Theobald Wolfe Tone

Leader of Abortive Irish Rebellion Inspired 19th Century Irish Nationalists

Theobald Wolfe Tone was the founder of the Society of United Irishmen and a leading voice for Irish freedom in the 1790s. He was able to gain French help in ambitious plans to invade and liberate Ireland, but the French invasions failed and Tone was captured.

Sentenced to death for treason, Tone committed suicide in prison. His many writings lived on, and his devotion to the cause of Irish freedom was an inspiration to Irish nationalists well into the 20th century.

Early Life

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in 1763 to a Protestant family in Dublin. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, and pursued a career in the law. However, he seemed to show little interest in his legal career, and became fascinated with the political debates of the day.

A central issue in Ireland, of course, was rule by Britain. A wealthy and corrupt Protestant class dominated Irish politics, and the Irish Catholic majority was victimized by a series of oppressive laws. In the intellectual atmosphere of Dublin society of the late 1780s, Tone was no doubt inspired by the American Revolution as well as the French Revolution.

Tone published an anti-government pamphlet, "A Review of the Conduct of Administration Addressed to the Electors and Free People of Ireland," in 1790. The pamphlet was well-received among his associates, and Tone went on to found a political discussion club.

The club did not last long. But Tone, perhaps inspired by Thomas Paine, who had just published his influential tract "The Rights of Man," he continued putting his political ideas on paper.

Political Thinker

Tone recognized that while British rule was problematic for various factions in Ireland, from prosperous Protestants to Catholic peasants, the different religious groups needed to unite to strive for freedom.

In 1791 he wrote what became an influential pamphlet, "An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland," which was intended to convince Protestants of northern Ireland that political rights for Catholics had to be included in any real reform.

In Belfast, in October 1791, Tone and others founded the Society of United Irishmen. The organization, at first, was intended to discuss political reform. In time, it would become a radical organization directed toward outright revolution in Ireland.


In 1793 the British went to war with revolutionary France. The following year, concerned about rebellious discussion in Ireland, the United Ireland was made illegal. Tone left for America in 1795, and lived in exile in Philadelphia for a time.

Developing a dislike for American society, he moved on to France. He made contacts with people in the French government who might be sympathetic to helping liberate Ireland from British rule. Believing that a vast underground army of citizens would rise up to join an invasion force, the French agreed to send a fleet carrying 14,000 soldiers to Ireland.

The French fleet, which numbered about 40 ships, sailed in December 1796. Tone was aboard one of the French warships and was expected to be one of the commanders of the invasion.

The expedition was plagued by the winter weather. After being caught in a gale off the Irish coast near Bantry, the French fleet was forced to abandon the invasion plan and return to France. Tone then served in the French Army, and gained some miliary experience.

Capture By the British

In Ireland the ranks of the United Irishmen continued to grow. In 1797 it was estimated that nearly 300,000 men were willing to fight the British in open warfare. Rebels raided houses of the aristocracy to plunder guns. But the most common weapon being prepared was the pike, a long wooden shaft with an iron or steel blade on the end.

The rebellion broke out in May 1798, and failed after leaders of the United Irishmen, including Lord Edward Fitzgerald, were arrested. Though the rebellion had already failed, the French still made attempts to land troops.

In October 1798, Tone was taken prisoner by the British when the French warship he was traveling on was captured.

When taken onto land, Tone, wearing a French uniform, was recognized. He was charged with treason, tried, and convicted. He was scheduled to be hanged as a traitor, but he requested that he be executed as a soldier by a firing squad. When his request was denied he took his own life by cutting his throat.

Legacy of Tone

Remembered widely was Wolfe Tone, his name became a symbol of Irish resistance to British rule throughout the 19th century. Later rebels referred to his many writings, and his grave became a place of pilgrimage for Irish nationalists. He would be remembered as an Irish hero alongside such men as Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell.

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McNamara, Robert. "Theobald Wolfe Tone." ThoughtCo, Oct. 13, 2016, McNamara, Robert. (2016, October 13). Theobald Wolfe Tone. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Theobald Wolfe Tone." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).