Growing up in impoverished Ireland in the late 1700's, Robert Emmet chose to give up the affluent life of a privileged protestant youth and fight for the freedom of his persecuted Catholic countrymen. This decision would cost him his own life. Taking part in a failed campaign to overthrow the English castle in Dublin, he was captured and hung in 1803 at the age of 25. He was endeared to all because of his strong moral values and courage; a true advocate of human rights.
In the foreground of the Palo Alto County court house square, mounted high on a pedestal, the likeness of that great Irish hero keeps a watchful eye over the activites of the community named for him.
Jerome Connor, Irish born sculptor, created the life size bronze statue of Emmet. Three others were cast from the same mold.
At an early age, Jerome left Ireland to join his older brother, Tim, in Massachusettes. He opted to work, over an education. As it happened, his employment with a monument company proved to be an education in itself. The trades he learned there enabled him later to become a highly sought-after sculptor in both stone and bronze.
Much of his work as a commissioned sculptor was done in and around Washington, D.C., where he and his family lived for twenty years. It was there that he cast the Robert Emmet statues which are now strategically located across the hemisphere; Dublin, Ireland, Washington, D.C., Emmetsburg, IA, and San Fransisco, CA. An unintenional allusion to the travels of Irish immigrants to the new world; the harbors of the east, the fields of the midwest, and finally the far west coast.
Some of his other creations are in the vicinity of our nation's capital such as "Angels of the Battlefield", Archbishop John Carroll, "Supreme Sacrifices" and Colonel John Joyce. The monument, dedicated to those whose lives were lost when the cruise ship, Lusitania, was sunk, is one of his last large works. It was finally installed at Cobh Harbor, Cork City, after his death in 1943.
The memory of patriot Robert Emmet and his struggle to free Ireland of harsh British rule, resulting in his own death, was still alive in the minds of Irishmen in the middle and late 19th century.
Such was the case in 1857, when Holihan, Cahill, Cavenaugh and Murphy, Ft. Dodge residents, attempted to establish a county seat in the newly formed Palo Alto County. The location was at the end of Five Island Lake, about where the first brick home of A.L. Ormsby or the former Tom Kelly home is. Stakes were set showing the boundaries of their town, which was to be called Emmetsburg, after their hero. Unfortunately, their money ran out and their grand plans never materialized.
Frequently, travelers following an established route from the east would inquire where Emmetsburg was and were shown the stakes, remnants of the would-be town. Martin Coonan, another Irishman, seized the opportunity and placed a sign EMMETSBURG on the traveled path, pointing to his homestead on the east bank of the Des Moines River, where Riverdale Ranch is today.
The Coonan home became a hotel for weary travelers and before long, people began establiching businesses there to accomodate the needs of settlers coming to the county. In 1871, Emmetsburg finally became a reality with a plat laid out marking streets and lot location.
Seven Irish families were among the first settlers to arrive in the new county in 1856. From that time, the population grew by leaps and bounds. Many nationalities were represented.
Still clinging to the memory of Emmet, it was decided to have a statue of him in the town. So in 1919, Supervisor Michael Fleming, of Ruthven, introduced a resolution to reserve a spot in the courthouse square for the monument.
Jerome Connor, an Irish sculptor, had just completed a statue of Emmet for the Smithsonian and agreed to make a copy for the Emmetsburg people from the same mold. Hand, Conlon, Mahan, Kibbie, Burns, Higgins, Gentry, Martin, Molloy, McCabe, O'Grady, Kelly, O'Brien, Egan, Waldron, and Selle were some of the many names found, listed in the archives, as contributors to the fund for purchasing the statue.
After its arrival in Emmetsburg, a disagreement arose as where it should be erected. It was stored in the basement of a local grocery store until a decision could be reached. Time passed and Emmet was almost forgotten, until the grocer sold the statue to a group of Hibernians in Minnesota. There it was destined to stand in the backyard of a private home, until one night in 1958, it was quietly stolen away and brought back to the home it was intended to be and to the spot that was reserved by the Supervisors, many years ago, in the courthouse square.
After years of exposure to the elements, it became necessary to refurbish the priceless work of art. The townspeople got behind the project. With news media help, many fundraisers and donations from all over the United States and Ireland, the $10,000 mission was accomplished. Robert emeerged looking as good as new.
The statue is an important symbol of Emmetsburg's Irish heritage.