The Writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1763–1798, Volume III: France, the Rhine, Lough Swilly and death of Tone, January 1797 to November 1798

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 16

The Writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1763–1798, Volume III: France, the Rhine, Lough Swilly and death of Tone, January 1797 to November 1798
T. W. Moody, R. B. McDowell and C. J. Woods (eds)
(Clarendon Press, £125)    ISBN 9780198208808The recent publication of the final volume of his Writings seems an appropriate moment to consider the reputation and current status of Theobald Wolfe Tone. William Hazlitt, son of a Tipperary father, once observed: ‘If your enemies cannot find a flaw in your reasoning, they will find it in your reputation’. Tone’s place in Irish history is a striking example of Hazlitt’s thesis. Because he has been fêted as the founding father of Irish republicanism, he has frequently been dismissed by those opposed to that project. While his Bodenstown grave attracts shoals of summer soldiers, his life and work are little known. Frequently cited, knowledge of Tone rarely extends beyond a few crisp sound bites, cut adrift from the body of his work.
Recent scholarship has restored Tone to a pivotal position in the 1790s. This assessment rests on four major achievements. The first is that his claims as founder of the United Irishmen are secure: he supplied the name, the political agenda, and the crucial link role between Dublin and Belfast. The second is his separatism. Tone welded his mainstream eighteenth-century republicanism to an espousal of separatism as the true basis for a secularised civic virtue. His third achievement was more pragmatic than glamorous—his job as agent to the Catholic Committee. Here he showed classic back-room talents as an organiser (of the Back Lane Parliament in 1792), as a spin-doctor and as a sophisticated strategist. His alleged inconsistencies are in fact proof of his consummate mastery of politics—notably that tactics are required as well as principles, and that, in Brecht’s aphorism, ‘Where there are obstacles, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line’. His fourth achievement was as United Irish diplomat in Paris. This absolute outsider, with poor French, succeeded in persuading the Directory to send a formidable invasion fleet to Ireland.
How did this young man (‘with his long aquiline nose, rather handsome and genteel-looking’) achieve so much? His modest Dublin Anglican background and personal probity ill-equipped him for a career in law (he instinctively hated the Irish bar: ‘the most scandalously corrupt and unprincipled body, politically speaking, that I ever knew’). But he was endlessly convivial and effortlessly charming. He possessed one of the rarest of social skills—that of being equally attractive to men and women. He had classic eighteenth-century lightness—a Mozartian sparkle and sprezzatura. He was a social success in dissenting Belfast (then, as now, a difficult trick for a Dubliner to pull off), in popish Dublin and in atheistic Paris. To his formidable social and political skills were added writing abilities of the first order. He commanded a plain, direct prose perfectly suited to political advocacy. The spy Leonard McNally lamented Tone’s stunning success in bringing puritan and papist together in political terms: ‘they had been brought to think alike’.
By 1798, however, Tone was becoming isolated: his information supply dried up as the United Irishmen shifted focus from a French to an indigenous strategy. In retrospect, his greatest failure was with the inscrutable Napoleon: he failed to divert his gaze from the Sphinx to Caitlín Ní hUalacháin. Devoid of substantive French backing, the Rebellion was crushed with the loss of possibly 30,000 lives (over 90 per cent on the popular side). Tragically the two principal aims of the United Irishmen—Catholic rights and parliamentary reform—were granted a generation later in 1829 and 1832. How much blood-letting could have been averted had the British and Irish states acted generously in the 1790s? Tone’s efforts in 1798 were a prelude to his Senecan suicide in Dublin—a death that rebuked the moral credentials of those who sought to judge him: let him who is without sin cast the first Tone.
His subsequent reputation rested on the two-volume Life and Writings issued in Washington in 1826, carefully edited by his son William. Tone described his diaries as ‘a faithful transcript of all that passes in my mind, of my hopes and fears, my doubts and expectations in this important business’. Their immediacy, honesty and self-mockery make Tone among the most attractive of Irish historical figures. But it is the sound-bite Tone that appears most often in judgements of him.  His historical reputation is a vivid example of Joe Lee’s aphorism that revisionism is about the tyranny of the living over the dead generations. The rise and fall of Tone’s reputation has always been a political barometer of wider attitudes to Irish republicanism. Consigned to convenient amnesia by cautious O’Connellites, he was rehabilitated by Thomas Davis, admired by the Fenians, and eventually elevated to cult status as a secular saint of modern Irish nationalism. Davis revived his reputation in the 1840s, quoting him often in The Nation, writing a short life, and erecting his first gravestone at Bodenstown. The Fenians promoted him as a separatist, refurbished the grave in 1875, adding the railings, and inaugurated the annual Bodenstown pilgrimage in 1891. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, at the zenith of the Home Rule movement, Tone was eclipsed in popularity by Henry Grattan. The proposed memorial to him in 1898 never rose further than its foundation stone. Between 1846 and 1910, only two editions of his writings appeared. Before independence, Tone was presented as an exemplary Irish Protestant nationalist, who appealed especially to those of that background—Alice Milligan, Bulmer Hobson and Roger Casement. Visiting John Quinn in New York before his departure to Germany, Casement ‘constantly referred to the Tone thing and several times he said, “I am Wolfe Tone. I am the reincarnation of Wolfe Tone”.’
In the 1930s Tone’s reputation soared again as he became a central figure in establishing a respectable republican pedigree for the new state. Brian O’Higgins founded the Wolfe Tone Annual in 1932, and the superb Irish translation of the memoirs by Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (An Seabhac) appeared in the same year. Biographies by Aodh de Blacam (1935), Denis Ireland (1936), Seán Ó Faoláin (1937) and Frank MacDermott (1939) followed, as well as the hostile treatment of him as anti-clerical by Leo McCabe (1937)—the strangest book ever written about Tone. The 1930s appropriation of Tone by the new state led to a bitter republican riposte, the Wolfe Tone Weekly (1937–9), which was eventually suppressed. Ó Faoláin, the most influential populariser of modern revisionism, presented Tone (as he had presented Hugh O’Neill and Daniel O’Connell with de Valera in mind) as a hard-headed moderniser swamped by the sentimental atavisms of Irish culture. Ó Faoláin covertly acknowledged the help of T. W. Moody, who also wrote about Tone in the 1930s.
After this flurry of sustained intellectual interest in the 1930s, Tone’s reputation receded until the 1963 bicentenary of his birth. The Wolfe Tone Society, founded in 1963, became a precursor of the civil rights movement. It also marked a turning away from treating Tone as a physical-force separatist to presenting him as an anti-sectarian social activist among ‘the men of no property’. This re-examination of Tone’s legacy was a proxy debate for the switch in the IRA in the 1960s from militarism towards Marxism. In 1966, after Nelson’s pillar was blown up, some at least thought of re-erecting it with Tone on top. In 1967 the turgid official statue (‘Tonehenge’) by Edward Delaney, erected at St Stephen’s Green, marked the congealment of the state’s version of Tone.
As the Northern troubles erupted, Tone came off his plinth again. His statue was blown up by loyalist paramilitaries on 8 February 1971. In the shadow of the Northern Troubles, Tone became a target for revisionist iconoclasm, once more dragged to the dock as a begetter of violent republicanism. By the 1980s his reputation was in the doldrums—dismissed as a colonial misfit, a frustrated flibbertigibbet, lacking personal or ideological consistency. A failed novelist, failed lawyer and failed politician, he drifted into accidental republicanism as a product of exile and personal disillusion. A mere second-hand seditionist, Tone contributed nothing original to Irish political thought.
As the floodwaters of revisionism abated in the 1990s, Tone’s reputation rose apace. That rise in his reputation can only be augmented by the completion of the third and final volume of his Writings, whose appearance should be celebrated as a milestone in scholarship. The project began in 1963—the bicentenary of Tone’s birth—under the auspices of T. W. Moody. Like the New History of Ireland, it was not a project that could be accused of being executed in haste. The first volume appeared in 1998, the second in 2001, while the third bears a 2007 imprint. Never before have the fugitive writings of Tone been gathered with such diligence, patience and comprehensiveness. These volumes are superbly edited and the footnotes are a masterpiece. Every quotation—Tone loved to quote novels, poems, plays, Shakespeare, snatches of songs—and every person mentioned is identified precisely. This achievement should be saluted, as it requires mastery over a sprawling and dense web of names, places and events spread out across two continents and many countries.
Only the editors will know how much work many of these footnotes required, but they must embody thousands upon thousands of hours of research time. The third and final volume also bears a cumulative index running to over 50 pages, which covers all three volumes: like the footnotes, this index places all other scholars of the period in the editors’ debt, as it makes Tone’s writings more accessible and easier to handle than was previously possible.
It is too soon to assess where Tone’s reputation stands now: these three volumes will have to be absorbed first, and that will take some time. Some preliminary comments may be permissible, however. It is clear that in Tone we have a marvellous commentator on Paris in the mid-1790s: French historians would do well to get to know this well-informed, astute and witty eyewitness. It is also clear that there is a consistency in Tone’s principal preoccupations throughout his life, and that that consistency is provided through his republican principles. And finally Tone emerges here as a clear-eyed observer of the worlds in which he moved, with a gift for the pithy synthesis and exposition that historians so value. These volumes, collectively running to over 1,500 pages, will have to be in any serious library of Irish Studies.

Kevin Whelan is Smurfit Director of the Keough Notre Dame Centre in Ireland.


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