Wolfe Tone (2nd edition)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 21

Wolfe Tone (2nd edition)Marianne Elliott(Liverpool University Press, £40)ISBN 9781846318078

Wolfe Tone (2nd edition)Marianne Elliott(Liverpool University Press, £40)ISBN 9781846318078

As a twenty-something enrolled at the Middle Temple, where he came to know as much about the law as ‘of necromancy’, and making not the slightest attempt to resist the temptations of an ‘idle and luxurious capital’, the future icon of Irish republican nationalism Theobald Wolfe Tone had, of a morning after the night before, often wished to be in some peaceable Mahometan country because he so ‘detested’ the sound of church bells. Paradoxically, this burst of humour and self-mockery with which his vivid diaries are infused leads us to ponder the early Islamic tradition of biography, which narrates the prophet’s life and lessons to emulate, as a journey. And travel Tone did, both physically and metaphorically. His clandestine mission to France in 1796, instrumental in bringing about the French expeditions to Ireland, remains one of the most adventurous feats of Irish history. Cynics and/or those simply weary of his posthumous adulation, not to mention the sectarian appropriation of Tone’s memory by physical-force paramilitaries, which distorted his Enlightenment message, catalogued his life as a sequence of failures, yet few denied the heroism of the military venture which cost him his life. It was precisely in what Elliott refers to as his ‘republican exile’ in France that Tone wrote up his autobiographical memoir, waiting with confused emotions to set sail on the Bantry expedition. Borrowing from Shakespeare, as he regularly did (rather than Locke or Montesquieu, Paine or Burke), Tone had gravely mused on his likely fate: in times of revolution it was but a ‘short journey . . . from prison to that undiscovered country’ from which ‘no traveller returns’ (Hamlet). Within the very Anglophobic environment of Directorial France, Tone explored more than any other Irish voice the depths of his love of fatherland, exposing himself, as Elliott stresses, to the ‘anachronistic singling out of catch-phrases’ to support later ideologies. Yet generations of readers willingly followed him on this quest.


The original title of what remains his definitive biography, first published in the tense but forward-looking historiographical context of 1989, had been Wolfe Tone: prophet of Irish independence. This epithet has now been removed from the cover and subtly embedded into the book’s introduction, which stresses the often contradictory misreadings of Tone and the tragic outcome of his vision of an independent Irish nation, freed from English rule and religious divisions. Achieving the one had intensified the other, yet as we approach the 250th anniversary of his birth in 2013, Elliott remains adamant that Tone remains a living force in Ireland. This second edition of her magisterial treatment of one of the leading founders of the United Irishmen, effective champion of Catholic emancipation and still irritatingly heralded in pop folkore as the leader of the 1798 Rebellion, was expected after the long-awaited publication of the three-volume set by Moody, McDowell and Woods (eds) of the scholarly edition of Tone’s complete Writings (1998–2007). There is very little new material in this edition, which follows the same linear-chronological structure and chapter headings as the original, but bibliographical updates point readers towards recent scholarship. Its strength lies in the thoroughness of archival research on which Elliott’s reputation rests, and which led her to repositories in no less than five countries. This colossal task had redressed the fact that there had been many brief but derivative lives until McDermot’s in 1939 (which she warmly acknowledges). Crucially, she had also accessed papers held privately by family descendants in the United States (many of which are now reproduced in the Writings). Skilfully, and with the shrewdly observant eye needed when approaching this effusive character and compulsive talker, Tone’s private life and public actions were woven together.

While signalling new thinking, Elliott does not really engage with it, nor does she reassess her original discussion of Tone’s actions and motivations in the light of broader approaches. So thorough is this biography overall, however, that one sees little room for another one, though some may wish to assess Tone’s political motivations differently in specialised studies. Oddly, she highlights, virtually nothing on Tone has emerged since the 1998 bicentenary, at least nothing taking issue with her view that the revolutionary separatist single-mindedness which later hagiographies claimed was in fact the result of his reactive and indecisive character, even ‘more accidental than designed’. These critiques, expressed on the book’s initial publication (amidst general approval), may not appear all that relevant today in a post-Good Friday Agreement Ireland. Indeed, at times Elliott’s tenor still hints at the burdens facing historians in the times in which she was writing, anticipating yet more sniping, and though she consistently signals the vivacity of Tone’s character and his cultural curiosity, her narrative remains relatively sombre if always compelling, scholarly but accessible. The final chapter on the cult of Tone is not significantly expanded upon, but this leaves the ground open for others to take up that challenge in the countdown to the centenary. My studies of Tone have explored his career as an officer in the French army (now that the politics have been taken out of Irish military heritage), his insightful chronicle of Directorial France, his gift as a travel writer (HI 16.2, March/April 2008), and the immediacy of his typically eighteenth-century diary, which draws the reader into his own experiences. If, as Elliott explains, Tone is possibly the most appealing of Irish heroes, it is in a sense because he is also the most known.  HI

Sylvie Kleinman lectures in Irish history at Trinity College.

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