Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone
Born 20 June 1763
Dublin, Ireland
Died 19 November 1798(1798-11-19) (aged 35)
Provost's Prison, Dublin, Ireland
Allegiance Society of United Irishmen (Co-founder)
Years of service 1791–1798
Rank Adjutant General
Spouse(s) Matilda Witherington

Theobald Wolfe Tone, posthumously known as Wolfe Tone (20 June 1763 – 19 November 1798), was a leading Irish revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the United Irishmen, and is regarded as the father of Irish republicanism and leader of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

Early life

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born on 20 June 1763. The Tones were descended from a French Protestant family who fled to England from Gascony in the 16th century to escape religious persecution. A branch of the family settled in Dublin in the 17th century. Theobald's father Peter Tone was a Church of Ireland coach-maker who had a farm near Sallins, County Kildare. His mother came from a Catholic merchant family who converted to Protestantism after Theobald was born.[1] His maternal grandfather was captain of a vessel in the West India trade.[2]

He was baptised as Theobald Wolfe Tone in honour of his godfather, Theobald Wolfe of Blackhall, County Kildare, a first cousin of Arthur Wolfe, 1st Viscount Kilwarden. However, it was widely believed that Tone was the son of Theobald Wolfe, which if true made him a half-brother of the poet Charles Wolfe.

In 1783, Tone found work as a tutor to Anthony and Robert, younger half-brothers of Richard Martin MP of Galway, a prominent supporter of Catholic Emancipation. Tone fell in love with Martin's wife, but later wrote that it came to nothing.[2] During this period he briefly considered a career in the theatre as an actor.[3]

He studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, where he became active in the College Historical Society debating club, and was elected its auditor in 1785. He graduated BA in February 1786.[4] He qualified as a barrister in King's Inns at the age of 26 and attended the Inns of Court in London. As a student, he eloped with Martha Witherington, daughter of William and Catherine Witherington (née Fanning) of Dublin.[5] She would go on to change her name to Matilda, on Wolfe Tone's request.

Disappointed at finding no support for a plan that he had submitted to William Pitt the Younger, to found a military colony in Hawaii, Tone initially planned to enlist as a soldier in the East India Company, but applied too late in the year, when no more ships would be sent out until the following spring.[2]


In September 1791 Tone published An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland,[5] signed "A Northern Whig".[6] "A Northern Whig" emphasised the growing breach between Whig patriots like Henry Flood and Henry Grattan, who sought Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform without severing the tie to England, and those who desired an independent Irish Republic. Tone expressed contempt for the constitution Grattan so triumphantly extorted from the British government in 1782; himself an Anglican, Tone urged co-operation between the religions in Ireland as the only means of obtaining redress of Irish grievances.

One of the inscribed flagstones on the steps leading to the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone

In October 1791 Tone converted these ideas into practical policy by founding, in conjunction with Thomas Russell (1767–1803), Napper Tandy and others, the Society of the United Irishmen.[6] Until 1794, this society aimed at no more than the formation of a political union between Catholics and Protestants, with a view to obtaining a liberal measure of parliamentary reform.[7] In 1792 he was appointed assistant secretary of the Catholic Committee.[6]

The Catholics involved were not united regarding the steps they were taking, and in December 1791, sixty-eight members withdrew, led by Lord Kenmare, with the support of the higher clergy. When the British government questioned the legality of the Catholic Convention called in December 1792, Tone drew up for the committee a statement of the case on which a favourable opinion of counsel was obtained. A petition was made to King George III early in 1793, and that year the re-enfranchisement of Catholics was enacted – if they owned property as "forty shilling freeholders". They could not, however, enter parliament or be made state officials above grand jurors. The Convention voted to Tone a sum of £1,500 with a gold medal and voted to dissolve.[4]

Sectarian animosity threatened to undermine the United Irishmen movement: two secret societies in Ulster fought against each other, the agrarian Protestant Peep o' Day Boys and their Catholic opponents the Defenders.

Revolutionary in exile

Statue of Wolfe Tone, Bantry, County Cork

In 1794 the Society of United Irishmen became a sworn association, using oaths that clearly aimed at the overthrow of the state. Given that France and Britain had been at war since the French Revolutionary Wars of early 1793, administering or making such oaths turned the society into something more than a liberal pressure-group.

Also in 1794, the United Irishmen, persuaded that no party in the Dublin parliament (in which representation was limited to Protestants) seemed likely to accept their scheme of universal suffrage and equal electoral districts, began to found their hopes on a French invasion. An Irish clergyman, the Reverend William Jackson, who had taken in revolutionary opinions during his long stay in France, came to Ireland to ascertain to what extent the Irish people were ready to support a French invasion.[5] Tone drew up a memorandum for Jackson on the state of Ireland, which he described as ripe for revolution. An attorney named Cockayne, to whom Jackson had imprudently disclosed his mission, betrayed the memorandum to the government; and in April 1794 Jackson was arrested on a charge of treason.[7]

Several of the leading United Irishmen, including Archibald Hamilton Rowan, fled the country; the papers of the United Irishmen were seized, and for a time the organisation was broken up. Tone, who had not attended meetings of the society since May 1793, remained in Ireland until after the trial of Jackson and his suicide in April 1795. Having friends among the government party, including members of the Beresford family, he succeeded in making terms with the government, and emigrated to the United States, where he arrived in May 1795. Before leaving, he and his family travelled to Belfast, and it was at the summit of Cavehill that Tone made the Cavehill Compact with fellow United Irishmen Russel and Henry Joy McCracken, promising "never to desist in our efforts until we subvert the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence".

The United Irishmen reformed in 1796. The Society began seriously to look to France to support a rising with troops.[7]

Living in Philadelphia, Tone wrote a few months later to Thomas Russell expressing unqualified dislike of the American people, whom he imagined to be no more truly democratic in sentiment and no less attached to authority than the British; he described Patriot hero George Washington as a "high-flying aristocrat", and he found the aristocracy of money and achievement in America still less to his liking than the European aristocracy of birth. Tone also lived briefly in West Chester and in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Finding himself at Philadelphia in the company of Reynolds, Rowan, and Tandy, Tone went to Paris to persuade the French government to send an expedition to invade Ireland. In February 1796 he arrived in Paris and had interviews with De La Croix and Carnot, who were impressed by his energy, sincerity, and ability. A commission was given him as adjutant-general in the French army, which he hoped might protect him from the penalty of treason in the event of capture by the British; though he himself claimed the authorship of a proclamation said to have been issued by the United Irishmen, enjoining that all Irishmen taken with arms in their hands in the British service should be instantly shot; and he supported a project for landing La Legion Noire in England, who were to burn Bristol, England and commit other atrocities.[8] He drew up two memorials representing that the landing of a considerable French force in Ireland would be followed by a general rising of the people, and giving a detailed account of the condition of the country.

"Wolf Tone was sent to France to claim the support of the Directory, under the express condition that the French should come to Ireland as allies, and should act under direction of the new government, as Rochambeau had done in America. With this view, Tone had frequently conferences at Paris with Hoche; and the Directory finally determined to send from Brest a fleet of forty-five sail, with an army of fifteen thousand men, under the charge of this able general, December 15, 1796. England was saved by a violent tempest."[9]

Hoche's expedition and the 1798 rebellion

In End of the Irish Invasion ; — or – the Destruction of the French Armada (1797), James Gillray caricatured the failure of Hoche's expedition.

See also Irish Rebellion of 1798

The French Directory planned a military landing in Ireland in support of the coming revolution foretold by Tone.[10] The Directory possessed information from Lord Edward FitzGerald and Arthur O'Connor confirming Tone, and prepared to despatch an expedition under Louis Lazare Hoche. On 15 December 1796, the expedition, consisting of forty-three sail and carrying about 14,450 men with a large supply of war material for distribution in Ireland, sailed from Brest.[11] Tone accompanied it as "Adjutant-general Smith" and had the greatest contempt for the seamanship of the French sailors, who were unable to land due to severe gales. They waited for days off Bantry Bay, waiting for the winds to ease, but eventually returned to France. Tone served for some months in the French army under Hoche, who had become the French Republic's minister of war after his victory against the Austrians at the Battle of Neuwied on the Rhine in April 1797. In June 1797 Tone took part in preparations for a military expedition to Ireland from the Batavian Republic, a puppet-state created during the Batavian Revolution in the Lowlands. However, the Batavian fleet under Dutch Vice-Admiral Jan de Winter was delayed in the harbour of Texel island that summer by unfavourable easterly winds and from mid-August by a British North-Sea fleet blockade. It eventually put to sea in the first week of October only to be immediately crushed by Admiral Adam Duncan in the Battle of Camperdown. Tone then returned to Paris. General Hoche, once tasked with an Irish expeditionary force, died of tuberculosis on 19 September 1797 at Wetzlar after returning to his command on France's Rhine frontier.

In Ireland the membership of the United Irish had reached 300,000, but a vicious counter-insurgency campaign in 1797 weakened the organisation and forced the leadership to launch a rising without French aid. Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom Tone had several interviews at this time, was less disposed than Hoche had been to undertake in earnest an Irish expedition; and when the Rising broke out in Ireland in 1798 he had started for Egypt. When Tone urged the Directory to send effective assistance to the Irish rebels, all that could be promised was a number of raids to descend simultaneously around the Irish coast. One of these under General Humbert succeeded in landing a force near Killala, County Mayo, and gained some success in Connacht (particularly at Castlebar) before it was subdued by Lake and Charles Cornwallis. Wolfe Tone's brother Matthew was captured, tried by court-martial, and hanged; a second raid, accompanied by Napper Tandy, came to disaster on the coast of Donegal; while Wolfe Tone took part in a third, under Admiral Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart, with General Jean Hardy in command of a force of about 3,000 men. This encountered an English squadron at Buncrana on Lough Swilly on 12 October 1798. Tone, on board the ship Hoche, refused Bompart's offer of escape in a frigate before the battle of Tory Island, and was taken prisoner when the Hoche surrendered.


Grave of Wolfe Tone, Bodenstown (coordinates 53°15'45.3"N 6°39'57.3"W)

When the prisoners were landed a fortnight later, Sir George Hill recognised Tone in the French adjutant-general's uniform. At his trial by court-martial in Dublin on 8 November 1798 Tone made a speech avowing his determined hostility to England and his intention "by frank and open war to procure the separation of the countries".[12] Recognising that the court was certain to convict him, he asked that "the court should adjudge me to die the death of a soldier, and that I may be shot". Reading from a prepared speech, he defended his view of a military separation from Britain (as had occurred in the fledgling United States), he explained his motives:

I entered into the service of the French republic with the sole view of being useful to my country. To contend against British Tyranny, I have braved the fatigues and terrors of the field of battle; I have sacrificed my comfort, have courted poverty, have left my wife unprotected, and my children without a father. After all I have done for a sacred cause, death is no sacrifice. In such enterprises, everything depends on success: Washington succeeded – Kosciusko failed. I know my fate, but I neither ask for pardon nor do I complain. I admit openly all I have said, written, and done, and am prepared to meet the consequences. As, however, I occupy a high grade in the French army, I would request that the court, if they can, grant me the favor that I may die the death of a soldier.

A commentary on the trial continues: "After a long silence, interrupted by some expressions of admiration, he was told that his request should be submitted to the lord-lieutenant. Thinking, however, that there was but little prospect, he committed suicide in prison. With Wolfe Tone, terminated the insurrection of 1798. He was the prime mover of it, and was its last victim…"[13]

He also lamented the outbreak of mass violence, saying: "Such are my principles such has been my conduct; if in consequence of the measures in which I have been engaged misfortunes have been brought upon this country, I heartily lament it, but let it be remembered that it is now nearly four years since I have quit Ireland and consequently I have been personally concerned in none of them; if I am rightly informed very great atrocities have been committed on both sides, but that does not at all diminish my regret; for a fair and open war I was prepared; if that has degenerated into a system of assassination, massacre, and plunder I do again most sincerely lament it, and those few who know me personally will give me I am sure credit for the assertion."[14]

To the people, he had the following to say from the dock:

I have laboured to abolish the infernal spirit of religious persecution, by uniting the Catholics and Dissenters. To the former I owe more than ever can be repaid. The service I was so fortunate as to render them they rewarded munificently; but they did more: when the public cry was raised against me—when the friends of my youth swarmed off and left me alone—the Catholics did not desert me; they had the virtue even to sacrifice their own interests to a rigid principle of honour; they refused, though strongly urged, to disgrace a man who, whatever his conduct towards the Government might have been, had faithfully and conscientiously discharged his duty towards them; and in so doing, though it was in my own case, I will say they showed an instance of public virtue of which I know not whether there exists another example
Earlier version of Tone's headstone, from 1945

His eloquence was in vain, and his request to be shot was denied. On 10 November 1798, he was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged on 12 November. Before this sentence was carried out, either he attempted suicide by slitting his throat or British soldiers tortured and mortally wounded Tone. The story goes that he was initially saved when the wound was sealed with a bandage, and he was told if he tried to talk the wound would open and he would bleed to death. He responded by saying "I can yet find words to thank you sir; it is the most welcome news you could give me. What should I wish to live for?".[15]

Theobald Wolfe Tone died on 19 November 1798 at the age of 35 in Provost's Prison, Dublin, not far from where he was born. He is buried in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, near his birthplace at Sallins, and his grave is in the care of the National Graves Association.

Support from Lord Kilwarden

Wolfe Tone (1967) statue on St. Stephen's Green, Dublin by Edward Delaney

His godfather, a cousin of Arthur Wolfe, Lord Kilwarden, who according to local gossip was Tone's father, warned Tone to leave Ireland in 1795. Then when Tone was arrested and brought to Dublin in 1798, and facing certain execution, it was Kilwarden (a senior judge) who granted two orders for Habeas Corpus for his release. This was a remarkable act, given that the rebellion had just occurred with great loss of life, and one that could never be enlarged upon as Kilwarden was killed at the beginning of Emmet's revolt in 1803. The suggestion is that the Wolfes knew that Tone was a cousin. As a pillar of the Protestant Ascendancy and notorious at the time for his prosecution of United Irishman William Orr, Kilwarden had no apparent motive for trying to assist Tone in 1795 and 1798. Portraits of Wolfe around 1800 arguably show a resemblance to Wolfe Tone.[16]

Emily Wolfe (1892–1980), the last of the Wolfes to live in Kildare, continued her family tradition of annually laying flowers at Tone's grave until her death.[17]


"[Tone] rises", says William Lecky the 19th-century historian, "far above the dreary level of commonplace which Irish conspiracy in general presents… His judgement of men and things was keen, lucid and masculine, and he was alike prompt in decision and brave in action."[18]

His journals, which were written for his family and intimate friends were published after his death by his son, William Theobald Wolfe Tone.

Tone was adopted by the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s as an iconic figure, father of Irish republicanism. Modern republicans quote his ideals:

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.

To unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irishmen in order to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, that was my aim'.

If the men of property will not support us, they must fall. Our strength shall come from that great and respectable class, the men of no property.

Every summer, Irish Republicans hold commemorations at Tone's grave in Bodenstown.

An attempt on 17 June 1934 by Protestant Republican Congress members from Belfast to join in the commemoration march was prevented by IRA stewards. The marchers were stoned and "scuffles broke out".[19] This was portrayed by some commentators as sectarianism, that republicans had abandoned Tone's aim to unite Irishmen by ignoring their religious differences, paying tribute only to his anti-British republicanism.[20] However, Brian Hanley's history of the IRA from 1926 to 1936 concludes that the trouble arose because they were seen as "communist", and not for sectarian reasons.[21]


Of Tone's four children, three died prematurely. His eldest child, Maria Tone (born 1786 in Dublin, died 1803 in Paris) and his youngest child, Francis Rawdon Tone (1793-1806) both died of tuberculosis. Another son, Richard Tone (born 1787/89) died in infancy.

Only his son William Theobald Wolfe Tone survived to adulthood. Raised in France by his mother after Tone's death, William was appointed a cadet in the Imperial School of Cavalry in 1810 on Napoleon's orders. He was naturalised a French citizen on 4 May 1812. In January 1813 he was made sub-lieutenant in the 8th Regiment of Chasseurs and joined the Grand Army in Germany (his nom de guerre was the punning le petit loup – the little wolf. He was at the battles of Löwenberg, Goldberg, Dresden, Bauthen, Mühlberg, Aachen, and Leipzig. He received six lance wounds at the Battle of Leipzig, was promoted to lieutenant and aide-de-camp of General Bagneres and was decorated with the Legion of Honour.

After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, he emigrated to the United States, where he was commissioned a Captain in the United States Army and died there on 11 October 1828 at the age of 37. Matilda Tone also emigrated to the United States, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

William Tone was survived by his only child, his daughter Grace Georgina. Her descendants live in the United States and in Britain, and recently made contact and are piecing together his legacy.

Several Gaelic Athletic Association clubs in Ireland are named in honour of Wolfe Tone. These include, in Armagh, Wolfe Tone GAC, Derrymacash; in Clare, Wolfe Tones Na Sionna; in Derry, Bellaghy Wolfe Tones GAC; in Meath, Wolfe Tones GAA, and in Tyrone, Drumquin Wolfe Tones GAC and Kildress Wolfe Tones GAC. In Britain, Lancashire has a Wolfe Tones CLG in Liverpool. In Australia, there is a Wolfe Tones GAC in Victoria. In the United States, there is the Chicago Wolfe Tones GFC in Illinois, and other Wolfe Tones clubs in Boston and Detroit, while Edmonton, Canada, is home to the Edmonton Wolfe Tones.

In 1963 Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle, Tommy Byrne, and Derek Warfield formed The Wolfe Tones, an Irish rebel music band.

A minor character named Wolfe Tone O'Rooney appears in Thomas Pynchon's 2006 novel Against the Day.

A cast of Tone's death mask is open to public viewing in the vaults of St. Michan's Church in Dublin.

Several streets, plazas and a bridge have been named in honour of Tone, including Wolfe Tone Square in Dublin, Wolfe Tone Street in Limerick, Wolfe Tone Bridge in Galway, Wolfe Tone Square in Bray and Tone Drive adjacent Wolfe street in Ipswich Queensland.


  1. McGarry,S.,Irish Brigades Abroad (Dublin 2013) p.175
  2. 1 2 3 Tone, Theobald Wolfe. The Autobiography of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Sean O'Faolain ed., Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., London, 1937
  3. Herr p.26
  4. 1 2  Lee, Sidney, ed. (1899). "Tone, Theobald Wolfe". Dictionary of National Biography. 57. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 23.
  5. 1 2 3 Webb, Alfred. "Tone, Theobald Wolfe", A Compendium of Irish Biography, MH Gill & Sons, Dublin, 1878
  6. 1 2 3 Milligan, Alice L, Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, JW Boyd, Belfast, 1898
  7. 1 2 3 Hull, Eleanor. A History of Ireland and Her People, Vol.2, 1931
  8. Tone, Theobald Wolfe; William Theobald Wolfe Tone (1831). The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone. London: Whittaker, Treacher and Arnot. pp. 213–214. Retrieved 30 July 2008.
  9. Regnault, Eugene (1843). The Criminal History of the English Government from the First Massacure of the Irish, to the Poisoning of the Chinese, Translated from the French, with Notes by an American. New York: JS Redfield, Clinton Hall. p. 37.
  10. Lefebvre, Georges (1967). The Directory. New York: Vintage. p. 77. OCLC 1015771.
  11. Ian McBride, Eighteenth century Ireland, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2009) p.367
  12. "Speech of Theobold Wolf Tone, To the Court-Martial, assembled to pass sentence on his life in Memoirs of William Sampson" (2nd ed.). 1817. Retrieved 8 April 2007.
  13. The Criminal History of the English Government from the First Massacre of the Irish, to the Poisoning of the Chinese, Translated from the French, with Notes by an American
  14. cited by Marianne Eliot, p. 393
  15. Tone, Theobald Wolfe; William Theobald Wolfe Tone (1831). The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone. London: Whittaker, Treacher and Arnot. pp. 314–316.
  16. C Costello, A Class Apart The Gentry Families of County Kildare (Nonesuch, Dublin 2005) p98.
  17. W. Nolan (ed), Kildare History and Society (Geography, Dublin 2006) p395. ISBN 978-0-906602-57-7.
  18. History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Centuryvol 5, by WEH Lecky, Longmans, Greens and Co (London), P79 (cabinet ed, 5 vols, London, 1892)
  19. Durney, J (2001) On the one road, Naas, p. 176.
  20. Irish Times 28 February 2006, p16. IrishTimes.com
  21. FourCourtsPress.ie


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