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Theobald Wolfe Tone – 1798

Freeman’s Journal 17th June, 1865 p.2(abridged)

From Project Gutenberg eText 13112: Speeches from the Dock, Part I, by Various Wikimedia Commons

The Empire 2nd June, 1852 p.4 (abridged)
The Sydney Morning Herald 10th December, 1862 p.4 (abridged)

Theobald Wolfe Tone (20 June 1763 – 19 November 1798), regarded as “the father of Irish Republicanism” was the son of a coachmaker in Dublin. He was educated in Trinity College, where he distinguished himself and was called to the Irish bar in Trinity term, 1789. With little relish originally for the law, he soon, to use his own expression, ceased to “wear a foolish wig and gown,” and applied himself devotedly to politics. In 1791 he founded the Society of the United Irishmen with Thomas Russell, Napper Tandy and others.

During the whole of 1798 England was alarmed with reports of an intended French invasion. It was known that emissaries from Ireland were in France, on behalf of the “United Irishmen,” soliciting armed assistance for an intended insurrection in the country. An insurrection occurred, but too prematurely to be aided by the French. The rebellion of 1798 was suppressed during the summer. On the 22nd of August, three French frigates and a brig came into Killala Bay, on the coast of the county of Mayo, and landed in a creek of the bay a military force. It has been variously stated at eleven, fourteen and eighteen hundred men. Unless a considerable part of it subsequently escaped to sea, it could not have exceeded 1,400. It was commanded by General Humbert. It had a few pieces of field artillery and a troop of mounted riflemen. He was accompanied by three Irishmen – Matthew Tone (a brother of Theobald Wolfe Tone), Bartholemew Teeling, and one Sullivan.

Having advanced upon the town of Killala, a small detachment of militia were defeated. The Bishop’s palace was occupied as French headquarters. From thence a proclamation was issued by General Humbert, headed “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! Union!” from which it appeared that other troops were expected, and that several unsuccessful attempts at invasion had been made. This proclamation also indicated the ultimate purpose of the invaders to be in London, although landing in Ireland. They advanced upon Ballina, a market town five miles inland; from thence they approached and took a position at Castlebar, after a march of fifteen hours. The space marched over was not more than twelve miles in a direct line but the absence of roads delayed their progress.

Lord Cornwallis, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, collected about 25,000 men and advanced westward of the Shannon in search of the French. The French had been led by Irishmen of the insurrection to the county of Letrim, with the purpose of reaching the north of Ireland. There they expected assistance from the Presbyterian Protestants, who had originated the “United Irishmen,” and hoped to receive reinforcements from France at Lough Swilley, or probably at Belfast itself. To cross the almost trackless morasses and mountains was deemed undesirable after an attempt. They therefore turned their faces to the south and would, probably, have made a bold dash upon Dublin, had they not been unexpectedly met in the county of Longford. Forty thousand Irish were to assemble at the Crooked Wood, in the county of Westmeath, to join them; but a strong body of the King’s troops intervened. At the village of Ballynamuck the French surrendered, they were conveyed to England. At Lichfield General Humbert wrote to the “citizen directors” of France, relating his surrender to an army of thirty thousand men, and stating that he was a prisoner of war upon parole. The French officers were allowed to return to France on condition of not again serving against Britain.

On the 24th of May, 1798 Earl Camden issued an order to all the general officers commanding his Majesty’s forces “to punish all persons aiding or in any way assisting in the said rebellion according to martial law, either by death or otherwise as should seem expedient.” It was under this authority that the sentence of death was passed upon Wolfe Tone, who was conspicous in the rebellion. At that time the Supreme Court of Ireland was sitting and a barrister appeared informing the court of his belief that Wolfe Tone was held in custody and under sentence of death. The Chief Justice immediately issued a writ of habeas corpus (a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, to secure the person’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention). This was not obeyed by the officer in command, when the judge sitting in Court dispatched his officer to arrest the General and bring him up for contempt. The remark of a spectator who records this event is that “the agitation of the chief Justice was magnificent.” Wolfe Tone, apprehensive of public execution had, in the spirit of those times, inflicted a mortal wound upon himself.