Emmet and the historians

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A review-essay published in the Dublin Review [Number 12 :: Autumn 2003]

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Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ was written in 1944.

The action, we are told, is to take place ‘in an oppressed yet stubborn country – Poland, Ireland, the republic of Venice, some South American or Balkan state’. And then we are told, in typical Borgesian style, that the action in fact ‘took place’ in Ireland in 1824. The narrator is a man called Ryan and he is researching the story of his great-grandfather, ‘the young, heroic, beautiful, murdered Fergus Kilpatrick, whose grave was mysteriously violated, whose name gives lustre to Browning’s and Hugo’s verses and whose statue stands high upon a grey hilltop among red bogs’.
Kilpatrick was ‘a conspirator and a secret and glorious captain of conspirators’ who ‘perished on the eve of the victorious rebellion he had planned for and dreamed of’. The circumstances of the death are enigmatic; Kilpatrick was assassinated, but no one was apprehended for his death; he may have been murdered by the very police who failed to find his assailant. In any case, he became a national hero. But now his biographer has a curious problem, common to anyone who studies the shape of Irish history as told through its martyrs and heroes: things are shadowy and mirror each other strangely; nothing is necessarily true and much is mystery; facts resemble fiction more than they ought; narrative itself is misleading and full of false trails and labyrinths leading back into themselves. Our dream-time, our songs and our myths live in these narratives more actively than any set of realities or pointed purposes.
Ryan, in Borges’s story, is puzzled by the theatrical nature of his ancestor’s assassination. It was done in a theatre; certain tropes seemed to echo events in Julius Caesar and Macbeth. At the last gathering he attended, Kilpatrick, Ryan discovers, signed the death warrant of a traitor ‘whose name has been scratched out’. And then Ryan realizes the truth: Kilpatrick himself was the traitor, he had signed his own death warrant, and, with his associates, he had staged his own execution in the form of a dramatic assassination. Since the country idolized him, the circumstances of his death ‘would engrave themselves upon the popular imagination’. Kilpatrick himself was ‘moved almost to ecstasy by the scrupulously plotted fate that would redeem him and end his days’. Ryan, after much indecision, decides to leave this extraordinary discovery out of his book. His great-grandfather who died for Ireland remains a hero about whom ballads, elegies and rhapsodies would continue to be composed and performed.

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