Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish republican and rebel who sought to overthrow English rule in Ireland and who led a French military force to Ireland during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, dies at Provost’s Prison, Dublin on November 19, 1798 from a stab wound to his neck which he inflicted upon himself on November 12. His attempted suicide is the result of being refused a soldier’s execution by firing squad and being sentenced to death by hanging.
Wolfe Tone is born in Dublin on June 20, 1763. The son of a coach maker, he studies law and is called to the Irish bar in 1789 but soon gives up his practice. In October 1791 he helps found the Society of United Irishmen, initially a predominantly Protestant organization that works for parliamentary reforms, such as universal suffrage and Roman Catholic emancipation. In Dublin in 1792 he organizes a Roman Catholic convention of elected delegates that forces Parliament to pass the Catholic Relief Act of 1793. He himself, however, is anticlerical and hopes for a general revolt against religious creeds in Ireland as a sequel to the attainment of Irish political freedom.
By 1794 Wolfe Tone and his United Irishmen friends begin to seek armed aid from Revolutionary France to help overthrow English rule. After an initial effort fails, he goes to the United States and obtains letters of introduction from the French minister at Philadelphia to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris. In February 1796 he arrives in the French capital, presents his plan for a French invasion of Ireland, and is favourably received. The Directory then appoints one of the most brilliant young French generals, Lazare Hoche, to command the expedition and makes Tone an adjutant in the French army.
On December 16, 1796, Wolfe Tone sails from Brest with 43 ships and nearly 14,000 men. But the ships are badly handled and, after reaching the coast of west Cork and Kerry, are dispersed by a storm. He again brings an Irish invasion plan to Paris in October 1797, but the principal French military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, takes little interest. When insurrection breaks out in Ireland in May 1798, Wolfe Tone can only obtain enough French forces to make small raids on different parts of the Irish coast. In September he enters Lough Swilly, Donegal, with 3,000 men and is captured there.
At his trial in Dublin on November 10, Wolfe Tone defiantly proclaims his undying hostility to England and his desire “in fair and open war to produce the separation of the two countries.” He is found guilty and is sentenced to be hanged. Early in the morning of November 12, 1798, the day he is to be hanged, he cuts his throat with a penknife and dies at the age of 35 in Provost’s Prison, Dublin, not far from where he was born. He is buried in Bodenstown, County Kildare, near his birthplace, and his grave is in the care of the National Graves Association.