Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish patriot

James Durney

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born on 20 June 1763 at St. Bride’s Street, Dublin, but spent his childhood at Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street), in Dublin. His father, Peter Tone, was born at Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, on the estate of the barrister and politician Theobald Wolfe, Tone’s godfather. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Tone was called to the Bar in 1789, but was more interested in politics. When Tone published an argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland under the pseudonym ‘A Northern Whig,’ he was invited to Belfast to assist in founding the Society of United Irishmen, which first met on 18 October 1791. A Dublin society was formed a month later. At the start the society drew its support from Presbyterians in Ulster, and from Protestants and liberals seeking parliamentary reform. There were others like Wolfe Tone, who inspired by the French Revolution, sought to establish a republic. As he later wrote, he sought to break the connection with England, and ‘to substitute the common name of Irishmen, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’.

In April 1794, Rev. William Jackson, arrived in Ireland to assess for the French government the likely success of a French invasion. Tone unwisely wrote a memorandum for him; when Jackson was betrayed and arrested, Tone was fortunate to escape arrest and prosecution. He was allowed to sell his possessions in Ireland (a cottage on an acre of land near Bodenstown) and exile himself to America. Tone arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, on 1 August 1795, with his wife, Matilda, their children and his brother, Arthur, and sister, Mary. He purchased a farm of some 180 acres near Princeton, New Jersey, but left the following year after the French minister in Philadelphia encouraged Tone to take his invasion plan to revolutionary France.

An invasion fleet left Brest in December 1796, but bad weather prevented a landing. Tone persuaded the French into new expeditions, but by the time General Jean Humbert landed in Co. Mayo in August 1798, the United Irishmen’s rising in Ulster and Leinster had failed. The repressive measures by the Crown had driven Ireland into revolt in May 1798, but the rising was suppressed with great savagery and the United Irish movement destroyed.

Gen. Humbert was soon defeated, and Tone was captured aboard a French ship in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal, on 12 October. At his trial in Dublin he admitted treason and, when his request to be shot as a soldier, rather than be hanged, was refused, Tone cut his own throat on 12 November, dying in prison on 19 November 1798. His body was brought from Dublin to Naas, Co. Kildare, where legend has it he was waked in a house belonging to his cousins, the Dunbavins, on the Sallins Road. Theobald Wolfe Tone was buried in the family plot at Bodenstown Cemetery, outside Sallins, Co. Kildare, on 21 November 1798. Only two people were present, one of them his cousin, William Dunbavin. Matilda Tone died on 18 March 1849 at Georgetown. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

The ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen continued to be a potent force in Irish history. From 1842 his grave in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, has become a place of pilgrimage for nationalists and republicans.