Theobald Wolfe Tone

by Jim Kelly

He was the son of a coach maker who inherited property in Bordenstown, County Kildare. He was a Protestant, college educated, studied law and born into the aristocrat community of mid 18th century Dublin in 1763. He completed his legal studies in 1789. He hoped for a political career and began writing pamphlets, including An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, in 1791. His name was, Theobald Wolfe Tone.

In 1789 when he completed his legal studies, Wolfe Tone was to experience an historical event which took place in Europe, and which was to sharpen the Irish political way of thinking: the French Revolution. Such news had a particularly strong emotional and intellectual impact on Ireland. An open radical organization was formed, mainly by Presbyterians from Belfast, to promote the twin objects of parliamentary reform and the unification of the Catholic and Protestant nations into one. It named itself, The Society of United Irishmen. Wolfe Tone was invited to Belfast and a meeting convened a top of Cave Hill overlooking Belfast, in MacArts Fort. Wolfe Tone, although a Protestant, was appointed assistant secretary of the Central Catholic Committee.

The United Irishmen had very little success in furthering their aim with many Protestants. By 1796 they had converted themselves into a secret society with more radical aims to be implemented ultimately by forceful means. Tone, like many other United Irishmen was arrested, however he avoided the more serious charge of treason, punishable by death, and was forced to exile himself to America. However, he made a major deviation from his original plane and sailed for France instead. His goal was to persuade the revolutionary leaders of France to invade Ireland.

The year 1796 was to produce one of the most dramatic events in all Irish history and one of the most dangerous moments England ever experienced. On December 12, 1796, a great French invasion fleet of thirty-five ships anchored in Bantry Bay, Co. Cork with thousands of French soldiers cramming their decks, waiting to assist Ireland, as Tone himself stated to, “break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils and to assert the independence of my country.”
Irish independence was not to be in 1796. The first stumbling block the expedition encountered was Mother Nature herself. On the voyage from France, the fleet was subject to a great storm, losing its flagship, which carried the brilliant commander of the expedition, General Hoche. The second-in-command decided to go ahead, but he was prevented from landing by a strong head wind, which was blowing harder by the hour. Ironically there was no British government troops anywhere near the area and the way to Cork lay open to the French. However, all depended on the wind subsiding. This was not to be. The ships had been in the bay for almost a week and in the interim the wind had become a gale force. One by one the great ships realized they could hold no longer and, cutting their cables, ran back down the bay to the open sea and France again.

Militarily, the island had been there for the taking. The most dangerous threat to 600 hundred years of British rule in Ireland had sailed into the running sea with the departing French. Defeated by the wind. The Protestant Wind.
Two years would pass before a second French expedition would sail into Irish history. However, the “Protestant Wind” would not be responsible for their defeat this time, and, by the time they arrived, the “98 Rebellion” in Ireland was almost over. The new expeditionary force landed at Killala Bay, County Mayo, in August and at Lough Swilly, County Donegal in September. While their initial sortie particularly at Castlebar, County Mayo met with some success, they were eventual defeated. There was no vestige of countrywide conspiracy left for them to co-operate with, and they soon afterwards surrendered.

In the mean time, Wolfe Tone had joined the French fleet and after a sea battle in which the French were defeated, he was captured. Tone was captured at Laird’s Hotel in Letterkenny, County Donegal. The site today is known as Letterkenny’s Center Spot restaurant. A former fellow student recognized Wolfe Tone, dressed in a French uniform and having breakfast at Lairds. He was arrested, clamped in irons and removed to Dublin and charged with high treason. He was found guilty and condemned to die. Theobald Wolfe Tone was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, and when his request to be shot like a soldier, was refused, he committed suicide.
His death is commemorated each year at Boardenstown, County Kildare, where he is buried. He is remembers as the first true republican, a man who sought “to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.”

It was early, early in the spring

The birds did whistle and sweetly sing
Changing their notes from tree to tree
And the song they sang was old Ireland free