Irish America Magazine
A Small Town Struggles to Preserve Its Irish
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.
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
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.]
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
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
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
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."]