Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading Irish revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the Society of United Irishmen, is tried and convicted of treason by a court-martial in Dublin on November 10, 1798 and sentenced to be hanged.
When the Irish Rebellion of 1798 breaks out in Ireland, Wolfe Tone urges the French Directory to send effective assistance to the Irish rebels. All that can be promised is a number of raids to descend simultaneously around the Irish coast. One of these raids under General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert succeeds in landing a force near Killala, County Mayo, and gains some success in Connacht (particularly at Castlebar) before it is subdued by General Gerard Lake and Charles Cornwallis. Wolfe Tone’s brother Matthew is captured, tried by court-martial and hanged. A second raid, accompanied by James Napper Tandy, comes to a disastrous end on the coast of County Donegal.
Wolfe Tone takes part in a third raid, under Admiral Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart, with General Jean Hardy in command of a force of 2,800 men. He certainly knows before departing that the odds against them are incredibly long. Most of the United Irish organization has already spent itself in Wexford, Ulster, and other places. There is one slim reed of hope for success – the news from Hubert, who is sweeping the British before him in Mayo with his 1,000 Frenchmen and Irish rebel allies. Wolfe Tone once said he would accompany any French force to Ireland even if it were only a corporal’s guard, so he sails off with Hardy’s Frenchmen aboard the Hoche.
They are intercepted by a large British fleet at Buncrana on Lough Swilly on October 12, 1798. Escape aboard one of the small, fast ships is Wolfe Tone’s only hope to avoid a hangman’s noose but he refuses to transfer from the large, slow Hoche, which has little choice but certain sinking or capture. He refuses offers by Napoleon Bonaparte and other French officers of escape in a frigate before the Battle of Tory Island. “Shall it be said,” he asks them, “that I fled while the French were fighting the battle of my country?”
The Hoche withstands an attack by five British ships for several hours, with Wolfe Tone commanding one of her batteries. Inevitably the masts and rigging of the Hoche are shot away and she strikes her colors. Wolfe Tone is dressed in a French adjutant general‘s uniform, but there is little chance of him avoiding detection with so many former acquaintances among the British. He is thrown into chains taken prisoner when the Hoche surrenders.
When the prisoners are landed at Letterkenny Port a fortnight later, Sir George Hill recognises Wolfe Tone in the French adjutant general’s uniform in Lord Cavan’s privy-quarters at Letterkenny. At his trial by court-martial in Dublin on November 8, 1798, Wolfe Tone makes a speech avowing his determined hostility to England and his intention “by frank and open war to procure the separation of the countries.” Recognising that the court is certain to convict him, he asks that “the court should adjudge me to die the death of a soldier, and that I may be shot.” His request to be shot is denied.
On November 10, 1798, Wolfe Tone is found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on November 12. Before this sentence is carried out, either he attempts suicide by slitting his throat or British soldiers torture and mortally wound him. Military surgeon Benjamin Lentaigne treats him just hours before he is due to be hanged. The story goes that he is initially saved when the wound is sealed with a bandage, and he is told if he tries to talk the wound will open and he will bleed to death.
A pamphlet published in Latin by Dr. Lentaigne some years after Wolfe Tone’s official “suicide” refers to an unusual neck wound suffered by an unnamed patient which indicates that “a bullet passed through his throat.” This leads to speculation that Wolfe Tone may have been shot.
Theobald Wolfe Tone dies on November 19, 1798 at the age of 35 in Provost’s Prison, Dublin, not far from where he was born. He is buried in Bodenstown Graveyard in County Kildare, near his birthplace at Sallins, and his grave is in the care of the National Graves Association.
(Pictured: “Capture Of Wolfe Tone Date 1798,” a drawing by Mary Evans Picture Library, the UK’s leading source for historical images)