Wolfe Tone

Wolfe Tone

Wolfe Tone

Wolfe Tone

Excerpt

Theobald Wolfe Tone is recognised as the founder of Irish republican nationalism. Nationalists of all shades go in annual pilgrimage to his grave at Bodenstown in County Kildare and speeches are made measuring today’s ideas and achievements against his ideals, presumed or real. Traditionally he has been seen as the prophet of armed struggle in Ireland and revered or maligned accordingly. He developed a compelling argument for an independent Irish nation, freed alike from English rule and from religious divisions. He was not to know that achieving the one would intensify the other.

Tone has become one of the most accessible and admired of historical figures, largely because of his posthumously published journals and autobiography. Tese are the outpourings of an extremely talented, restless and sociable young man, forced by exile and the nature of his later political activities into long periods of loneliness, in cheap lodgings, far from home, friends and family. Tone was a compulsive writer as he was a compulsive talker, and the spontaneity, humour and openness of the journals are the main reason for their enduring appeal. But they also distort, for they were heavily edited and pruned by his widow and son. Furthermore, the loss of his earlier journals and letters gave greater prominence to those written after he had become a political exile, when the process of retrospective writing clarified ideas which were anything but clear at the time. Te gaps and heavy editing also disguise the novelty and sheer pace of the events through which Tone’s new career was shaped. This is why I believe he can only be understood in terms of a full biographical study.

Prior to the publication of the first edition of my biography of Tone in 1989, there had been no such study based on extensive original research. The multitude of brief lives had tended to be hagiographic, devoid of any understanding of Tone’s complex character and the context in which he operated. Frank MacDermot’s Theobald Wolfe Tone (1939) had been the only life of Tone to appear which was not purely derivative and was a milestone in its day. As a research student, I had the privilege to meet him at his home in paris in 1972–3, when he generously shared his continued enthusiasm for and expertise on Tone and his contemporaries.

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