Tone not related to Wolfe

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—There is no single corroborated or semi-credible shred of evidence that Theobald Wolfe Tone was the illegitimate son of the barrister Theobald Wolfe. In stating that he ‘probably’ was a half-brother of the latter’s actual son, Charles, Aodhán Crealey (HI 29.1, Jan./Feb. 2021, p. 9, ON THIS DAY) no doubt thought it safe to rely on Charles’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, which states that they were ‘related’. The DIB is currently undergoing a major overhaul and with plans to make its full online repository free to access in the spring of 2021. I have alerted the editors to this unfortunate error, which will soon be corrected. Tone’s grandfather and father had certainly been freeholders on the lands of the Wolfes at Blackhall in County Kildare. In his 1939 biography of Tone, Frank MacDermot stated that Tone’s mother, Margaret Lamport, had before her marriage lived as a companion to Mrs Wolfe; of this we have no firm evidence, but it is totally feasible. And yes, later, Arthur Wolfe seems to have intervened on the revolutionary’s behalf. However, Peter and Margaret Tone, married and living at 44 Stafford Street, had baptised a (first?) baby son William (who evidently did not live) in 1762 at St Mary’s Church in Dublin. Theobald Wolfe, their eldest surviving child, was born the following year. Theobald Wolfe of Blackhall, as has been asserted, may have been the future revolutionary’s godfather, but no godparents are listed in the church register. The myth seems to have originated in the mid-twentieth century, but one fails to see the logic deployed by the champions of conspiracy and alternative histories (by which I do not mean Aodhán Crealey). That Peter Tone would stand at the font in front of the congregation and openly and knowingly consent to his (second) son being named after his cuckolder seems frankly ridiculous. It is safer to think of inter-class dynamics in the eighteenth century, which were coded by patronage and ‘upwards’ gestures of deference: Peter Tone may have been indebted to Wolfe and/or simply respected him. His son Theobald had, after all, named his second (surviving) son Francis Rawdon Tone after the earl of Moira, though he came to regret it. A ‘tradition’ does not always history make.—Yours etc.,

SYLVIE KLEINMAN

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