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The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone By: William T. Wolfe Tone
Reviewed By: Martin Griffin
The five star rating accorded this book by me is not rewarded for the usual reasons. While the prose is fine and the sentiments expressed cover the entire spectrum of human emotion, the books importance is its place in the freeing of the long oppressed People of Ireland. Theobald Wolfe Tone is the philosophical, father of 'radica'l Irish Republicanism; the political theory inspired in part by the French Revolution that led its adherents to proclaim independence and fight the battles which ultimately led to truncated Irish Free State, more than a century later.
Wolfe Tone’s autobiography is actually a heavily redacted reproduction of his personal diary. His intent was to memorialize for his wife Matilda, family and intimate friends, the events that led to the French Republic rendering succor to the cause of Irish liberation.
Tone writes about his college experiences as well as his pursuit of a career at the bar for which he declares himself singularly unfit. The heavy editing of the document encouraged by wife Matilda and son William, the actual wielder of the blue pencil, is an attempt to downplay the suggestion that Tone was something of a lady’s man or libertine. The version published in 1831 runs 347 pages while the entire corpus of Wolfe Tone’s papers in later editions runs 1002 pages.
Among the other subjects highlighted in the diary are the events leading to Wolfe Tone leaving Ireland with his family barely a few steps ahead of the ire of the government which had previously assured him of his liberty after whispered suggestions and court testimony that Tone was engaged in treason, the hazards at sea where British ships were boarding all manner of other vessels looking to impress men into Crown Naval service, his narrow escape of not only that fate but identification was also discussed in some detail.
Wolfe Tone was delegated the task of acting the part of ambassador for the United Irishmen, making new and utilizing old friends in an effort to reach France and seek the aid of the newly formed French revolutionary Republic in throwing off the increasingly intolerable yoke of British rule and oppression.
His impression of the new American Republic occupies a number of pages and interestingly is not the usual rave review that has usually been the result where quills scratched paper. Meetings with future American President, James Madison as well as the resident French Minister in the United States are the most important of his activities before sailing for France, along with setting his family up in adequate living quarters for the duration of his absence.
Tone chronicles his favorable reception in Paris by the revolutionary Republican Government, represented at first by member of the Directory Lazare Carnot, the result of being the agent of Irish revolutionaries as well as his being recommended by the French Minister in the US in addition to carrying a letter of introduction from the future American Minister to France James Madison.
The French then at war with the crowned heads of Europe were more than happy to add an ally at their British enemies back door. His receiving a Commission as Chef De Brigade (Colonel), promotion to Adjutant General in the French Army under General Hoche, fulfilling a boyhood desire, is a source of great pride, happiness and desperately needed income.
Since the autobiography is in reality a personal diary it is a series of specific, dated entries, detailing meetings, the impression of various prominent persons, i. e Napper Tandy, Napoleon, etc.; living expenses, needs, desires and fears. Tone’s intended audience being his loved ones necessarily influences the tone of the language used throughout the pages. In some sections Tone’s thoughts are upbeat and encouraged even tender and loving while in others he is clearly deeply despondent.
Nowhere does the despondency come through clearer than when Tone discusses the delays in negotiations or decision making