Theobald Wolfe Tone - A hero without blemish

Week III

The Criminal Conversation case taken by Richard Martin against John Petrie, in 1791, the seducer of his wife Eliza, which was extensively covered in the newspapers of the time, and no doubt read with enormous enjoyment by society in both England and Ireland, nevertheless, did not go entirely in Martin’s favour.

Even though Martin was clearly a husband who was ‘wronged’, and was awarded the eye-watering sum of £10,000, it was only half what he demanded for the ‘loss’ of his wife.

Petrie’s astute defence counsel Mr Erskine created another scenario, which cast a shadow over the injured victim as Martin was portrayed. Erskine could not doubt what the witnesses saw in Eliza’s bedroom, or the carrying-on between the two lovers on their way back to London, but he made a forceful case that it all had come about because of Martin’s three months absence, leaving his wife ‘abandoned’ in Paris, and vulnerable to the ‘vicious appetite’, the most human of all frailties.

At least one other person thought Martin did not deserve to win anything, and that was Theobald Wolfe Tone, who was to become one of Ireland’s greatest heroes, a visionary and soldier. Wolfe Tone should know, despite his protestations that his passion for Eliza did not lead to consummation, but as a young Trinity student, from 1783, he was a tutor to Martin and Eliza’s children for the best part of two years at Dangan House, Galway. He fell completely in love with Eliza. She initially resisted his advances, but later reciprocated his love during their rehearsing of plays at Kirwan’s Lane theatre, to such an extent that Wolfe Tone recorded it as ‘a passion of the most extravagant violence.’

Ten years after his youthful passion for Eliza, he had made extraordinary progress in his career, developing a vision and leadership for a Catholic and Protestant United Ireland, embracing the ideals of the French Revolution, and urging Ireland’s independence; yet he found time to note in his diary that having read the recent case, he was satisfied from his observations during his time at Dangan House, ‘the fault was originally Martin’s.’

‘The bonds of virtue’

Martin’s continuous absences, due to his work as a politician, a landlord of a vast estate, a colonel of the Galway Volunteers, a lawyer and a businessman, who also found time to share a passion for acting with his wife Eliza at his theatre in Kirwan’s Lane, nevertheless, allowed Wolfe Tone ample time to press his affections. Wolf Tone wrote: ‘I was the proudest man alive to have engaged the affections of a woman whom even now I recognise to have had extraordinary merit, and who then appeared in my eyes more divine than human’.

Referring back to his time as a tutor in her home, he recalled that ‘as Martin neglected her a good deal, and I was continually on the spot, she could not avoid making daily comparisons between my behaviour towards her, and not at all to the advantage of her husband; in short, without any art on my side, for I was too sincerely in love to be capable of it, I invisibly engaged her affections, so that at length she became at least as much in love with me as I was with her, nor did she attempt to conceal it from me…

‘In the intercourse of sentiment which alternately pained and delighted me almost beyond bearing, we continued for about two years, keeping up a regular correspondence by letters in the intervals of my absence, without, however, in a single instance overstepping the bonds of virtue, such was the purity of the extravagant affection I bore her…’ *

And lots more, but we need not believe his protestations of purity. Historian Thomas Bartlett offers an explanation: ‘The affair had more than its fair share of the absurd about it . Tone’s son William, who edited his father’s diaries (almost certainly with the approval of Tone’s widow Matilda ), probably suppressed the whole episode more from embarrassment than from shame.’ ** Understandably, William and his mother presented Wolf Tone as a hero without blemish.

Born prematurely

As for Eliza, once the legalities were out of the way, she married her John Petrie, a widower, and they lived together on his estate in Lewisham, Kent. They had at least two daughters, Emily, and Harriet Jane, and a son who died aged 11 months.

Hugh Carey tells us that following her death in 1829 (three years after her husband ) ‘her will and testament survives to prove that, far from being an opportunistic coup de foudre, born of the libertine boulevards of revolutionary Paris, Mrs Martin’s relationship with Mr Petrie rose above scandal and survived the vicissitudes of time and family life, to last for thirty-six years.’ ***

Her will also shows that Eliza maintained some degree of contact with her first family as there was some outstanding legal business with her daughter Laetitia, who was born in February 1785. The child was pronounced to have been born prematurely as her father, Richard Martin, was in England and did not return until the previous July. Eliza had endured six miscarriages during her time with Martin, so perhaps Laetitia was especially dear to her. Her correspondence, however, does not mention the two boys she had with Martin.

There may be grounds to support the suspicion among Martin’s biographers that perhaps Laetitia was the result of her liaison with Wolfe Tone.

NOTES: *Twenty eight years after Tone’s death in 1798, his son presented his diaries in the form of an autobiography under the title: ‘Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone - written by himself and continued by his son’, published in Washington.

** Essey by Tom Bartlett, Dictionary of Irish Biography, published 2009.

*** From ‘Richard Martin’s Divorce from Elizabeth Vesey: A Drama in Three Acts’ Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, by Hugh Carey, volume 68 2016.

After a long and complicated procedure to secure his freedom to re-marry, Richard Martin married Harriet Hesketh in 1796, a widow, and had one son and three daughters.

Also quotes taken from Humanity Dick, By Shevawn Lynam, published by Hamish Hamilton, 1975.


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