelings in his works that seemed to escape other artists.
     His need for expression and perfection eventually caused his downfall. When one of his creations did not measure up to his standards, he would reconstruct the entire work. Many times this took longer than those who hired him felt necessary. On one occasion this fact and the shortage of materials brought about a breach of contract, in turn causing him to file for bankruptcy. The action almost destroyed the man and his heart went with it.
     When he received a commission to produce a monument paying tribute to all those who lost their lives in the Lusitania disaster off the coast of Ireland, he returned to his homeland.
     His later years were spent in a small studio in Dublin, molding small figures for friends and acquaintances to earn a meager living. Connor died in 1943 at age 67. The statue of Robert Emmet remains one of his finest sculptures.

The Committee
     The first step the committee had to take was to renew interest in the statue for the townspeople had grown used to its presence in the courtyard and paid little attention while the elements quietly played havoc with their valuable sculpture.
    Restoration costs of ten thousand dollars seemed totally out of reach, but periodic fund raisers and donations from concerned citizens kept the project alive.
     When a delegation of Emmet County, Michigan, residents requested the right to copy the statue in return for paying restoration costs, new interest was sparked. However, the Michigan people, too, faced with fund-raising problems, abandoned their plans.
     A major breakthrough came when the committee commissioned a professional mold-maker to produce one hundred small busts of Emmet, each numbered consecutively, and followed by the destruction of the mold.
     Complete with a certificate of authenticity, these limited edition art pieces have become valuable collector items.
     By the spring of 1992, although the total amount of money had not been raised. the committee selected to proceed with the actual restoration. A team of conservators were engaged and the image of Robert once again seemed to have just stepped from the foundry.

[A good historical fiction "tear-jerker" written on Robert Emmet by Gretta Curran Browne is entitled "Tread Softly on My Dreams"-Wolfhound Press: 1998. (Amazon has it) The author notes: "Although presented here as a novel, and cloaked in the style of fiction, this story is a true one based on recorded fact. Most of the characters are taken from history, and all the chief episodes, as well as many minor ones, are based on documented evidence."]