Martha Witherington Tone (1769 - 1849)

Martha Witherington Tone was born in Dublin in June of 1769.  She was one of three children born to William Witherington and his wife, Catherine Fanning  The family owned a drapery  business in Grafton Street close to Stephens Green on the south side of the city.  Little else is known of her early childhood or education other than she lived with her paternal grandfather .   

At age sixteen she was introduced to Theobald Wolfe Tone by her brother; a fellow student of Tone’s at Trinity College. In July of 1785, after only a few months of courtship, they eloped and were married at St. Anne’s in Dawson St. at short distance from her home.   Her parents strongly disapproved of her marriage to Tone and, as a consequence, she remained estranged from her family, by some accounts, for the rest of her life. Over the years she came to adopt Tone’s family as hers.

Their marriage produced three children, two boys and one girl. Of her three children only William lived beyond their teens.

Having missed out on the opportunity to advance her education due to her early marriage and resultant family estrangement, Martha was eager to further her learning and found a willing teacher in Tone who was well versed in  politics, law and literature. The education and knowledge she gained from her teacher husband was invaluable in coping with the tragedies and travails that  beset her throughout  her life.  

From the onset of their marriage she fully supported Tone in his involvement in the ‘United Irishman’ and in his efforts to achieve Irish freedom and sovereignty.  She remained faithful to him during their short life together and, after his untimely death, to his memory and the cause that for which he gave his life. In spite of all the hardship brought on by his political beliefs and militaristic actions she remained a devoted wife and an able mother to their children.  Of her Tone wrote in his diary; 

"My wife especially, whose courage and whose zeal for my honour and interests were not in the least abated by all her past sufferings, supplicated me to let no consideration of her or our children, stand for a moment in the way of my engagement to our friends, and my duty to my country, adding that she would answer for our family, during my absence, and that the same Providence, which had so often as it were miraculously preserved us, would, she was confident, not desert us now."

Having started out as a reform oriented organization the ‘United Irishman’ realizing that England had no interest in political reform became more militant and by 1794 was planning the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. Their plans were betrayed by an informer, resulting in Tone's exile, an exile  from which he was barred from ever returning to Ireland.  Martha and their children suffered the same fate and were with Tone when he set sail for America in 1795. They arrived in in Philadelphia in May of 1795 and  took up residence in Bodenstown, New Jersey just outside Philadelphia.

His exile did not end Tone involvement in the United Irishman.  Before leaving Ireland Tone was delegated the task of acting the part of ambassador for the United Irishmen.  Using America as a stepping-stone Tone left for France in 1796 to petition the French government to send an expeditionary force to Ireland in support of a uprising planned for 1796.  Through his ability and power of persuasion he succeeded in his mission.  Subsequently, he was commissioned a general in the French Army's strike force, assembled by the French Directory for the liberation of Ireland. The fist attempt having failed due to unfavorable weather conditions, a second attempt was made in 1798. The French fleet was defeated off Lough Swilley by a superior British fleet. Tone was captured, court-marshaled and sentenced to death.  Tone knew that he was doomed as Cornwallis, the same British general who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, was determined to have his life.  In November of 1798 while his sentence was being appealed he died in prison under mysterious circumstances.

Martha remained in France after Tone’s death.  In a gesture of friendship for Tone’s service to France, Napoleon arranged for Martha and her children to be provided for.  Tragedy continued to dog Martha with the loss of two of her children who died in their teenage years.  Her only surviving child, William, was educated at  the prestigious Lycee Imperial a French military academy. On completing his studies in 1810, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the 8th Chasseurs in the Grand Army. Shortly after Napoleon's defeat at the battle of Waterloo he surrendered with the rest of the defeated French army.

In 1816 Martha married Thomas Wilson, a friend and confidant of Tone, in Paris. Soon after her marriage she, once again, set sail for the United States with her husband and son, William. They took up residence in Washington D.C,  where Martha  lived for the next 33 years until her death in 1849.

Shortly after arriving in America William was commissioned an officer in the United States army. He served at the War Department where he wrote treatises on cavalry and artillery tactics.  In 1826, both he and Martha published a biography of Wolfe Tone to ensure that his memory and the ideals he lived and died for lived on.

In the end, Matilda Tone outlived both her husband, Thomas, who died  in 1824, and son, William, who died in 1828.  She passed away on March 18, 1849.  She now lies in a Brooklyn grave at Green-Wood Cemetery, flanked by her son, William, and his wife the daughter of famed attorney William Sampson. Her beloved, Wolfe  Tone,  is buried in Bodenstown, County Kildare, in a grave described by Patrick Pearse as the holiest spot in Ireland.

Martha Tone, for her courage and devotion to her husband and the cause he gave his life for, lives forever in our memories with other brave and daring women of 1798  including Mary Doyle, Suzy Toole, Madge Dixon, Jane Barber, Elizabeth Richards, Mary Ann McCracken, Teresa Malone, Molly Weston, Margaret Bond, Anne Flood, Betsy Grey and many unnamed others.


Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

cemetery AND grave location

Name:     Green-Wood Cemetery                                                      PHONE NO.   (718) 768-7300

ADDRESS:   500 – 25th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215-1755



click on headstone to read inscription

Back to Biographies                                                                                                                                                                          Posted 11/15/08