The father of Irish democracy
The father of Irish democracy

Wolfe Tone died on November 19, 1798 -- 310 years ago this week -- from a stab wound to his neck which he inflicted upon himself.

His attempted suicide was the result of being refused a soldier’s execution by firing squad.

Theobald Wolfe Tone, the principal political and theoretical leader of the United Irishmen and of the 1798 Rising, was born in Dublin into a middle-class Protestant family. His father was a successful coach-builder and small property-owner, and young Theo grew up in very comfortable circumstances. Later, Tone’s father apparently neglected his business, and the family fell on harder times.

Tone had a happy childhood among his many brothers and sisters. He was exceptionally intelligent as a child, with a highly developed sense of humour. He was educated first at home, then at a liberal private school. As a schoolboy he already had a passion for politics and for debates; but his main childhood ambition was to be a soldier (like his younger brother). After an angry dispute with his father, however, he was enrolled in Trinity College, at the age of eighteen.

All his life (as he admits in his diaries) Tone suffered from a certain levity and lack of application, but he compensated for this tendency through pride and a determination not to fail, and he was a good student. While at Trinity he developed his radical thinking through reading and through debates in the college societies. But his increasingly radical opinions were not a pose: they were the result of a profoundly democratic personality, which matured as the young Tone did.

After graduating from Trinity, Tone spent two years in London studying law. He practised as a barrister in Dublin from 1789 (the year of the French Revolution) to 1795 (the first year of his exile). He read widely, about the French Revolution and contemporary politics, wrote articles for the reviews, and began to write pamphlets on political questions.

Tone’s first political demand--one that he shared with many others, in Trinity and outside--was for the reform of the Irish Parliament, a body both unrepresentative and corrupt. The blind spot in the thinking of those who had previously campaigned for reform was the Catholic question. The great majority of the people of Ireland were barred from electing or being elected to the Parliament, because of their religion; they were also barred from most professions. Though they were compelled by law to pay tithes (a tax of 10 per cent on any profit from land, livestock, or personal industry) to the Church of Ireland--a church to which they did not belong--they were nevertheless politically invisible: indeed, members of the Anglo-Irish “Ascendancy” were known to use the term “the Irish nation” to refer to themselves, the exclusively Protestant fraction of the population.

It is easily forgotten that the restrictions on the civil liberties of Catholics also extended to “Dissenters” or Presbyterians and to other Protestants not members of the Church of Ireland, to Quakers, and other religious minorities. But there was a very significant class division between these groups: the Catholics were overwhelmingly poor peasants or landless labourers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Deprived of the right to engage in political activity, many of the poorer Catholics formed themselves into secret agrarian societies, most notably the Defenders, who attacked landlords and their estates and whose actions were not without an element of sectarianism.

In 1789 the French Revolution, fought under the slogan “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” had captured the imagination of the world--much as the Russian Revolution was to do 128 years later. The king was beheaded, revolutionary tribunals replaced the parliament and courts, and tyrants throughout the world quaked in their shoes. Thomas Paine’s famous Rights of Man was reissued in Dublin in 1791; edition after edition sold out, and it was serialised in a number of newspapers. Paine passionately denounced aristocracy and religious discrimination while praising the French Revolution.

Tone had already come to realise that the demand for parliamentary reform without the granting of civil liberties to Catholics was meaningless, and he was disgusted by the failure of the Volunteers to take up the cause of Catholic emancipation. His pamphlet Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, published in 1791, was a huge success and was read avidly by Catholics and Protestants alike.

In 1790 Tone had met Thomas Russell, and they became close friends. Already a convinced radical, Russell had a great influence on Tone, and vice versa. In October 1791 Tone and Russell travelled to Belfast, where they were present at the founding meeting of the Society of United Irishmen of Belfast. The idea for the new organisation was a collective one, which had been simmering for some time; its manifesto, and its name, were the work of Tone, now at the ripe old age of twenty-eight. Back in Dublin a few days later, Tone and Russell helped to establish the Society of United Irishmen of Dublin.

In 1792 it was learnt that the relaxing of the penal laws against Catholics in England was not after all to be extended to Ireland. Tone was now approached by the angry members of the Catholic Committee, which had been established in 1760 by representatives of the small Catholic middle class, whose business and political ambitions were blocked by religious discrimination. The committee invited Tone, a member of the Church of Ireland (if not a very pious one), to become its assistant secretary, in effect a full-time campaigner for the ending of the penal laws and the granting of full civil liberties to Catholics.

Over the next few years Tone’s increasing radicalism and his frustration at the intransigence of Dublin Castle led to a sharper and sharper confrontation between the Castle on the one hand and the Catholic Committee and United Irishmen on the other. Then, limited Catholic emancipation in 1793 (much of which was cancelled later) helped to create a divide between the Catholic Committee and the United Irishmen and then led to the dissolving of the Catholic Committee itself.

Under the influence of these developments, of the French Revolution, of support for the French from America, of the writings of Paine and others, and especially of the outbreak of war between France and England in 1793, the Society of United Irishmen was transformed from a reformist movement into a republican and revolutionary one.

It is interesting to note that Tone was not in sympathy with this trend at first, regarding it as provocative, and he virtually dropped out of United Irish activities in the years 1792 and 1793. Meanwhile Dublin Castle began to clamp down on the United Irishmen, with a view to ultimately suppressing the movement.

In 1794 Tone was introduced to William Jackson, an agent of the French, who first mooted the idea of French involvement. Tone was not easily convinced of the correctness of this policy, despite extracting guarantees that the French would come as liberators and not as conquerors. Jackson was betrayed and arrested; and after his trial had implicated Tone it was clear that it was no longer safe to remain in Ireland and that Tone would have to leave the country.

With his wife and children and his brother, Tone set sail in August 1795 for America, where he quickly formed a “most unqualified dislike” for the country. While there, he established contact with agents of the French government, and a year later he sailed for France.

From the beginning the French were reluctant allies, already more concerned with the building of a post-revolutionary empire than with helping aspiring republicans in other countries. Tone’s task became one of simultaneously encouraging the revolutionary movement in Ireland and restraining it until he received a promise of French help on a scale that would ensure success. Despite countless setbacks, he persisted with his typical determination and eventually succeeded in having a fleet sent to Ireland, with himself on board, which would be the signal for revolt; but violent storms prevented its landing, and the battered fleet returned to France, to Tone’s unspeakable frustration.

With no sign of help from France, with the betrayal and arrest of many of the leaders, and with daily provocations by the Militia and Yeomanry likely to lead to a spontaneous and leaderless uprising, the United Irishmen decided to act. But the initiative had been lost; there was no coherent leadership; and Orange sectarianism and military outrages were unleashed on revolutionaries and civilians alike.

The uprising in Ireland was already all but over when the French made a second attempt at a landing in Ireland. Again the weather opposed them; and this time the English were waiting. The French fleet was defeated; Tone was captured and brought to Dublin in chains, and before he could be hanged he cut his own throat.

It is not for nothing that Theobald Wolfe Tone has been called the Father of Irish Democracy. Despite the limitations of his background and upbringing, despite all his own self-criticism, Tone’s commitment to democracy was genuine and profound. At every political crisis, Tone’s instinct was for the most democratic option.

Tone and his comrades were not socialists. The ideas of socialism had not been worked out at that time, nor could they have been, as the working class (as we understand the term) had scarcely come into existence. Nor--despite the role played by a number of women in 1798--were the United Irishmen feminists. These were ideas whose time had not yet come.

The United Irishmen were democrats, and they were republicans. They were the first mass movement in Irish history whose aim was not to restore some ancient society or to invite a foreign monarch to lead the Catholic Irish against the Protestant English. Their aim was an independent and non-sectarian Irish republi -- --an aim that has not yet been achieved and one that is still in advance of much of what passes for political thinking in Ireland two hundred years later.

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