A BIOGRAPHY OF WOLFE TONE
The famous and important Irish historical figure Wolfe Tone was born Theobald Wolfe Tone on 20th June 1763. His place in Irish history can scarcely be overstated as he is regarded as the father of modern Irish republicanism.
He was born in Dublin to a Protestant family and attended Trinity College, qualifying as a barrister at the age of 26, practicing in London. He soon turned his attention to Irish politics and wrote an essay attacking the ruling administration which became popular among the liberal 'Whigs' of the time. At the time the French Revolution had had a profound effect on not just French but on world politics. Ireland was no exception with the ideals of that revolution fuelling a desire for separation from English rule.
Whig stalwarts such as Henry Grattan however, wanted Catholic emancipation without breaking the tie to England. Tone was adamant that the Irish people should be governed by an Irish parliament and, although he was an Anglican he proposed co-operation among the various religions as a means to make progress on the issue of separation from England. In 1791 Wolfe Tone founded the Society of the United Irishmen, together with Napper Tandy and Thomas Russell. The moderate aims of this society (parliamentary reform) soon became overtaken with the desire for full independence from England and especially once Tones view of the necessity for armed insurrection took prominence. It was at this point that the difference between Henry Grattan and his pursuit of parliamentary reform without democratic consequence and Wolfe Tone's view of revolutionary democracy came into stark relief.
The English authorities were quick to realise the threat and sought to promote religious intolerance and sectarianism, thus dividing the Catholics and Presbyterians who otherwise were of the same Irish stock. The newly formed Orange Order was also a useful tool used by the English in stoking religious discord. By 1794 and after much political manoeuvring it became clear to Wolfe Tone that no political party would fully get behind their movement and they began to lobby for French military support in the form of an invasion.
Communications between the United Irishmen and the French were betrayed when the go-between, an English clergyman named William Jackson, was arrested and charged with treason. Given that England and France had been a war since 1793 any collaboration between the United Irishmen and the French would certainly have greatly alarmed the parliament in London. The organisation was effectively broken up by the English with several of the leaders fleeing the country. Wolfe Tone was able to use his connections to negotiate passage from the country and he duly emigrated to America, arriving in May, 1795. He had first stopped in Belfast however, and made what became known as the 'Cavehill compact' with Russell and McCracken, swearing:
'Never to desist in our efforts until we subvert the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence'.
He lived in Pennsylvania until 1796 but disliked the new American revolution, declaring that the birth class system of England had been replaced by one decided by wealth in the US. He travelled to Paris with Tandy to try to persuade the French to invade Ireland. He provided the necessary intelligence to the French who were impressed with his proposal. The result was an armada led by Louis Lazare Hoche consisting of 43 vessels under sail and 14,000 men. Much to Tone's disgust the French could not land off Bantry Bay due to severe weather and eventually returned to France. A further attempt at invasion by a Dutch expedition in 1797 also fell foul of the weather with Tone returning to Paris only to find that his greatest French ally, Hoche, had died of consumption.
Records of the time showed that membership of the United Irishmen numbered 280,000 volunteers, or about 5% of the entire population. Had the French force under Hoche been able to land at Bantry, and been joined by a popular native uprising, then the country would surely have been liberated from English rule.
By the winter of 1797/98, with hopes of a renewed French attempt fading, the United Irishmen were forced to adopt a go-it-alone military strategy focused on Dublin. Their organisation was strengthened in and around the capital and it also expanded in south Leinster. The planned insurrection was to have been a three-phased affair: the seizure of strategic positions within Dublin city co-ordinated with the establishment of a crescent of positions outside in north County Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. The engagement of government forces in the counties beyond was designed to prevent reinforcement.
Disaster struck on 12th March 1798 with the arrest of most of the Leinster leadership. Further arrests on the very eve of the rising in May effectively decapitated the movement. The seizure of Dublin from within was aborted as the rebels waited for orders that never came.
United Irishmen positions outside the city succumbed one by one with only Wexford showing any success. A fortnight later (7-9 June), despite the mauling at the hands of Lake's forces the year before, the United Irishmen of Antrim and Down managed to rise up but they too were quickly defeated.
The Wexford insurgents met with a string of early successes but were ultimately prevented from spreading the insurrection beyond their own county by defeats at New Ross (5 June) and Arklow (9 June). Massive government forces began to move in for the decisive military showdown at Vinegar Hill, outside Enniscorthy (21 June). Although the insurgents suffered defeat, the bulk of their forces escaped encirclement and carried on the struggle for another month, one group in the Wicklow mountains and the other in a 'long march' into the midlands before being worn down and forced to surrender.
A month later (22 August) over a thousand French troops under General Humbert landed at Killala, County Mayo, but it was too little too late. Despite some initial successes, including a spectacular victory at Castlebar, Humbert and the United Irishmen who flocked to his standard were defeated at Ballinamuck, County Longford on 8th October.
The 1798 Uprising was a military catastrophe. The French and Irish forces were severely out-gunned in the field and in one battle 2,000 revolutionaries faced 30,000 English regulars. The captured French were shipped home, but the Irish were all executed after their surrender. It is estimated that 30,000 Irishmen were killed in fighting that terrible summer, many of the victims were peasants who faced cannon with pitchforks, and a great number of these were women.
Tone himself had sailed in a French raid at Donegal in October 1798 but here too his hopes were dashed. He was captured and taken to Dublin and court-marshalled. He requested that he be afforded the death of a soldier, to be shot, rather than hanged. His request denied he died in Provost's Prison in Dublin of a neck wound in November 1798 at the age of 35 years. History records his death as being a suicide but there remains some doubt.
The defeat of the United Irishmen signalled the end of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland as the Act of Union of 1800 abolished the powerless parliament in College Green and moved all authority back to the parliament in London.
Some United Irishmen welcomed this development as the first step on the road to parliamentary reform as did many of the Catholic peasantry who envisaged their election in the English parliament. Daniel O'Connell secured Catholic Emancipation in 1829 by which time the context of separation from England had changed from being a wholly national issue to being a Catholic issue. The great famine of 1845 to 1849 destroyed the countryside and for those who survived and did not emigrate left a lasting legacy of hatred of English rule.
Wolfe Tone is remembered by republican groups as the father of their cause. When examining the timeline to Irish freedom it is certainly easy to view him as the political ancestor of O'Connell, the Young Irelanders, Parnell and Davitt, Pearse and Connolly, Collins and DeValera, on the ultimate path to independence.
He is commemorated annually at his graveside at Bodenstown, County Kildare.
'To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all 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 all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter - these were my means.'
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