Wolfe Tone and the culture of suicide in eighteenth-century Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Volume 21

Walter C. Mills, ‘The Death of Wolfe Tone’, Irish Weekly Independent, December 1897. (NLI)

Walter C. Mills, ‘The Death of Wolfe Tone’, Irish Weekly Independent, December 1897. (NLI)

It is now widely accepted that Theobald Wolfe Tone probably took his own life. Why, then, asks Georgina Laragy, was his reputation amongst his peers not damaged by the then criminal and immoral character of his death?

Theobald Wolfe Tone’s place in the pantheon of Irish republican heroes has been secure since his death in November 1798. This is unsurprising when we consider that he had been a polemicist for Catholic Emancipation, a founding member of the United Irishmen, and a French soldier who played a prominent role in an invasion of British-controlled Ireland in an effort to secure Irish independence (albeit unsuccessfully). He is viewed as one of the first martyrs of the Irish republican struggle, from whom Patrick Pearse, Terence McSwiney and Bobby Sands are directly descended.
His death, however, has been a source of some debate, revolving around the question of whether he committed suicide or was murdered. This debate will not be rehashed here, as we shall take as sufficient evidence of historical consensus Tone’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Historians by and large agree with the conclusion of the United Irishmen’s first historian, R.R. Madden, that ‘with a penknife which he is said to have secreted . . . [Tone] inflicted . . . [a] wound on his neck which caused his death on the 19th [November 1798]’.

Above: Revd William Jackson—Tone had praised his death by suicide in 1795. (NLI)

Above: Revd William Jackson—Tone had praised his death by suicide in 1795. (NLI)

Suicide criminal and immoral
At the time of his death suicide was a mortal sin, condemned by both Catholic and Protestant churches, and a crime under common law. It was punishable by burial at the crossroads with a stake through the heart, and the confiscation of one’s goods and chattels (both these punishments were overturned by legislation in 1823 and 1872 respectively). Given the legal and religious proscriptions against suicide, we must ask why Tone’s reputation amongst his peers was not damaged. His contemporaries agreed that he committed suicide, yet he was buried in consecrated ground at Bodenstown cemetery in the family plot. According to a London newspaper, the Courier, Major Sandys, who was in charge of Tone’s trial, was not ‘gratified by seeing a stake driven through the body of the deceased’. Viceroy Cornwallis agreed; he did ‘not delight in trampling on the ashes of the dead’.

Tone’s self-inflicted death was treated leniently for the time; even his enemies failed to impose the punishment permitted by law. There is a widely held belief that suicides in the past were treated harshly and without compassion, but the lenient treatment of Tone’s body contradicts this belief. In fact, the treatment of suicide in the past varied considerably. A study of the context of Tone’s death and a closer look at his writings (diaries, letters and fiction) point towards an interesting contradiction within the history of suicide in western culture: the suicidal individual has been viewed variously as both tragic victim and heroic martyr.

According to William Henry Curran, son of the United Irishmen’s radical barrister John Philpot Curran, ‘the subject of suicide was fully discussed’ by Wolfe Tone and his men aboard the Hoche on the evening before they sailed for Ireland in 1798. Despite being confident of their mission, they were ‘equally certain’ that if they were captured they would be executed. According to ‘one who was there’, Tone suggested that he never considered suicide ‘to be justifiable’.

Above: Revd William Jackson—Tone had praised his death by suicide in 1795. (NLI)

Above: Revd William Jackson—Tone had praised his death by suicide in 1795. (NLI)

Regarded Jackson’s 1795 suicide as ‘heroic’
Despite what this unnamed witness has claimed about Tone’s attitude to self-murder, Tone himself had earlier praised the death by suicide of Revd William Jackson in 1795. Jackson had come to Ireland in the previous year to determine the strength of the British garrison and whether there was any support for a French invasion. He was accompanied by John Cockayne, who, it later emerged, was a British spy. It was upon his information that Jackson was arrested, but not before he had met with Archibald Hamilton Rowan, Tone and others to discuss the state of Ireland. Cockayne tipped off the authorities and Jackson was arrested at his lodgings on Dame Street in April 1794. He was held for a year, and at his trial the following April he was found guilty of treason. Although the jury had suggested leniency, it was fully expected that Jackson would be sentenced to death. Before he travelled to the court to hear his sentence Jackson ingested a poison, which his wife had secured for him. He was seen retching violently in the coach on the way, and although he stood in the box to receive his sentence he was visibly ill. Whilst the lawyers argued, Jackson ‘expired’. He was buried in the crypt at St Michan’s Church.

It was Tone’s involvement in the meetings at Newgate between Hamilton Rowan and Jackson, and a document he wrote in which he claimed that ‘there seems little doubt but an invasion in sufficient force would be supported by the people’, that created a perilous situation for him in 1794–5. But he had cleverly ensured that Hamilton Rowan made a copy of this document in his own handwriting and destroyed the one in Tone’s hand. The case against him was weak and he escaped danger, despite refusing to turn state’s evidence. The government was happy to make a deal in order to have Tone, who was becoming a thorn in their side, out of the country. Tone sailed for America with his family in June 1795. In his autobiography he described Jackson’s death as ‘heroic’; his ‘fortitude in a voluntary death must command the respect of the most virulent persecutor’. Indeed, in 1826 Tone’s son went so far as to claim that it was Jackson’s suicide that had convinced Tone senior that Jackson was loyal to the Irish cause; ‘the prevalent opinion which he then shared, was, that Jackson was the secret emissary employed by the British government. It required the unfortunate man’s voluntary death to clear his character of such a foul imputation.’ Suicide, then, among Tone and his colleagues, exonerated Jackson of any suspicion, and to Tone at least it was heroic.

Wanted ‘the death of a soldier’
When arrested himself on a charge of treason in 1798, Tone petitioned the court to grant him ‘the death of a soldier . . . to be shot by a file of grenadiers . . . from respect to the uniform which I wear, and to the brave [French] army in which I have fought’. From the government’s perspective, however, he was not entitled to the death of a soldier, for he had enlisted in the enemy’s army. In the eyes of the court, his Irish birth and legal status as a British subject were more salient than either the uniform or supporting documents of the French government. In deciding to hang him, ‘in the most public manner, for the sake of striking an example’, the state wished to treat Tone as an ordinary criminal rather than the loyal soldier he perceived himself to be. The marquis of Buckingham, writing to Lord Grenville on 10 November, described Tone as ‘much agitated . . . I cannot help thinking that he means to destroy himself before Monday, on which day it is supposed he will be hanged’. Buckingham was correct; for Tone, suicide was his way of bearing death ‘like a man’, of recapturing his lost honour. The Morning Chronicle (17 November 1798) surmised that Tone ‘thought it better to die the old Roman way’. A ‘Roman’ death granted Tone a sort of public and martial virtue akin to the republican soldiers of ancient Rome who died by their own hand rather than suffer defeat. Since ancient times it was viewed as a heroic death.

Such honourable suicides were well known to Tone, as is evident in his diary. He quoted directly from Joseph Addison’s Cato (1713) on 18 July 1796, a play based on the story of the Roman leader who died by his own hand in 46 BC. Given that Wolfe Tone was an avid theatre-goer, it is likely that he had also attended a performance; it was regularly staged in London and Dublin throughout the eighteenth century. Theatrical scholars suggest that Addison’s Cato ‘was a watchword for the martyrdom of liberty among Americans’. Eighteenth-century republicans of America, France and Ireland drank from the same cultural and political well.

The literary and historical motifs of suicide evident in late eighteenth-century Ireland and present in Tone’s words and actions are important for what they reveal about the ambiguous nature of attitudes towards suicide in western culture. Since ancient times, right up to the present, suicide has been viewed as both heroic and tragic, often at the same time. HI

Georgina Laragy is a research fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast.

READ MORE: Eighteenth-century culture of suicide

Further reading
W.H. Curran, The life of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran (2 vols) (London, 1819).
M. Deane (ed.), Belmont Castle, or, Suffering and Sensibility, by Theobald Wolfe Tone and divers hands (Dublin, 1998).
J.W. von Goethe, The sorrows of young Werther (1774; London, 1989).
T.W. Moody, R.B. McDowell & C.J. Woods, The writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone (3 vols) (Oxford, 1998–2007).


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