The Hist auditor who sparked an uprising

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the rebellion of 1798 have more than a few Trinity connections. With his 252nd birthday passing last Saturday, Liam Cowley explores the life of the enigmatic leader.


We have come to the holiest place in Ireland; holier to us even than the place where Patrick sleeps in Down. Patrick brought us life, but this man died for us.’ These are the words with which Patrick Pearse began his speech at the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone on 22 June 1913. Tone was nearly one hundred and fifteen years dead at this point. Yet, the small churchyard in Bodenstown Co. Kildare where Tone’s remains rest continued to be an annual summer rallying point for successive generations of Irish republicans. A place where the unquenchable flame of Irish nationalism was and is kept alive even in the darkest of times by Irish separatists. Where the sublime end goal of the movement initiated by Tone and others in Belfast in 1791 could be reiterated to those who were and are latter day followers of this Enlightenment man, the torch-bearers for the cause of Irish freedom.

Tone died aged thirty-five. He was born on 20 June 1763 on Bride Street, but was raised in a house on Stafford Street (now renamed Wolfe Tone Street) where a yellow-coloured AXA Insurance office stands today. Tone grew up as a middle-class Anglican, his father was a coach-maker and his grandfather a ‘respectable farmer’, in Tone’s words, who lived near Sallins. Ten of his fifteen siblings died in infancy, a sign of the hardship faced by Anglicans outside of the stereotypical Ascendancy, who can be described as ‘middle class’ because they remained in a better situation in terms of political rights than their non-Anglican compatriots. Tone’s formative years were spent in the ‘second city of the British Empire’, a city which was living proof of the Protestant Ascendancy and concrete evidence of an Ireland where the scourge of sectarianism was deeply embedded. Social divisions were, more often than not, impossible to overcome in an era characterised by the Penal Laws.

Tone as a teenager wanted to become a soldier and often went to the Phoenix Park with his friends to watch the British Army drill instead of attending class in a school also located on Stafford Street. His wish to join the army, however, never came to fruition and his father insisted on his son entering Trinity in February 1781. He continued to spend much of his time reading military books or enjoying the company of friends, and academic achievement, despite his clear intelligence, never seemed to be a priority. His exam success was frequently attributed to cramming. The College Historical Society would be the beneficiary of much of Tone’s energy in Trinity and he became the Hist’s auditor in 1785. Fellow future revolutionary and republican Thomas Addis Emmet was also elected a Hist committee member at the time. By the time he left Trinity, Tone had been awarded three medals by the Hist, which he later described as ‘a most admirable institution’.

Wolfe Tone's birthplace at 44 Stafford Street, now the location of AXA insurance. Rights: National Library of Ireland

Wolfe Tone’s birthplace at 44 Stafford Street, now the location of AXA insurance. Rights: National Library of Ireland

In 1785, he married Matilda Witherington, who lived with her father, an Anglican clergyman, in a house on Grafton Street. In 1787, having cut short his education in Trinity, Tone left for Middle Temple, London to study law and prepared to be called to the bar. In an account of his time in Trinity, he wrote in 1796 of how he had been ‘inveterately idle, partly owing to my passion for a military life, and partly to the distractions to which my natural dispositions and temperament but too much exposed me… I look back on my college days with regret, and I preserve, and ever shall, a most sincere affection for the University of Dublin.’

HWhile in London, Tone submitted a plan advocating the creation of a British military settlement on Hawaii to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, placing it in the letterbox of 10 Downing Street. When no reply was forthcoming, Tone vowed to ‘make Mr. Pitt sorry.’ At the end of 1788 Tone returned to Ireland to work as a barrister, but it was politics which increasingly captivated him.

In 1782, Poynings’ Law was repealed, meaning that the College Green Parliament could legislate for Ireland independently of the English Parliament for the first time since 1494. This change had been achieved by Henry Grattan, the political head of an 80,000 strong force known as the Irish Volunteers. But the King of England remained the King of Ireland and he appointed the executive based in Dublin Castle which was not answerable to College Green. In 1790 a Whig Club was established to campaign against the mooted idea of full union with Britain (the creation of a United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland which would be forced into existence in 1801) and to press for more parliamentary reforms. Tone became a member.

Among Tone’s earliest political writings is this insightful piece: ‘The only true strength of Government is the confidence of the people, a confidence not lightly bestowed, nor lightly withdrawn. When that confidence is betrayed, and not only so, but when people are laughed to scorn by their betrayers, Administration may be taught how vain the reliance is on their fancied strength… Government is not physically strong but rests in opinion. If that opinion be forfeited by misconduct, or rejected with scorn as a useless instrument, the people may begin to examine by what authority three hundred men pretend to govern and to defy four million.’ Not only did Tone voice his opposition to rule by incompetent or tyrannical individuals or groups, but importantly at a time when Catholics (80 per cent of the population) received little to no representation from the ruling Anglican class, he recognised that the Irish nation comprises not only one particular religious group, but all, and that religious beliefs are not the same as nationality, definitely not a widely shared view at the time.

Another cornerstone of Tone’s developing political outlook was a clear belief in Irish sovereignty in all matters including international affairs and his belief in Irish neutrality, as outlined in his 1790 pamphlet ‘Spanish War!’, which the printer withdrew the day after it was put on selves in Dublin bookstores when a MP declared ‘the author ought to be hanged.’ It was Tone’s ‘An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland’, which appeared in September 1791, which brought him centre stage among radicals, particularly among Belfast Presbyterians. That pamphlet was truly ground-breaking and had the potential to put Tone in danger. In it he states, ‘The misfortune of Ireland is that we have no National Government in which we differ from England and from all Europe…What is our Government?… it is a Government derived from another country, whose interest, so far from being the same with that of the people, directly crosses it at right angles…The people are utterly disregarded and defied: divided and distracted as they are, and distrustful of each other, they fall an easy prey to English rulers, or their Irish subalterns.’

Having been identified by former fellow Trinity student Sir George Hill, an Orange Order member, was taken to the Royal (Collins) Barracks, Dublin where he faced trial by court martial

Shortly after that pamphlet was published the United Irishmen were formed in Belfast on 14 October 1791. Samuel McTier from Dundonald, Co. Down was the society’s first president. A declaration that included very similar wording to Tone’s recent pamphlet was issued:We have no national Government— we are ruled by Englishmen, and the servants of Englishmen whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption, and whose strength is the weakness of Ireland; and these men have the whole of the power and patronage of the country as means to seduce and subdue the honesty and spirit of her representatives in the legislature.’

In 1793 the United Irishmen were declared an illegal body and they were forced underground. Suspected members were hunted down and imprisoned. By 1796, a campaign of terror was underway (as is typically the case when an oppressor tries to hold on to a subjected nation) led by British Army general Gerard Lake in the United Irishmen’s heartland of Ulster. In 1793 Britain went to war with France. The French Revolution in reality and in its aims terrified the ancien régime of countries throughout Europe and the closest thing to that revolution in Ireland was the Society of United Irishmen. It now stood for nothing less than full separation from Britain and the creation of an Irish Republic.

In 1795, Tone departed Ireland for America, staying for a few months in Philadelphia. He travelled to France in early 1796 to encourage French support for an armed uprising in Ireland designed to overthrow British rule. That rebellion eventually happened, beginning on the night of 23/24 May 1798 in Co. Kildare and spreading north to Meath, Antrim and Down, south to Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford, and west to Mayo. The rebellion was defeated. British forces equipped with muskets and canons, under the command of Lord Cornwallis, the Lord Lieutenant, proved too strong for the rebels armed mainly with pikes and led by brave and heroic, but ultimately militarily inexperienced, leaders including Henry Joy McCarken, Father John Murphy and Father Michael Murphy. Attempts to rise in Dublin were scuppered by the early arrests and killings of key United Irishmen figures, Lord Edward Fitzgerald (who preferred to be called ‘Citizen Fitzgerald’, not Lord), and brothers Henry and John Sheares.

Tone arrived in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal in October 1798 on board a French fleet which was defeated in battle by the British navy. He was captured, and having been identified by former fellow Trinity student Sir George Hill, an Orange Order member, was taken to the Royal (Collins) Barracks, Dublin where he faced trial by court martial.

Wolfe Tone's grave with the words of Pearse on plaque above it.

Wolfe Tone’s grave with the words of Pearse on plaque above it.

Less than two months previous, Tone’s brother Matthew, had been hanged outside the barracks alongside fellow republican Bartholomew Teeling. Wolfe Tone also spent his last moments in the barracks. The circumstances of his death are disputed. One theory is that Tone was tortured by soldiers in his cell before the death sentence could be carried out and he was fatally wounded, dying some days later. The more commonly accepted version of events is that Tone was held in the Provost’s Prison at the northern end of the complex where he cut his windpipe with a penknife. He had been sentenced to hang, a criminal’s death. Determined to ensure that he and his cause would not be criminalised, Tone acted before he could be hanged. However, the cut was not immediately fatal and the father of Irish Republicanism agonisingly bled to death for eight days, dying on 19 November 1798.

It was another Hist member, Trinity graduate and fellow Irish nationalist, Thomas Davis of the Young Ireland organisation, who placed the first headstone on Tone’s County Kildare grave in 1844.

According to Pearse in 1913, Wolfe Tone ‘made articulate the dumb voices of the centuries, he gave Ireland a clear and precise and worthy concept of Nationality. But he did more than this: not only did he define Irish Nationalism, but he armed his generation in defence of it. Thinker and doer, dreamer of the immortal dream and doer of the immortal deed—we owe to this dead man more than we can ever repay him by making pilgrimages to his grave or by rearing to him the stateliest monument in the streets of his city. To his teaching we owe it that there is such a thing as Irish Nationalism, and to the memory of the deed he nerved his generation to do, to the memory of ’98, we owe it that there is any manhood left in Ireland.’

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