The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone

By: William T. Wolfe Tone 

Reviewed By: Martin Griffin

It is only fitting that the first in what I hope to be a series of vintage book reviews on books discussing: Irish Republicanism, Irish History or Irish letters would be initiated by the autobiography of the man justly called the Father of Irish Republicanism; Theobald Wolfe Tone.

Wolfe Tone’s autobiography is actually a heavily redacted reproduction of his personal diary. His intent was to memorialize for his wife Matilda,  family and intimate friends, the events that led to the French Republic rendering succor to the cause of Irish liberation. 

Tone writes about his college experiences as well as his pursuit of a career at the bar for which he declares himself singularly unfit. The heavy editing of the document encouraged by wife Matilda and son William, the actual wielder of the blue pencil, is an attempt to downplay the suggestion that Tone was something of a lady’s man or libertine. The version published in 1831 runs 347 pages while the entire corpus of Wolfe Tone’s papers in later editions runs 1002 pages. 

Among the other subjects highlighted in the diary are the events leading to Wolfe Tone leaving Ireland with his family barely a few steps ahead of the ire of the government which had previously assured him of his liberty after whispered suggestions and court testimony that Tone was engaged in treason, the hazards at sea where British ships were boarding all manner of other vessels looking to impress men into Crown Naval service, his narrow escape of not only that fate but identification was also discussed in some detail. 

Wolfe Tone was delegated the task of acting the part of ambassador for the United Irishmen, making new and utilizing old friends in an effort to reach France and seek the aid of the newly formed French revolutionary Republic in throwing off the increasingly intolerable yoke of British rule and oppression.  

His impression of the new American Republic occupies a number of pages and interestingly is not the usual rave review that has usually been the result where quills scratched paper. Meetings with future American President, James Madison as well as the resident French Minister in the United States are the most important of his activities before sailing for France, along with setting his family up in adequate living quarters for the duration of his absence. 

Tone chronicles his favorable reception in Paris by the revolutionary Republican Government, represented at first by member of the Directory Lazare Carnot, the result of being the agent of Irish revolutionaries as well as his being recommended by the French Minister in the US in addition to carrying a letter of introduction from the future American Minister to France James Madison.  

The French then at war with the crowned heads of Europe were more than happy to add an ally at their British enemies back door. His receiving a Commission as Chef De Brigade (Colonel), promotion to Adjutant General in the French Army under General Hoche, fulfilling a boyhood desire, is a source of great pride, happiness and desperately needed income. 

Since the autobiography is in reality a personal diary it is a series of specific, dated entries, detailing meetings, the impression of various prominent persons, i. e Napper Tandy, Napoleon, etc.; living expenses, needs, desires and fears. Tone’s intended audience being his loved ones necessarily influences the tone of the language used throughout the pages. In some sections Tone’s thoughts are upbeat and encouraged even tender and loving while in others he is clearly deeply despondent. 

Nowhere does the despondency come through clearer than when Tone discusses the delays in negotiations or decision making or in embarking on the actual mission, setting sail with the troops and ships whose destination is Ireland and battle. The failed attempts the seemingly – to him – interminable delays on decisions and preparations for further attempts, the days spent aboard ship at Bantry Bay with the gale winds preventing advancement or flight., while awaiting the disaster of discovery by the superior numbers of British Men-O-War. 

The final attempt at invasion by Tone and his French allies as well as his seemingly half-hearted (and still shrouded in controversy) attempt to disguise himself as ‘only’ a French General, who while accepting his fate wished to be accorded the respect of being shot the way a soldier should have been as was the customary practice, a dignified execution, rather than the hanging, decapitation and dismemberment that the British gleefully passed as a sentence on any of their “subjects” who had the integrity and courage to oppose their tyrannous reign. Wolfe Tone denied his captors their grisly pleasure taking his life by his own hand. 

This is a book that should be read by anyone who has a true interest in Irish Republicanism. There are another 650 plus pages that I could exhibit and comment on except that might take some of the interest from the book itself, though that is something which my meager ability is not worthy of doing. 

Tone’s story is only begun in this book. In many ways it is still being written today. New chapters are being added all the time. Robert Emmet added a chapter in 1803; the Young Irelanders added another in the late 1840s. The survivors of the Young Ireland Movement who after having their death sentences commuted eventually made it to New York City where they carried on the struggle through the remainder of the nineteenth century adding other chapters and advancing Tone’s cause. 

The martyred men of 1916 not only wrote chapters but libraries on Tone’s subject, as did the young men and women of the 1960s through the 1990s.

Bobby Sands and his Republican comrades emulated Tone and his determined sacrifice of all for the just principles he espoused. 

Ruairi O’Braidaigh, Des Dalton, and Republican Sinn Fein are writing the chapter of this the first decade of the twenty first century by espousing traditional Republican Nationalism, the Gaelic Language, Culture, and traditions just as William Rooney tried to do in the twentieth century’s opening years (1901, 1902,) leading up to the founding with Arthur Griffith of the original Sinn Fein movement in 1905, and its continuing development. The National Irish Freedom Committee is part of that all encompassing effort, to teach the Gaelic Language, Republican Basic Philosophy, as well as the historical knowledge of battles won and lost and the brave Irish People who took part in them all with one aim in mind, a United Ireland Gaelic and Free.   

While the language in Tone’s book is typical for its time it is not overly difficult as much eighteenth century writing can often be. The book is still available from booksellers, in both the 347 page and 1002 page editions. It is also available free on-line as part of the Google Books site @ 


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