Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was one of the emblematic figures of the struggle for Irish Independence. He organized the Irish Rebellions of 1798 and became one of the founding fathers of modern Irish nationalism.
Born in 1763, of Protestant faith, Theobald Wolfe Tone was one of those who believed in a new system, not monarchical, and in an egalitarian republican Ireland for all its inhabitants, Protestants and Catholics alike. In 1793 reforms were initiated by the English government allowing the right to vote and the eligibility of Catholics for political posts. Enthusiastic about this progress, part of the population joined Wolfe Tone to demand new rights.
In 1795 he went into emergency exile, threatened to be arrested for his subversive activities at the head of his association, the United Irishmen Society and within the Catholic Committee of Dublin. Returning from the United States, he landed in Le Havre on February 2, 1796, and asked to meet the French government, asking them to intervene to drive the British out of Ireland.
At the time, Delacroix was Minister for External Relations of the Directory and it was with a certain interest that he received the one who could destabilize England. A memorandum was requested from Theobald to draw up a report on the insurrectionary state of the country and to assess the chances of success of a French military intervention. Wolfe Tone stressed the need to commit between 5 and 20,000 men.
The Directoire accepted Wolfe Tone’s request and organised a massive landing on the Irish coast, led on 19 June 1796 by General Lazare Hoche, commander of the Coastal Army. The order is formal: Hoche is to bring assistance to “a generous country, ripe for a revolution for the independence and freedom that call for it“.
On the evening of December 15, 1796, in appalling weather, 13,400 men were embarked on 45 ships. On December 21, Mizen Head is in sight. Bouvet engaged with a few ships in Bantry Bay while the rest of the troops, who had little motivation to fight with the English, remained at sea… To get out of the way!
In spite of these desertions, Grouchy tried to land, but the weather decided otherwise and the storm of December 25 finally overcame the ships’ moorings. In these conditions Grouchy could only comply with Bouvet’s orders to sail towards Brest.
The expedition is therefore a fiasco and Rear Admiral Bouvet will leave his place.
Theobald Wolfe Tone is back on the continent and prepares the revenge. The first attempt failed, but encouraged by his companion General Lazare Hoche, a new attempt to land will be considered. So we put “plan A” back on track: a mass landing.
It was not until September 12, 1797 that Wolfe Tone went to Wetzlar to present his plan of attack and in the meantime, Hoche died of poisoning.
Wolfe Tone then went to Paris where, to his great surprise, he came across Barras, General Hédouville and Talleyrand (whom he had already met in exile in Philadelphia). Bonaparte has been General-in-Chief of the British army since October 26th and Desaix is in charge of the interim. Wolfe Tone offers him his services and Desaix accepts. On December 21st he meets Bonaparte but the meeting is not very fruitful, Theobald will have to be satisfied with a “come back to see me from time to time”. Frustrated, Theobald Wolfe Tone will later write the following words about Bonaparte: “We met the most famous man in Europe three times, and I am surprised how little I have to say about him”.
Wolfe Tone joined the British General Staff in Rouen and received the rank of Adjutant General. Meanwhile in Ireland the English troops are calling out to all sides. The prisons are full of independence activists, the United Irishmen Society is melting like snow in the sun as a result of the repeated assaults of the forces of Dublin Castle, and Uslter is placed under the command of General Lake… For the people, this is the last straw.
On May 24, 1798 the insurrection broke out from the north to the south of the country. In Ulster where the repression is the most important the uprisings are minimal. But in the south-east what could be called a “jacquerie” because of the lack of organisation of the revolt ended up in the rebels taking Wicklow. But what can 20,000 buggers armed with spikes do in the face of an army of grenadiers and cannons? At Castlebar, the Englishman Hutchinson reacted immediately by mobilising 6,000 men and heavy artillery to put an end to the landing. The English troops will be led by the infamous General Lake.
On 3 September Humbert decides to leave Castlebar for Sligo. After a serious clash with English grenadiers Humbert resigned himself to free Sligo and wishes to go directly to Ulster. The counties of Longford and Westmeath finally rebel. There’s been a change of plan. The French will join the insurgents to melt into Dublin. It’s a race between the English and Humbert’s grumpy men who are going in. Behind them Castlebar is taken over by the British. Hangings follow hangings, and the Orange terror is at its height.
Humbert heads for Manohamilton and then immediately forks due south along Lake Allen. Caught up in speed, Humbert found himself in Cloone on September 7 with an exhausted army caught in a pincer movement with: in front of Lake’s army and behind them 20,000 Englishmen led by Cornwallis. The next day, grumpy Irish volunteers and grumpy Irish volunteers were in battle lines near Ballynamuck. Even though Lake’s army was numerically equivalent, the English were much fresher. It was a battle of honour in which the French fought until Humbert’s last round. The liberators surrender and will be treated well while the Irish are systematically massacred.
And yet, by mid-September General Ray, the Irish revolutionary Tandy and 350 grenadiers were in sight of the Donegal coast before turning back in the light of events. And at the same time in Brest, 2,800 men including Wolfe Tone were embarking for the Bay of Donegal where they will be stopped by the English fleet.
Theobald Wolfe Tone was taken to Dublin and court-martialed. “I request,” he says, “that the court reserves me the death of a soldier, and have me shot by a platoon of grenadiers. I ask this favour, rather for the uniform I wear, the uniform of a brigade commander in the French army, than for my own sake.”
The judges then sentenced him to be hanged by hanging until dead. Rather than be hanged, Theobald chose suicide and slit his throat in his cell. He died in agony for a week before dying on November 19, 1798.