Wolfe Tone’s Vision Continues To Inspire The Struggle For Freedom – John Crawley

From the 1916 Societies an oration delivered by John Crawley at the grave of Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown.

On Sunday November 20th at Bodenstown Churchyard, the 1916 Societies marked the 218th anniversary of Irish republican martyr and patriot Theobald Wolfe Tone. Monaghan Ex-POW John Crawley gave the main oration, published below.

As dawn broke on the 21st December 1796, the vanguard of a fleet of 42 French naval ships, carrying nearly 15,000 heavily armed, well-trained and battle hardened soldiers, caught sight of the Irish coast near Bantry Bay in Cork. Ploughing through the cold, dark, winter seas against a strong easterly wind, 16 ships of the fleet anchored in the bay on the 22nd.

On board one of those ships – the 80 gun ship of the line ‘The Indomptable’ – Theobald Wolfe Tone paced anxiously. He was eager to complete an amphibious landing with his expeditionary force of French republican troops, with enough arms and ammunition to supply the substantial numbers of United Irishmen he believed would flock to the banner of the Irish Republic, once battle was joined against the British occupation forces in Ireland.

The Royal Navy was nowhere in sight and, had they landed, the road to Cork and then Dublin was essentially open. The establishment in Ireland of a united national republic in 1797 would have been almost a certainty. Tragically, the worst Atlantic storms in nearly a hundred years and poor French seamanship meant that, after several days of being battered by hurricane-force winds, the fleet was forced to haul anchor and return to France. A deeply frustrated Tone wrote in his journal, ‘we were near enough to toss a biscuit ashore’.

Who was this 33 year-old Kildare lawyer – whom the Duke of Wellington said was ‘a most extraordinary man… With 100 guineas in his pocket, unknown, un-recommended, and without friends, he went to Paris and persuaded the French Government to send an army of 15,000 men to over-throw British authority in Ireland. This was an achievement of genius.’ Why do we gather today at the grave of this Church of Ireland Patriot, who never considered for a moment that because he was Protestant he was British? Why did Pádraig Pearse believe that Wolfe Tone was ‘the greatest of Irish nationalists… the greatest of Irishmen’?

Thomas Davis and the Young Irelander’s laid a stone on this grave in 1844. The IRB, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen’s Army led by James Connolly all gathered here over the years. Tom Clarke, executed in 1916, spoke here on four consecutive occasions. Liam Mellows, later executed by the Free State, spoke beside this grave to the Four Courts garrison just before the start of the Civil War. So too has a succession of Sticks, Provos, and Fianna Fáilers.

Many wish to pay homage to his inspirational life, others to opportunistically bask in his reflected glory. Some to claim his posthumous endorsement to advance one republican project or to imply he would have supported the surrender of another. All gather here because few in Irish history talked the talk and walked the walk like Theobald Wolfe Tone.

Born in Dublin in June 1763 to a Church of Ireland coach-maker, he moved at an early age to the family farm here in Sallins, Co. Kildare. His mother came from a well-off Catholic family but became Protestant when Theobald was born. Wolfe Tone studied law at Trinity College and became a respected and popular debater at the College Historical Society. At the age of 26 he qualified as a barrister. While a student, he eloped with and married his wife Matilda.

Tone grew up in an Ireland that was deeply and deliberately divided on sectarian lines. A small Anglican elite, known as the Protestant Ascendancy, acted on England’s behalf as a colonial garrison. This small minority monopolised the land, wealth and power of the country. The overwhelming Catholic majority controlled only 5 percent of the land of Ireland. Ireland also contained a substantial minority of Presbyterians, who had settled mostly in the six plantation counties of north-east Ulster.

Structural and institutional divisions designed to keep Ireland politically weak and its native’s impoverished had been an English strategy since the Tudor Conquest. Queen Elizabeth I’s counsellors advised:
Should we exert ourselves in reducing Ireland to order and civility, it might soon acquire power, consequence and riches. The inhabitants will be thus alienated from England; they will cast themselves into the arms of some foreign power, or erect themselves into an independent state. Let us rather connive at their disorder, for a weak and disordered people can never attempt to detach themselves from the Crown of England.

The original plan was to make Ireland English. According to the Elizabethan planter Edmund Spencer, the native Irishman would ‘in short time learn quite to forget his Irish nation’.

There were four major waves of plantation in Ireland. The first, in Laois/Offaly in 1556 and 30 years later in Munster, consisted mostly of English settlers. These ultimately ended in failure. The third plantation consisted of Scots settlers in Ulster, beginning in 1609, and the fourth was the Cromwellian Plantation in 1652. With the influx of Scottish lowland Presbyterians into the north, Ireland could no longer be made English so it would have to be made British.

The term ‘British’ is a contrived concept that has been accurately described as an imperial euphemism for England – especially when used in conjunction with any one or all of the three conquered nations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Ironically, many Ulster Unionists, especially the Presbyterians, came late to the concept of Britishness considering themselves to be Irish until well into the 19th century. The industrialisation of the northeast of Ireland tied them economically closer to the British Empire, before the Home Rule crisis in 1885 polarised Ireland into Unionist and Nationalist camps.

The term ‘British’ was embraced by them to emphasise their separate identity from an Irish nation many of their grandfathers had fought for in a republican rebellion. Not only did they come late to the concept of being ‘British’ but the concept itself is conditional on Britain maintaining their sectarian supremacy.

The British state is at heart a sectarian state. The monarch must be, by law, a Protestant and, although it is claimed the Monarchy no longer has any real power, all elected members of the British parliament must swear an oath of loyalty to this unelected head of a single family.

When republicans demand an end to the British presence we are not referring to the Irish unionist community. They are not the British presence. They do not live in Britain. The majority of them have never visited Britain. The British presence in Ireland is the presence of the British government’s claim to sovereignty over any part of Ireland and the civil and military apparatus that makes that possible.

The Penal Laws had been enacted in the 17th and 18th centuries to criminalise Irish Catholicism, not so much for doctrinal reasons but for reasons of expropriation. They were a colonial contrivance designed to destroy what remained of native power structures by confiscating Catholic land and denying them social and political authority. Presbyterians were discriminated against to a lesser degree because they were not members of the state Anglican Church.

England, and their Ascendancy in Ireland, looked upon Catholics as potential agents of the enemy without – the enemy that recognised Papal authority over that of the Crown, that supported the Jacobite cause to restore a Catholic Stuart king to the English throne and the enemy that could bring Catholic France or Spain into Ireland to attack England by the back door.

They perceived Presbyterians as the enemy within – the Scots Dissenters whose fellow Calvinists in England had commissioned the New Model Army in 1645 to fight Royalist forces and set off a train of events that led to the execution of King Charles I and whose fellow Presbyterians had colonised an America which was now in rebellion against the Crown.

Playing one section of the Irish people off the other was a key British tactic. Lord Westmorland, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland declared in 1791:
‘The present frame of Irish government… is particularly well calculated for our purpose. That frame is a Protestant garrison… in possession of the land, magistracy and power of the country; holding that property under the tenure of British power and supremacy, and ready at every instant to crush the rising of the conquered.’

Wolfe Tone did not view himself as a Protestant of the Ascendancy or the plantation but of the enlightenment, and he understood these power relations very well. Tone was a founding member of the United Irishmen. Established in Belfast in October 1791, and in Dublin shortly after, the United Irishmen were initially a debating society seeking reform of the unrepresentative ‘Irish’ parliament at College Green.

Of the 28 founders of the United Irishmen, 26 were Presbyterians and two (Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell) were members of the Church of Ireland. None were Catholics although progressive Catholics would later join in large numbers. How ironic that a republican movement that began with a Protestant leadership and no Catholic base has nowadays Catholic leaderships and no Protestant base.

It was Wolfe Tone who gave the United Irishmen their name. They were not campaigning for a United Ireland in the territorial sense – Ireland wasn’t partitioned until 1922 – they were seeking to unite Irishmen in the interest of Ireland, as opposed to dividing Irishmen in the interest of England. The Irish people, Tone wrote, had ‘one common interest and one common enemy’. The manifesto of the United Irishmen declared:

We have no National Government; we are ruled by Englishmen and the servants of Englishmen, whose object is the interest of another country; whose instrument is corruption; whose strength is the weakness of Ireland.

Ireland still has no national government. Instead of national politics we have partition politics. The Dublin government minister tasked with responsibility for Northern affairs is their Foreign Minister. And who could look at Stormont and Brexit and the Secretary of State James Brokenshire and deny that part of Ireland is still ruled by Englishmen and the servants of Englishmen?

Prime Minister William Pitt, when pressing the case for the Act of Union, said, ‘Ireland is like a ship on fire, it must be extinguished or cut adrift’. With the Anglo-Irish Treaty, they cut one part of it adrift and with the Good Friday Agreement they are still attempting to extinguish the fire in the other part.

It has been said of Tone that he wasn’t so much an original thinker but that he acted as a lightning rod that channelled the democratic and republican ideals inspired by the American and French revolutions, focusing them on Ireland.

Previous resistance movements had wanted to restore a Gaelic aristocracy or place a Catholic on the throne of England as joint King of Ireland. What was original in the thinking of the United Irishmen was the idea of Ireland standing in its own right as a sovereign independent republic.

The British government, dependent on sectarian division in Ireland, were very concerned about these developments. Lord Grenville, England’s Foreign Minister, said in 1791:
I cannot help feeling a very great anxiety that such measures may be taken as may effectually counteract the union between Catholics and Dissenters, at which the latter are evidently aiming. I may be a false prophet, but there is no evil that I would not prophesy if that union takes place at the present moment.

Wolfe Tone was not only the United Irishmen’s most able and articulate advocate but, in an era of poor transport and communications, he provided the crucial link between republicans in Dublin and Belfast.

In August 1791, Tone published a pamphlet called, An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. Articulating at this stage a reformist, as opposed to a revolutionary, argument, Tone attacked the doubts held by many liberal protestants that Irish Catholics, practicing what they perceived as a hierarchal, aristocratic and authoritarian religion, could ever be democratised. Pointing to the republican revolution in Catholic France and to Catholics and Protestants working together in the French National Assembly, Tone argued the same could happen in Ireland, with no damage to Protestant interests.

His main theme was that no meaningful parliamentary reform in Ireland was practicable that did not include Catholics. The pamphlet became an Irish best-seller, second only to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. It had a huge effect on Protestant republicans, especially in Presbyterian Belfast, and it did much to lift Catholic morale. In 1792, Wolfe Tone became secretary to the General Committee of the Roman Catholics in Ireland.

Around the time Tone was publicly publishing this pamphlet, he wrote privately to Thomas Russell (The Man From God Knows Where):
My unalterable opinion is that the bane of Irish prosperity is the influence of England. I believe that influence will ever be exerted while the connection between the two countries continues… I have only proposed to set up a reformed parliament… I have said not one word that looks like a wish for separation, tho’ I give it to you and your friends as my most decided opinion that such an event would be a regeneration for this country.

Tone had to be wary of a British government backlash but was admitting privately, to his closest friend, that reform within the present political structures was never going work. He believed that British rule in Ireland was irreformable and that sectarianism could never be addressed by the very system which promoted and maintained it.

Wolfe Tone had no time for the Catholic religion as a form of worship or doctrine but he respected and fought for Catholic rights. His hope for them was to live as free and equal citizens in a united Irish republic. Pádraig Pearse said of Tone:
He has spoken for all time, and his voice resounds throughout Ireland, calling to us from this grave when we wander astray following other voices that ring less true.

Today there are other voices that ring less true, telling us that in order to respect unionists we must respect the Union. That far from breaking the English connection we must work within it. That Irish republican objectives will be ultimately achieved through British legislation. That sectarianism, inequality and partition will gradually and eventually be tackled by the government that invented them.

Apparently, to make Wolfe Tone’s ideals a reality, we should go on the Treasury payroll, acknowledge the lawful authority of the Crown constabulary, honour the memory of British soldiers killed in Imperial wars while apologising that we ever fired a shot in our own national defence, and one day England’s puppet assembly at Stormont will merge with the Free State into a united national democracy.

Leadership, as demonstrated by Wolfe Tone and the pantheon of Irish Patriots, has been the art of inspiring nationalists and republicans to do what they normally would not do in order to achieve Ireland’s goal of national independence. The voices that ring less true have changed that template into convincing nationalists and republicans to do what they normally would not do in order to achieve Britain’s goal of defining the parameters of Irish democracy and setting the boundaries within which any opposition to British rule must operate. Behind that evolution lies the real story of England’s counter-insurgency achievement.

Republicans respect unionists but we do not respect the Union. Our goal is to end the Union and for unionists to join us, as free and equal citizens, in a united Irish republic. The fact remains, however, that no planter political culture nurtured in any colonial system anywhere has ever voluntarily relinquished its contrived supremacy or gerrymandered authority. The Unionist Veto remains as long as Britain politically, economically and military underwrites it. Wolfe Tone believed the key to eventual unity lay in breaking the connection with England. Republicans believe that still.

In the mid-to-late 18th century, England faced the rise of Protestant nationalism due largely to what the mercantile and manufacturing classes saw as England’s unfair restrictions on Irish trade. Inspired by the American revolution, a Patriot party was formed in the exclusively Protestant Irish House of Commons in Dublin demanding reform.

With the British army busy fighting the American rebels, militia companies sprang up all over Ireland to guard against a possible French invasion. These militias, calling themselves the Volunteers, supported the Patriot party and paraded outside the Irish parliament in College Green in 1779, with cannons carrying signs which read ‘Free Trade Or This’. They demanded a greater degree of local autonomy and, to the British government’s surprise and dismay, some of them demanded more rights for Catholics.

In 1782 the Irish parliament, led by Henry Grattan, pushed home the demand for legislative independence while affirming its loyalty to the English Crown. The British, with its army stretched to its operational limits, were forced to concede. Poynings law, which had been enacted in 1494 and restricted the right of the Irish parliament to pass laws until its legislation had been approved by England, was partially repealed.

Despite the optics, however, real power remained in the hands of the loyal, landed and loaded Ascendancy class and the Crown’s representative in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant. Due to endemic corruption and the malign influence of sectarianism, Grattan’s parliament failed to deliver on Catholic rights.

The British government, uncertain now of Irish Protestant reliability and perceiving a reduction of the Catholic threat due to factors such as the end of the Stuart cause, the weakness of the Papacy and persistent protestations of loyalty from the Catholic hierarchy, came to the conclusion that the need for soldiers for an expanding empire meant that, regardless of what the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and Orangemen thought, it was time to ease up on the Penal Laws and enlist Irish Catholics into its armed forces.

The Catholic Relief Act of 1778, in which Catholics who swore loyalty to the King were allowed to inherit and purchase land, was met with such gratitude by the Irish hierarchy that they publicly gave their support to the British government’s war against the American patriots and called for prayers and fasting for the success of the British redcoats against George Washington and his men – this at a time when many Irish Protestants supported the American rebels. A major aim of the act and acts that followed was to encourage Catholic recruitment and to discourage Catholics from finding common cause with Irish Protestant nationalists.

To stop Catholic priests travelling to the continent and becoming exposed to democratic and republican ideas, the British government permitted Maynooth seminary to be established in 1795, with an annual grant of £9,000. All students and staff pledged loyalty to the British Crown and took an oath which declared:
I will do my utmost endeavour to disclose and make know to his Majesty, and his heirs, all treasons and traitorous conspiracies, which may be formed against him or them.’

England has a long history of nurturing Irish leaderships fit for purpose.

Many liberal Protestants were torn between their republican instincts and their fear of the native Catholic population reasserting itself and threatening their property and privilege. The British government played on these fears relentlessly. Wolfe Tone fully understood the sectarian games being played by London, the power relations that sectarianism preserved and the vital importance of uniting Irishmen against England’s contrived divisions.

After the failed attempt to land French troops and munitions at Bantry Bay, an alarmed British government launched a counter-insurgency reign of terror throughout Ireland in order to seize arms and to demoralise the population. The British knew they could not always depend on the weather to keep the French from landing.

With the rolls of the United Irishmen numbering almost 300,000, they attempted to goad the population into a premature rebellion that could be crushed before the successful arrival of French aid. It was also a deliberate attempt to drive a deeper wedge between Catholics and Protestants and between Protestant United Irishmen and counter-revolutionary Orangemen. General Knox, who commanded British forces in Dungannon in 1797, announced:
I have arranged a plan to scour a district full of unregistered arms, or said to be so… And this I do, not so much with a hope to succeed to any extent, as to increase the animosity between the Orangemen and the United Irishmen… Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North.

The United Irishmen were formed in 1791 to oppose sectarianism. The Orange Order was formed in 1795 to oppose the United Irishmen.

In July 1797, a Dutch invasion fleet bearing more than 13,000 troops with Wolfe Tone on board its flag ship, prepared to sail for Ireland. But again, the wind was unfavourable and after waiting for six weeks in harbour the expedition was called off.

The 1798 rebellion broke out in May of that year. Uncoordinated uprisings in Antrim, Down, Kildare and Wexford were crushed with the loss of 30,000 lives. A small French force under General Humbert landed in Mayo in August, too far away and far too late. Wolfe Tone’s brother Matthew was with them.

Matthew was captured at Ballinamuck and hanged at Arbour Hill on the 29th of September. Another raid led by Napper Tandy landed on the Donegal coast in September but, learning of the French and Irish defeat in Connaught and meeting no local support, they were forced to return to the continent.

Wolfe Tone tried a third time to bring an expeditionary force containing 3,000 men to Ireland. This last action of the 1798 rebellion took place in October, when the Royal Navy defeated the French in a naval battle off the northwest coast of Donegal. Wolfe Tone refused an offer to escape and was captured in the uniform of a French officer. Recognised by a fellow Trinity graduate, he was brought to Dublin.

Tone was tried and sentenced to death. The court refused his request to be shot like a soldier and ordered him to be hanged like a criminal. Wolfe Tone was placed in the same cell that his executed brother Matthew had been placed in a month previously. In the cell he found a small razor, possibly Matthew’s, and cut his throat to deny the British government the spectacle of hanging him.

He died a week later, on the 19th of November 1798 – 218 years-ago yesterday. He was 35 years old. The British government would allow only two people to attend his burial here in Bodenstown. Who remembers those officials now, or the members of the court who sentenced him, or the police agents who hounded him, or the friends who betrayed him? Who visits their graves annually to honour them?

We know the answer to that and we know why we are here today and nowhere else. Wolfe Tone died alone and surrounded by his enemies but he lies here today surrounded by his friends.

Sean O Faoláin wrote:
If Tone did not in his life time achieve much, he started much. Without him republicanism in Ireland would virtually have no tradition.’

Today we honour this intelligent and sincere man who gave the United Irishmen their name. This articulate man who defined their cause. This resourceful and persuasive man who organised three invasion fleets in an attempt to free his country from foreign rule and the sectarian system that propped it up. This courageous man who said that if necessary he would land in Ireland with nothing more than a corporal’s guard.

According to Sean Cronin, who wrote a book on Tone:
The greatness of Tone’s vision, the breath of his thinking and his extraordinary accomplishments often overshadow his other fine qualities, chiefly his warm humanity. His love for his wife and family, his abiding good humour even in the face of disaster, his wit, and his loyalty to friends all shine through his writings. So do his other human frailties, like his impatience with poseurs and hypocrites, his intolerance of ineptitude and half-hearted endeavour, his bitterness with betrayers and spies.

We stand today beside the grave of this remarkable Patriot, to honour his service and sacrifice and to reaffirm our commitment to his ideals. We stand here not as southern or northern Irishmen and women, not as Catholics or Protestants, not as inhabitants of this ‘island’ nor advocates of insipid ‘All-Ireland’ institutions but as United Irishmen and women. We stand today as Tone and his comrades stood then – as Irish republicans.

Leaving Wolfe Tone’s grave we take with us an inspiring reminder of what real leadership looks like. We depart re-energised by his immortal words:
To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means.

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