Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763 - 1798)

Barrister, co-founder of the Society of United Irishmen, Leader of the 1798 Rising and Father of Irish Republicanism

Theobald Wolfe Tone, the eldest of five children was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1763 to Peter Tone and Margaret Lampor.  Tone's father was a prosperous coach-maker and the owner of a farm near Bodenstown, Co. Kildare. He was also a member of the Church of Ireland.  Growing up as a child of the gentry, Tone lived a privileged lifestyle, insulated from the general populace, unaware of their plight. Possessed with a keen intellect he won a scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin. During his student years, he met and married Matilda Witherington who bore him four children three of whom died prematurely.. After completing his studies, he was admitted to the Irish Bar.

By 1790 the fallout from the French Revolution was having a profound effect on the Irish people who were the long-suffering victims of government corruption, penal laws and a myriad of repressive measures enacted to protect England’s commercial interests in Ireland. Consequently, numerous clubs and committees were formed to agitate for parliamentary reform and the repeal of the Penal Laws.  Tone, together with William Drennan, Thomas Russell and other close friends set up one such club to discuss the current state of affairs in Ireland and in concert, articulate an argument for change. Motivated by the tenor and intellectual bent of their discussions, Tone authored and published a pamphlet “An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” that laid out the case for Catholic emancipation. The pamphlet was a rebuke to Henry Grattan’s statement in support of the British connection in the summer of 1790.

John Keogh, and other leaders of the Catholic Committee were impressed by Tone’s pamphlet. The Catholic Committee was formed some years earlier by wealthy Catholics for the purpose of looking after Catholic interests by securing a relaxation or repeal of the penal laws.  Keogh offered and Tone accepted the job of paid secretary to the Committee.  His subsequent work on behalf of the Committee helped it secure a modicum of relief when the British parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act of 1791.  However, the benefits derived thereof, were muted by the passing of subsequent repressive acts that stymied the exercise of the rights set forth in the Relief Act.

In October of 1791, Tone was invited by Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken to a meeting to discuss the feasibility of establishing an organization to pursue Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform. Tone accepted the invite and, together with Thomas Russell, a fellow Anglican, met with Neilson, McCracken and seven other Presbyterian reformers in Belfast.  Arising from that meeting, the Society of United Irishmen, was founded on October 18, 1791. 

The following Statement of Intent coined by Tone in outlining the aims of the Society, became the mantra of successive generations of Irish Republican leaders from Robert Emmet to Padraic Pearse who, like Tone himself, shouldered the mantle of martyrdom for Irish freedom. 

To subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, break the connection with England, the never-failing source of our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country—these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of our past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in place of the denomination of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter—these were my means.

Three weeks later, on November 9, 1791, Tone together with James Napper Tandy established a branch of the Society in Dublin. Shortly thereafter, on January 1, 1792, a newspaper called the Northern Star, edited by Samuel Neilson, was launched in Belfast. The newspaper promoted the Society’s ideas by demanding “a society of equality which would include people of all religious persuasions-and of none”.

 Shortly after the outbreak of war between France and Britain in February of 1793 the British parliament passed, within the space of a few years, several repressive laws to prevent an Irish rebellion and/or a French invasion.  These acts, primarily aimed at the Society of United Irishmen and the Defenders. a Catholic agrarian secret society, included the Proclamation for the Preventing of Tumultuous Meetings and Seditious Writings Act, the Traitorous Correspondence Act, the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, the Treasonable Practices, and the Seditious Meetings Act.

 Instead of causing the Society’s demise as the British expected, the Society reorganized itself into an Republican underground revolutionary movement dedicated to securing Ireland’s independence by any means possible, including force. The inclusion of force by the Society was a departure from the peaceful means espoused in their original manifesto.

In April of 1794, Irish-born William Jackson, an emissary of the French government, was sent to Ireland to ascertain the Society of United Irishmen readiness to support a French invasion. Enroute Jackson stopped off in England where he divulged details of his mission to his friend John Cockayne. Afterwards he continued his journey to Ireland where met with Tone and other members of the Society in Archibald Hamilton Rowan cell in Newgate prison to discuss and draft a response for the French government. The letter of response, authored by Tone, stated that the Society would support and participate in a French invasion.

In the meantime, Cockayne, an Englishman, had informed the British government of Jackson’s mission. After Cockayne betrayed, Jackson’s movements were observed and before he could return to France was arrested in possession of Tone’s letter. The ‘seditious’ nature of the letter’s content exposed Tone and other meeting attendees to arrest on charges of treason. Jackson’s arrest sent those named in the letter into hiding or exile.

Archibald Hamilton Rowan realizing that his situation was tenuous at best, made good his escape after convincing his jailer to allow him to visit his wife on the pretense of signing legal documents. Tone, whose friends intervened on his behalf, was allowed to leave Ireland or face trial for treason. Due to political disturbances in England spearheaded by reformers inspired by the French revolution, he was able to delay his departure for a year or caused by a change of government in England. In May of 1795, aware that time was running out, he settled his affairs and left Dublin for Belfast, his port of departure for the American colonies. Before departing Belfast, he met with Russell and McCracken on Cavehill, located on the outskirts of Belfast, where they vowed, “Never to desist in our efforts until we subvert the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence” in what became known as the 'Cavehill compact'.

 On 13th June Tone and his family sailed in the Cincinnatus for Wilmington, Deleware arriving there on August 1, 1795.  Enroute the Cincinnatus was boarded by officers from a British cruiser, who impressed fifty passengers and all but one of the crew.  Luckily for Tone, intervention by his wife saved him from the same fate. From Wilmington, Tone and his family proceeded to Philadelphia their final destination.  Philadelphia, the U.S. capital at that time. was the destination chosen by other exiled members of the Society of United Irishmen including Archibald Hamilton Rowan.

Shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia he met with Pierre Auguste Adet, the French Minister to the United States to apprise him of state of affairs in Ireland and to let him know that the Society of United Irishmen and its allies, the Defenders, were  ready to support a French invasion.  Having completed that task, he turned his attention to establishing a home for his family in the new world.  While in the process of purchasing a farm near Princeton in New Jersey he received a letter from the leadership of the Revolutionary movement in Ireland imploring him to depart for France to urge the French government to launch an invasion as the situation in Ireland was ripe for rebellion.

After consulting with his friend Hamilton Rowan and Adet he set sail for France on January 1, 1796 arriving in Le Harve a month later. After a year of cajoling representatives of the French government he succeeded in convincing them to send an invasion force to Ireland to assist the revolutionary forces there to oust the British and establish a Republic. He enumerated how a successful revolution would also be of benefit to them. It would 1) lessen British power, 2) provide an abundant source of willing recruits for their army and navy and 3) empower an ally will a deep-rooted hatred for the British.  

After receiving confirmation from Lord Edward FitzGerald that Tone was representing the Revolutionary movement in Ireland the French government set about preparing for a landing in Ireland in support of the pending revolution. On December 16, 1796, an expedition consisting of forty-three vessels and 15,000 soldiers set sail from Brest under the command of General Louis Lazare Hoche. Tone, posing as Adjutant-general Smith, was aboard the flagship Indomitable, with General Hoche.  Arriving of the Kerry coast they were unable to land due gale force winds. The waited for six days of Bantry Bay for the winds to ease, before returning to France.

Shortly after arriving back in France, in the early days of January 1797, he received word that his wife, Matilda, and their children had arrival in Hamburg.  He was unable to join them there as he was ordered to report for service in the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse; a department of the First French Empire; located in what is now Belgium. General Hoche, his commanding officer, and a close friend granted him a short leave of absence the following May, to visit his family in Groningen.

 In July of 1797, the French government sanctioned the deployment of another expeditionary force to Ireland, using the Dutch fleet captured at Den Hedler in 1795.  General Hoche allowed Tone to accompany the expedition.  On July 8, Tone boarded the admiral’s ship, ‘Vryheid’ with General Daendels the expedition’s commander.  As the expedition prepared to leave Oudeschild Harbor on Texel Island, the wind changed keeping it bottled up in port. By the time the winds subsided, an overwhelming British fleet was waiting at the mouth of the Marsdiep channel to do battle when the Dutch fleet entered the North Sea.  Faced with no viable option, the fleet stayed put, resulting in the cancellation of the expedition. 

In September of 1797 after the aborted expedition, Tone journeyed to Wetzlar in Germany (France's Rhine frontier) to consult with Hoche regarding another expedition to Ireland.  By then the need for French help was urgent as the United Irishmen and their Allies, the Defenders had to act before ongoing British instigated sectarian riots took a toll on their numbers and cohesiveness.  Sectarianism was the preferred tool used by the British in Ireland to implement their divide and rule policy. 

Within days of arriving in Wetzlar Hoche passed away from tuberculosis, leaving Tone with in a major problem. Tone only viable option was to appeal to Napoleon Bonaparte who, at that time, was planning for an Egyptian expedition and had little or no interest in another Irish expedition. 

In May of 1798 when the Rising began in Ireland, Napoleon was on his way to Egypt, necessitating Tone to appeal directly to the French government for help.  All they were willing to contribute was the launching of a series of simultaneous landings around the Irish coast. Of the three landings, only one, led by General Humbert met with any measure of success.   His expedition landed in Killala in Co. Mayo on August 23. Four days later, on August 27, Hubert’s forces consisting of 2,000 French troops and an unknown number of Irish insurgents routed a force of 6,000 British troops at Castlebar.  After that victory, Humbert declared a ‘Republic of Connacht’ and moved his forces eastwards in hopes of taking Dublin.  After crossing the Leitrim/Longford border near Ballinamuck he came face-to-face with a British force of 30,000 men under the command of General Cornwallis. Outnumbered five to one and outgunned, Humbert was forced to surrender.  Cornwallis granted safe passage to the French but slaughtered as many as 1,100 Irish insurgents. 

The second landing took place on September 16, 1798.  A contingent of exiled United Irishmen, led by James Napper Tandy landed on Rutland Island off the Donegal coast only to learn of General Humbert's defeat at the Battle of Ballinamuck a week earlier on September the 8th.   Realizing that any further action was futile, Tandy and his men re-embarked and sailed north to Norway to avoid British warships.

The third expedition consisting of the flagship Hoche and eight frigates, transporting 3000 French troops, set sail from Brest on September 16, for the coast of Donegal. Tone was aboard the flagship with Admiral Bompart. From the onset, the French fleet were chased by the British navy and hampered by heavy winds on approaching the west coast of Ireland. Because of these hazards the fleet was reduced to four vessels by the time it arrived at Lough Swilly.  Before a landing could be effected a superior fleet of British warships arrived on the scene.

Knowing the outcome of the pending battle, Bompart ordered the accompanying frigates to make good their escape.  Tone was encouraged to leave but refused stating "Shall it be said that I fled, whilst the French were fighting the battles of my country?". On October 12, the Hoche engaged five British warships in what is referred to as the Battle of Tory Island.  For the duration of the battle Tone commanded one of the ships batteries. After Bompart surrendered, Tone was taken prisoners with the other survivors. 

Tone was taken to Letterkenny with the captured French officers where he was recognized by Sir George Hill, a Parliament of Ireland MP.  He was placed in handcuffs, transported to Dublin and placed in Provost Prison at the Royal Barracks, now Collins Barracks. His court-martial took place On November 10, 1798. Knowing that conviction was a foregone conclusion and that the verdict would be death, he asked for a soldier’s death in his pre-sentencing Speech from the Dock. General Cornwallis upheld the court-martial findings, refused Tone’s request for a soldier’s death, and in accordance with British Imperial policy as applied to rebellious subjects, ordered that he be hanged.

Theobald Wolfe Tone valued honor equally with love of country. He fully subscribed to the ancient Roman ethic, that "patriotic suicide" was an acceptable alternative to dishonor.  As a soldier and a man of honor he chose to deny his captors their final act of inhumanity.  In so doing, he severed an artery in his neck with a penknife.  Despite efforts to save his life for the hangman’s noose, he passed away eight days later on November 19, 1798.

He is commemorated annually at his graveside at Bodenstown, Co. Kildare.

Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


NAME:   Bodenstown Churchyard Cemetery                                                  PHONE NO.  +353 45 521240

ADDRESS:   Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, Ireland




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