Wolfe Tone: An Early Champion of Irish Republicanism

Wolfe Tone was a founding member of the United Irishmen; an early Irish republican organisation formed in the late 18th century that wanted to establish a secular & independent Irish state, based on enlightenment values. He was also of French Protestant descent. The United Irishmen took inspiration from the American & French revolutions which happened in their time.

The United Irishmen were outlawed when the British went to war with France because of their pro-French views; at which point the United Irishmen gave up on peaceful agitation & vowed to eliminate the authority of England over Ireland & assert independence.

Importantly, the United Irishmen were a secular group which had both Catholic & Protestant members. Other groups formed in that time were explicitly sectarian, e.g. the Orange Order, a Protestant supremacy outfit formed to defend the British empire, which is still around, still violent and which endorses the DUP.

Wolfe Tone himself was forced to flee Ireland in 1795 due to his propaganda work, e.g. political pamphlets which advocated civil rights for Irish Catholics.

While in exile, Tone went to revolutionary France, seeking military support for an Irish revolution. He ended up meeting Lazare Carnot in person- the founder of the French revolutionary army- who agreed to help.

The French warships arrived on the west coast of Cork- the Rebel County- in 1796. England got lucky that day however; due to poor weather conditions & poor navigation, the French ships couldn’t dock.

This aborted invasion frightened the British enough for them to cause a crackdown, lead by the army & government militias. The indiscriminate violence of the crackdown caused more people to join the United Irishmen. A similar effect can be seen later in Irish history; indiscriminate violence against civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland in the 1970s fuelled popular support for the Provisional IRA.

The United Irish Army were 100,000 men strong & planned an armed rebellion in 1798. However, its leadership was captured by the British before that could happen, making an organised rebellion impossible. Still, United Irishmen units rose that year all over the country & fought government soldiers. About 30,000 people were killed in the conflict.

Wolfe Tone himself was sentenced to death, but cut his own throat instead as his last act of defiance. Although his rebellion failed– and had the unintentional effect of making sectarian divides between Catholic & Protestant deeper even though it was intended to be a secular rebellion– Wolfe Tone became a legendary martyr for Irish republicanism. A lot of people first become aware of his name today because of the famous Irish rebel music band The Wolfe Tones.

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