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Wolfe Tones History

“Wolfe Tone’s spirit of rebellion serves as an inspiration for the Wolfe Tones Hurling Club, which like its namesake always represents courage and daring on the field, whatever the odds.”


Irish history, late 1700s. – Ireland had been under English rule since the time of Elizabeth I and James I (1590s-1600s).  Since then, England imposed harsh penalties on Ireland – Catholics were excluded from office and from voting, and in the North even the Ulster Presbyterians were excluded from office under the Test Act (which excluded all non-Anglicans from office).  Politically and economically, most Irish were ruled by a few Anglican families, no more than ten percent of the population.  Ireland was officially a kingdom, but one under British control.


The success of the American Revolution in 1783 and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 encouraged some Irish to demand a Parliament independent from the British Parliament in London (the one in Dublin could not pass legislation without London’s approval).  Some reform came in the 1780s, when Parliament relaxed laws restricting Irish trade and granted the Irish Parliament more independence (but could still veto legislation).  Yet the wealthy Anglo-Irish landlords still held onto power through the “rotten borough” system.  In 1793, Catholics were allowed to vote (the Catholic Relief Act) but not actually sit in Parliament.  But these were moderate reforms, and some Irish wanted more.


Theobald Wolfe Tone (born 1763 in Dublin) was an Irish patriot who is often credited as the founder of Irish republicanism.  He was the son of a coach maker and was trained as a barrister, being called to the bar in 1789, but his interests soon turned to politics.  In 1791 he founded the Society of United Irishmen (SUI) in Belfast, with Samuel Nielsen, a newspaperman, and Thomas Russell, a librarian and ex-army officer.  The Society corresponded with French republicans who promised them aid in securing Ireland’s independence from Great Britain and its establishment as a republic – the idea from the French Revolution that authority came from the people, not a king.  The Society was split into moderate and radical factions, however – Wolfe Tone was a radical, who wanted an independent Irish republic.  Some moderates favored Ireland staying in Great Britain and moving toward what would later be called Home Rule (dominion status, with autonomy).  Although of Protestant descent, he supported Catholic emancipation and universal suffrage – he solicited the help of Catholics, but was himself anticlerical, like many republicans.


The success of the French Revolution after the Battle of Valmy in 1792 – which led to the revolution spreading into Germany and the Low Countries – raised British fears of a French invasion of Ireland.  This prompted some reform like the Catholic Relief Act, but also repression.  A spy named William Jackson betrayed members of the United Irishmen to the British, including Wolfe Tone.  He fled to the United States and then France, where he lobbied for help for the Irish cause.  The French revolutionary government (the Directory) supported Wolfe Tone’s proposal for a French invasion of Ireland, and made him an adjutant in a French army under the command of Lazare Hoche.  A French army of 14,000 men set sail in 1796, but the 43 ships of the armada were dispersed by a storm off the coast of west Cork and Kerry.  That pretty much ended French aid to Ireland –  Napoleon Bonaparte had little interest in Tone’s invasion proposal for 1797.  The British followed the failed invasion by repressing many supporters of the United Irishmen, often quite brutality. 


In May 1798 an insurrection against the British broke out in Ireland, when Tone was out of the country.  The surviving leaders of the UI launched an early rebellion, one that involved both Catholics and Protestants – it started in County Wexford, but failed to succeed in the surrounding counties.  The rebels raised an army of 10,000 and defeated British troops at Oulart Hill and then laid siege to New Ross, but were repulsed.  The rebels committed their own atrocities at New Ross, killing Protestant loyalist prisoners, including women and children.  The rebels were defeated at Vinegar Hill by the British, and then Wexford fell to crown troops – in all, 30,000 people (mostly noncombatants) died in the Wexford uprising.  A similar uprising in the north was also put down.

Wolfe Tone returned to Ireland that year, hoping to spread the rebellion further.  He had convinced Bonaparte to send a token force of 3,000 French troops, and they landed at Donegal.  He was quickly captured by the British and put on trial for treason in November 1798.  He proclaimed at trial his desire to “in fair and open war to produce a separation of the two countries.” He was sentenced to be hanged, but he slashed his throat with a penknife (or was murdered) the morning of his November 12 execution and died seven days later.

The legacy of Wolf Tone and 1798 was not a united Ireland freed from sectarian violence – in fact, the strong anticlericalism of the French Revolution and the close association of the French with the SUI alienated many Irish Catholics.  The short-term legacy of the revolt was the Act of Union in 1801, which dissolved the Irish Parliament and the Kingdom of Ireland and created a single state, the United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Ireland.  Tensions between the Catholics and Protestants (which Tone opposed) in Ireland increased during the 19th century, and Catholics came to largely support repeal of the law, especially as a Catholic middle class grew.  These tensions would ultimately play out in the Anglo-Irish War and the Partition of Ireland following the Easter Uprising in 1916, which led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and then full independence by 1948.  Wolfe Tone is commemorated today as an Irish patriot and numerous Irish sporting clubs – in and out of the country- are named after him.


Sources: Richard Killeen, A Short History of Modern Ireland

            Goldwin Smith, A History of England, 3rd edition

“Wolfe Tone,” Encyclopedia Britannica (

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