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18 June 2009 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Theobald Wolfe Tone


THEOBALD Wolfe Tone was born at 44 Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street), Dublin, in 1763. His father was a coachmaker and the family was relatively prosperous. Tone studied law at Trinity College Dublin and in London but never practised. His adventurous character drew him to military affairs and to politics.
Observing Irish politics, reading Irish history and hearing news of the revolution in France in 1789, Tone quickly made what he called “a great discovery”. He concluded that “the influence of England was the radical vice of our Government, and consequently that Ireland would never be either free, prosperous or happy until she was independent”. His first pamphlet (The Spanish War) was published in 1790 and argued for Irish neutrality and non-involvement in Britain’s wars.
In 1791, Tone addressed a pamphlet to the Dissenters, the Irish Presbyterians, whom he described as “patriotic and enlightened” but still subject to prejudices. An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland urged their support for full civil rights for the majority of their fellow Irish people. In his autobiography, Tone described his purpose:
“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 – there were my objects.
“To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means.”

That same year, Tone was one of the founders of the Society of United Irishmen.
Beginning in Dublin and Belfast, the society quickly spread across the country. The society asserted that “in the present great era of reform... all government is acknowledged to originate from the people, and to be so far only obligatory as it protects their rights and promotes their welfare”.
The society called for the “radical reform of the representation of the people in parliament” and unity of the people to counteract the influence of England. This first declaration fell short of calling for separation from England but Tone wrote to his friend, Thomas Russell, saying that the need for Irish independence was “my most decided opinion”.
The British Government saw the danger to its regime from the United Irishmen and it attempted to sew divisions among the Irish people and to suppress the Society. The wealthy Catholics and their hierarchy were mollified with the establishment of Maynooth College in 1795, sustained by English grants in return for pledges of loyalty to the English connection. At the same time, the Orange Order was established to stir up sectarian hatred, especially in Ulster.
Tone was forced into exile in America 1795. Before his departure he met with Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken and others on Cave Hill in Belfast and they pledged “never to desist until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence”.
From America, Tone went to France, where he persuaded the revolutionary government to aid the Irish struggle for freedom. In 1796, he sailed for Ireland with a French fleet, reaching as far as Bantry Bay before being forced by storms to return to France.
Undaunted, Tone continued to lobby for French forces and, on 16 September 1798, he sailed with a small fleet to Lough Swilly. He was captured and taken prisoner to Dublin where he died in British custody on 19 November 1798.
Wolfe Tone is still regarded as the founding figure of Irish republicanism because of his pioneering commitment to a democratic, non-sectarian Ireland and his ceaseless effort and ultimate sacrifice for Irish freedom.
Theobald Wolfe Tone was born on 20 June 1763, 246 years ago this week.

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