The writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1763-98, Volume I, Tone’s career in Ireland to June 1795, T.W. Moody, R.B. McDowell and C.J. Woods (eds.). (Clarendon Press, £80) ISBN 0198223838.

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 7

Theobald Wolfe Tone (TWT) was born in 1763 and died in 1798. In 1963 the late Theodore William Moody (TWM) projected a definitive scholarly edition of TWT’s writings and in 1998 the first of three volumes reached the book shops. Tone, in other words, managed to pack three volumes-worth into his short life. Evidently the production of a fully annotated and edited collected works requires more time than Tone’s allotted years upon this earth. After thirty-five years, retailing at a swingeing £80, the product of Moody’s legendary thoroughness, attention to detail and reliance on primary sources, of R.B. McDowell’s encyclopaedic knowledge of eighteenth-century Ireland, and of C.J. Woods’ unfailing editorial rigour, readers are entitled to expect the highest standards. They will not be disappointed. This edition of Tone to 1795 is outstanding: comprehensive, immaculately designed, informative and, for future students of the period, indispensable.
In terms of scholarship the Moody-McDowell-Woods edition supersedes Thomas Bartlett’s single volume Life (‘Reviews’, HI Summer 1998); but then Bartlett did not take thirty-five years to execute his explicitly more limited brief, not to mention that the Lilliput Press book is half, or in paperback, one quarter, the price of the Clarendon one. Bartlett, in fact, provides an accessible, modern, edition of the original two volume Life, complied by Tone’s son, William, and published in Washington DC in 1826. He supplies a substantial introduction, annotation and an index, and restores suppressed passages in the journals which referred unfavourably to America and to Tone’s wife’s family. The Moody-McDowell-Woods edition supplements the 1826 volumes by adding all known extant documents relating directly to Tone. Some of these, such as the records of his birth or graduation from Trinity College, have more bearing on the stated aim of completeness than on the existing state of our knowledge of the subject. But some of the new material is more significant. For example, the version of Tone’s first pamphlet, ‘A review of the conduct of the administration’, reproduced by William Tone (and Bartlett) is that published by the Northern Whig club on 16 April 1790 which deletes some six pages of text. The full text, contained in the Dublin printing of 6 April, is now made available.
Perhaps the most notable feature of this edition is the editors’ decision to adhere to a strictly chronological arrangement. This has clear advantages: ease of reference and fidelity to the actual historical experience. Moreover, the juxtaposition with the diary entries of private correspondence, including letters to Tone, letters from other ‘players’ to each other, items which appeared in The Northern Star, and key political documents, enriches the diary’s context. But this structure has disadvantages too. In the introduction the editors rightly praise Tone’s pithy prose style, and make the interesting point that in addition to its other characteristics Tone’s writing may be viewed as a contribution to ‘the literature of self-expression’ in the age of Rouseau’s Confessions and Boswell’s Journals. However, one of the more attractive qualities of the diary is the sense of immediacy which it conveys, and it is best read in sequence as a continuous narrative. The structure deployed here interrupts Tone’s narrative flow.
The editors suggest that the survival of much of Tone’s writings render it easy to overestimate his importance in contemporary politics. The same might be said of Dr William Drennan, and the comparative lack of documentary sources for some of their radical colleagues renders it equally easy to underestimate the role of, say, Samuel Neilson. As a political thinker Tone is found to be ‘neither outstandingly original or profound’. That rather modest assessment of his historical significance contrasts with Bartlett’s more generous appraisal, and if Tone was mainly a polemicist and a synthesiser of the Whig and Protestant nationalist commonplaces of his time, he was a gifted synthesiser and a skilled and successful polemicist. In any event, one of the many virtues of this invaluable book is that the reader can now decide for him- or herself. The editors should be applauded for their diligence, meticulous scholarship, and clarity of presentation. Roll on volumes II and III!

Jim Smyth


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