Why Wolfe Tone and the 1798 Rebellion still matter

June marks the 255th anniversary of Tone’s birth; this year marks the 220th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion

The Wolfe Tone Memorial in St Stephen's Green, Dublin.

The Wolfe Tone Memorial in St Stephen's Green, Dublin.

If you happen to cross Galway’s Wolfe Tone Bridge, spare a thought for the man whose name it carries, especially as this month - yesterday, June 20, to be precise - marks the 255th anniversary of Tone’s birth.

Most know the gossip of his time in Galway, but more interesting is why the bridge took his name in 1934 – something Breandán Ó hEithir recalled in his Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics.

The then Bishop of Galway, Dr O’Doherty, was on a right-wing rampage against the evils of republican secret societies and their communist sidekicks. In May 1933 at a confirmation sermon in Kinvara his Lordship railed against the “cut-throat Tone”. Ironically, at the same time the Vatican was secretly working with the cut-throats Mussolini and Hitler. Annoyed by the bishop’s outburst, Fianna Fáil and republican councillors on Galway County Council decided to name the new bridge near the Claddagh after the founder of Irish Republicanism.

Tone was aged 35 when the 1798 Rising took place, 220 years ago this summer. At the time the Society of United Irishmen had 280,000 sworn members. That struggle to overthrow English rule in Ireland and establish an Independent Irish Republic ended with the slaughter of tens of thousands of Irish people.

Influence of the French Revolution

French Revolution Delacroix

Despite his relative youth Tone had used his study of, and pamphleteering about, Irish politics to formulate a clear understanding of both the source of Ireland’s ills and the cure: “…to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means.”

As a step to achieve this unity, Tone penned in 1791 his pamphlet, Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, directed at Dissenters (the Presbyterians ). It succeeded in winning many of them to oppose the Penal Laws.

The French Revolution with its battle cry of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” proved to be a catalyst for further political development, culminating in the establishment of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen in November 1791. As Wolfe Tone noted in his journal: “The French Revolution had awakened all parties in the nation from the stupor in which they lay plunged.”

The Belfast United Irishmen – Dissenters all - founded the Northern Star newspaper, which became a powerful tool giving, as Tone wrote, “fair statement to all that passed in France….and accomplishing the union of the two great sects [Catholic and Dissenter] , by the simple process of making their mutual sentiments better known to each other”.

Mary Wollstonecraft

The Northern Star also enthusiastically embraced the message of Mary Wollstonecraft [pictured above] and her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It highlighted too the United Irishmen’s boycott campaign of tea and sugar in solidarity with the struggle against slavery.

Each edition of the Northern Star sold 4,000 copies and reached 10 times that number through public readings, literacy courses, and certain Presbyterian ministers preaching the message - as Nick Garbutt relates in his powerful blog, A Lovely Day For A Hanging: “The revolutionary propaganda, was finely tuned to the audience. There was some serious analysis, songs and ballads to stir the blood, and…humour, savage, biting humour.”

(An author of such satire, the Rev James Porter, would pay with his life. In 1798, hanged and gruesomely quartered by the English outside his Presbyterian church in Greyabbey, County Down. )

The society published two other newspapers - The Press in Dublin and The Harp of Erin in Cork. An attempt was made to produce regularly a journal dealing with the Irish language and old Irish literature, Bolg an tSoláir.

According to Tone, Thomas Paine’s defence of the French Republic, The Rights of Man, was “the Koran of Blefescu” [Belfast]. On July 14 1792 in Belfast, 6,000 people celebrated the third anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille – a considerable number. In 1750 Belfast’s population was 8,500.

The British and sectarianism

Wolfe Tone, in his autobiography, expressed the importance of developments in France: “In a little time the French Revolution became the test of every man’s political creed, and the nation was fairly divided into two great parties, the Aristocrats and the Democrats.” Another United Irishman, William Drennan, succinctly expressed the revolution’s aim: “The greatest happiness to the greatest number."

James “Jemmy” Hope was convinced that national independence would have little meaning without solving the social question: “It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class, was the fundamental question at issue between the rulers and the people, and there could be no solid foundation for liberty.”

In 1793, the British government declared war on France, which led to the suppression of the opposition in Ireland and Britain. Only in Ireland were those accused of treason hanged and quartered to frighten the peasantry into submission. A year later, the power of the United Irishmen had been broken, its leadership arrested or dispersed. It reconstituted as a secret organisation.

By 1795 the first Orange Lodges were formed with the aim of dividing the unity of Catholic and Dissenter. Tone was clear: “Horrible things these religious discords, which are certainly fomented by the aristocrats…”. When the Orange Order was introduced into Catholic counties “the numbers of United Irishmen increased astonishingly”. This influx of plebeian Catholic Defenders meant the Society took on a mass popular character with small farmers, labourers, and artisans composing the bulk of the membership.

The nationwide rising in 1798 failed due to its military and organisational weakness, treachery, strength of the opponent, and bad weather, which prevented French troops from landing. The United Irishmen were crushed, their members arrested, executed, exiled. Tone captured, took his own life in an English cell. Defeat meant the ruling class could astutely use the sectarian Orange Order to create division where once unity existed between the “two great sects”. As we know that division continues to fester and caused the very partitioning of Ireland.

Relevance for today

In other ways too the 1798 Rising is more than an historical event - it is with us today. Some miles from Wolfe Tone Bridge in Oranmore’s Rinville Park, stands a monument to the 1916 Easter Rising. It is emblazoned with the words: Equality, Freedom, Happiness, Prosperity, Nationhood - a reminder that the French Revolution, and the 1798 and 1916 Risings had a common aim: “The greatest happiness to the greatest number”. And that aim remains unfulfilled. As Henry Joy McCracken, a leader of the United Irishmen, caustically observed: “The rich will always betray the poor.”

Independence was to the fore in Wolfe Tone’s mind during his time in France seeking armed assistance from the French Republic. He wrote in his journal on April 3 1796: “I, for one, will never be accessory to subjecting my country to the control of France, merely to get rid…of England.” Back in Ireland this view was echoed by Thomas Russell, a close friend of Tone, who opposed French aid: “…Ireland might as well be an English colony as a French one.”

In the context of the debacle over Brexit, with Irish politicians fawning over our betters in Brussels and Berlin to show their fealty to the EU, the words of Tone and Russell are a warning. James Connolly’s words seem even more pertinent: “We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland."


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