Theobald Wolfe Tone, commonly known as Wolfe Tone (June 20, 1763 – November 19, 1798), was a leading figure in the United Irishmen Irish independence movement and is regarded as the father of Irish Republicans. Tone himself admitted that, with him, hatred of England had always been “rather an instinct than a principle.” Until his views became more generally accepted in Ireland he was prepared to work for reform as distinguished from revolution. He wanted to root out the popular respect for the names of James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont and Henry Grattan, transferring the leadership to more militant campaigners. While Grattan was a reformer and a patriot without democratic ideas; Wolfe Tone was a revolutionary thinker and activist whose principles were drawn from the French Convention. Grattan’s political philosophy was allied to that of Edmund Burke; Tone was a disciple of Georges Danton and Thomas Paine. His ardency brought him to an abrupt end on the guillotine.
Tone was born in Dublin, the son of a Church of Ireland, Protestant coach-maker. Tone studied law at Trinity College, Dublin and qualified as a barrister from King’s Inns at the age of 26, attendeding the Inns of Court in London. As a student, he eloped with Elizabeth Witherington, sixteen year old daughter of William Witherington, of Dublin, and his wife, Catherine Fanning. They had two sons and a daughter. She survived him 50 years.
Tone, disappointed at finding no notice taken of a scheme for founding a military colony in Hawaii which he had submitted to William Pitt the Younger, turned to Irish politics. His pamphlet attacking the administration of the marquess of Buckingham in 1790, brought him to the notice of the Whig club; and in September 1791, he wrote a remarkable essay over the signature “A Northern Whig,” of which 10,000 copies were said to have been sold.
The principles of the French Revolution were at this time being eagerly embraced in Ireland, especially among the Presbyterians of Ulster. Prior to the appearance of Tone’s essay, a meeting had been held in Belfast where a resolution in favor of the abolition of religious disqualifications had given the first sign of political sympathy between the Roman Catholics and the Protestant dissenters (“Whigs”) of the north. The essay of “A Northern Whig” emphasized the growing breach between Whig patriots like Henry Flood and Henry Grattan, who aimed at Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform without breaking the connection with England, and the men who desired to establish a separate Irish republic. Tone expressed contempt for the constitution which Grattan had so triumphantly extorted from the British government in 1782; and, himself an Anglican, he urged co-operation between the different religious sects in Ireland as the only means of obtaining complete redress of Irish grievances.
Society of the United Irishmen
In October 1791, Tone converted these ideas into practical policy by founding, in conjunction with Thomas Russell, Napper Tandy, and others, the Society of the United Irishmen. The original purpose of this society was no more than the formation of a political union between Roman Catholics and Protestants, with a view to obtaining a liberal measure of parliamentary reform. It was only when it was obvious that this was unattainable by constitutional methods that the majority of the members adopted the more uncompromising opinions which Wolfe Tone held from the first, and conspired to establish an Irish republic by armed rebellion.
It is important to note the use of the word “united.” This was what particularly alarmed the British aristocracy in Westminster, as they saw the Catholic population as the greatest threat to their power in Ireland. However, Tone’s ideas would have been very difficult to apply to the real situation in Ireland, as the Catholics had different concerns of their own, these usually being having to pay the tithe bill to the Anglican Church of Ireland and the huge amounts they had to pay in order to lease land from the Protestant Ascendancy. Eighteenth century Ireland was a sectarian state, ruled by a small Anglican minority, over a majority Catholic population, some of whose ancestors had been dispossessed of land and political power in the seventeenth century Plantations of Ireland. This was in part also an ethnic division, the Catholics being descended from native Irish, Normans, and “Old English,” and the Protestants more often from English and Scottish settlers. Such sectarian animosity undermined the United Irishmen movement: Two secret societies from Ulster fought against each other, the Peep O’Day Boys, who were made up mostly of Protestants, and the Defenders, who were made up of Catholics. These two groups clashed frequently throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century and sectarian violence worsened in the county Armagh area from the mid 1790s. This undermined Wolfe Tone’s movement, as it suggested that Ireland couldn’t be united and that religious prejudices were too strong. In addition, the militant Protestant groups, including the newly founded Orange Order, could be mobilized against the United Irishmen by the British authorities.
However, democratic principles were gaining ground among the Catholics as well as among the Presbyterians. A quarrel between the moderate and the more advanced sections of the Catholic Committee led, in December 1791, to the secession of sixty-eight of the former, led by Lord Kenmare. The direction of the committee then passed to more violent leaders, of whom the most prominent was John Keogh, a Dublin tradesman, known as “Gog.” The active participation of the Catholics in the movement of the United Irishmen was strengthened by the appointment of Tone as paid secretary of the Roman Catholic Committee in the spring of 1792. Despite his desire to emancipate his fellow countrymen, Tone had very little respect for the Catholic faith. When the legality of the Catholic Convention, in 1792, was questioned by the government, Tone drew up for the committee a statement of the case on which a favorable opinion of counsel was obtained; and a sum of £1500 with a gold medal was voted to Tone by the Convention when it dissolved itself in April 1793. A petition was made to the king early in 1793, and that year the first enfranchisement of Catholics was enacted, if they had property as “forty shilling freeholders.” They could not, however, enter parliament or be made state officials above grand jurors. Burke and Grattan were anxious that provision should be made for the education of Irish Roman Catholic priests in Ireland, to preserve them from the contagion of Jacobinism in France.
Revolutionary in exile
In 1794, the United Irishmen, persuaded that their scheme of universal suffrage and equal electoral districts was not likely to be accepted by any party in the Irish parliament, began to found their hopes on a French invasion. An English clergyman named William Jackson, who had imbibed revolutionary opinions during his long stay in France, came to Ireland to negotiate between the French committee of public safety and the United Irishmen. Tone drew up a memorandum for Jackson on the state of Ireland, which he described as ripe for revolution; the memorandum was betrayed to the government by an attorney named Cockayne, to whom Jackson had imprudently disclosed his mission; and in April 1794, Jackson was arrested on a charge of treason.
Several of the leading United Irishmen, including Reynolds and Hamilton Rowan, immediately fled the country; the papers of the United Irishmen were seized, and for a time the organization was broken up. Tone, who had not attended meetings of the society since May 1793, remained in Ireland until after the trial and suicide of Jackson in April 1795. Having friends among the government party, including members of the Beresford family, he was able to make terms with the government, and in return for information as to what had passed between Jackson, Rowan and himself, he was permitted to emigrate to the United States, where he arrived in May 1795. Before leaving, he and his family traveled to Belfast, and it was at the summit of Cave Hill that Tone made the famous Cave Hill compact with fellow United Irishmen, Russel and McCracken, promising “Never to desist in our efforts until we subvert the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence.” Living in Philadelphia, he wrote a few months later to Thomas Russell expressing unqualified dislike of the American people, whom he was disappointed to find no more truly democratic in sentiment and no less attached to authority than the English; he described George Washington as a “high-flying aristocrat,” and he found the aristocracy of money in America still less to his liking than the European aristocracy of birth.
Tone did not feel himself bound by his agreement with the British government to abstain from further conspiracy; and finding himself at Philadelphia in the company of Reynolds, Rowan, and Tandy, he went to Paris to persuade the French government to send an expedition to invade Ireland. In February 1796, he arrived in Paris and had interviews with De La Croix and Carnot, who were impressed by his energy, sincerity, and ability. A commission was given him as adjutant-general in the French army, which he hoped might protect him from the penalty of treason in the event of capture by the English; though he himself claimed the authorship of a proclamation said to have been issued by the United Irishmen, enjoining that all Irishmen taken with arms in their hands in the British service should be instantly shot; and he supported a project for landing a thousand criminals in England, who were to be commissioned to burn Bristol, England, and commit other atrocities. He drew up two memorials representing that the landing of a considerable French force in Ireland would be followed by a general rising of the people, and giving a detailed account of the condition of the country.
Hoche’s expedition and the 1798 rebellion
The French Directory, which possessed information from Lord Edward FitzGerald and Arthur O’Connor confirming Tone, prepared to dispatch an expedition under Louis Lazare Hoche. On December 15, 1796, the expedition, consisting of forty-three sail and carrying about 14,000 men with a large supply of war material for distribution in Ireland, sailed from Brest. Tone accompanied it as “Adjutant-general Smith” and had the greatest contempt for the seamanship of the French sailors, who were unable to land due to severe gales. They waited for days off Bantry Bay, waiting for the winds to ease, but eventually returned to France. Tone served for some months in the French army under Hoche; in June 1797, he took part in preparations for a Dutch expedition to Ireland, which was to be supported by the French. But the Dutch fleet was detained in the Texel for many weeks by unfavorable weather, and before it eventually put to sea in October (only to be crushed by Duncan in the battle of Camperdown), Tone had returned to Paris and Hoche, the chief hope of the United Irishmen, was dead.
Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom Tone had several interviews about this time, was much less disposed than Hoche had been to undertake in earnest an Irish expedition; and when the rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1798, he had started for Egypt. When, therefore, Tone urged the Directory to send effective assistance to the Irish rebels, all that could be promised was a number of small raids to descend simultaneously on different points of the Irish coast. One of these under General Humbert succeeded in landing a force near Killala, County Mayo, and gained some success in Connacht (particularly at Castlebar) before it was subdued by Lake and Charles Cornwallis. Wolfe Tone’s brother, Matthew, was captured, tried by court-martial, and hanged; a second raid, accompanied by Napper Tandy, came to disaster on the coast of Donegal; while Wolfe Tone took part in a third, under Admiral Bompard, with General Hardy in command of a force of about 3000 men. This encountered an English squadron at Rathmullan on Lough Swilly on October 12, 1798. Tone, on board the Hoche, refused Bompard’s offer of escape in a frigate before the action, and was taken prisoner when Hoche surrendered.
When the prisoners were landed a fortnight later, Sir George Hill recognized Tone in the French adjutant-general’s uniform. At his trial by court-martial in Dublin, Tone made a speech avowing his determined hostility to England and his intention “by frank and open war to procure the separation of the countries”.
Recognizing that the court was certain to convict him, he asked “… that the court should adjudge me to die the death of a soldier, and that I may be shot….” Reading from a prepared speech, he defended his view of a military separation from Britain (as had occurred in the fledgling United States), and lamented the outbreak of mass violence:
“Such are my principles such has been my conduct; if in consequence of the measures in which I have been engaged misfortunes have been brought upon this country, I heartily lament it, but let it be remembered that it is now nearly four years since I have quitted Ireland and consequently I have been personally concerned in none of them; if I am rightly informed very great atrocities have been committed on both sides, but that does not at all diminish my regret; for a fair and open war I was prepared; if that has degenerated into a system of assassination, massacre, and plunder I do again most sincerely lament it, band those few who know me personally will give me I am sure credit for the assertion.”
To the people, he had the following to say: “I have labored to abolish the infernal spirit of religious persecution by uniting the Catholics and Dissenters,” he declared from the dock. “To the former, I owe more than ever can be repaid. The service I was so fortunate as to render them they rewarded munificently but they did more: When the public cry was raised against me, when the friends of my youth swarmed off and left me alone, the Catholics did not desert me.
They had the virtue even to sacrifice their own interests to a rigid principle of honor. They refused, though strongly urged, to disgrace a man who, whatever his conduct towards the Government might have been, had faithfully and conscientiously discharged his duty towards them and in so doing, though it was in my own case, I will say they showed an instance of public virtue of which I know not whether there exists another example.”
His eloquence, however, was in vain, and his request to be shot denied. He was sentenced to be hanged on November 12, 1798. Before this sentence was carried out, he suffered a fatal neck wound, self-inflicted according to contemporaries, from which he died several days later at the age of 35 in Provost’s Prison, Dublin, not far from where he was born.
Support from Lord Kilwarden
A long-standing belief in Kildare is that Tone was the natural son of a neighboring landlord at Blackhall, near Clane, called Theobald Wolfe. This man was certainly his godfather, and a cousin of Arthur Wolfe, 1st Viscount Kilwarden, who warned Tone to leave Ireland in 1795. Then, when Tone was arrested and brought to Dublin in 1798, and facing certain execution, it was Kilwarden (a senior judge) who granted two orders for Habeas Corpus for his release. This was remarkable, given that the rebellion had just occurred with great loss of life, and one that could never be enlarged upon, as Kilwarden was unlucky enough to be killed in the riot starting Emmet’s revolt in 1803. The suggestion is that the Wolfes knew that Tone was a cousin; Tone himself may not have known. As a pillar of the Protestant Ascendancy and notorious at the time for his prosecution of William Orr, Kilwarden had no motive whatsoever for trying to assist Tone in 1795 and 1798. Portraits of Wolfes around 1800, arguably show a resemblance to the rebel leader.
Emily Wolfe (1892-1980), the last of the Wolfes to live in Kildare, continued her family tradition of annually laying flowers at Tone’s grave until her death.
“He rises,” says William Lecky, the nineteenth century historian, “far above the dreary level of commonplace which Irish conspiracy in general presents. The tawdry and exaggerated rhetoric; the petty vanity and jealousies; the weak sentimentalism; the utter incapacity for proportioning means to ends, and for grasping the stern realities of things, which so commonly disfigure the lives and conduct even of the more honest members of his class, were wholly alien to his nature. His judgment of men and things was keen, lucid and masculine, and he was alike prompt in decision and brave in action.”
In his later years, he overcame the drunkenness that was habitual to him in youth; he developed seriousness of character and unselfish devotion to the cause of patriotism; and he won the respect of men of high character and capacity in France and the Netherlands. His journals, which were written for his family and intimate friends, give a singularly interesting and vivid picture of life in Paris in the time of the Directory. They were published after his death by his son, William Theobald Wolfe Tone (1791-1828), who was educated by the French government and served with some distinction in the armies of Napoleon, emigrating after Waterloo to America, where he died, in New York City, on October 10, 1828, at the age of 37. His mother, Matilda (or Mathilda) Tone also emigrated to the United States, and she is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York