Theobald Wolfe Tone and his Speech from the Dock

T. D. Sullivan
Speeches from the Dock
Theobald Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone.
From a portrait by his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Sampson Tone

NO name is more intimately associated with the national movement of 1798 than that of Theobald Wolfe Tone.

He was its main-spring, its leading spirit. Many men connected with it possessed, as he did, brilliant talents, unfailing courage and determination, and an intense devotion to the cause; but the order of his genius raised him above them all, and marked him out from the first as the head and front of the patriot party.

He was one of the original founders of the Society of United Irishmen, which was formed in Belfast in the year 1791.

In its early days this society was simply a sort of reform association, a legal and constitutional body, having for its chief object the removal of the frightful oppressions by which the Catholic people of Ireland were tortured and disgraced; but in the troubled and protentous condition of home and foreign politics, the society could not long retain this character.

The futility of seeking a redress of the national grievances by parliamentary means was becoming apparent to every understanding. The system of outrage and injustice towards the Catholics, unabating in its severity, continued to exasperate the actual sufferers and to offend all men of humane feelings and enlightened principles; and, at the same time, the electric influence of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution was operating powerfully in every heart, evoking there the aspiration for Irish freedom, and inspiring a belief in its possible attainment.

In the midst of such exciting circumstances the society could not continue to stand on its original basis.

In the year 1794, after a debate among the members, followed by the withdrawal of the more moderate or timid among them from its ranks, it assumed the form and character of a secret revolutionary organization; and Tone, Thomas Addis Emmet, Samuel Neilson, Thomas Russell, James Napper Tandy, with a number of other patriotic gentlemen in Belfast, Dublin, and other parts of the country, soon found themselves in the full swing of an insurrectionary movement, plotting and planning for the complete overthrow of British power in Ireland.

Thenceforward, for some time, the organization went on rapidly, extending through the Province of Ulster, in the first instance, and subsequently over most of the midland and southern counties.

Such was the state of affairs when, in the early part of 1794, an emissary from the French government arrived in Ireland, to ascertain to what extent the Irish people were likely to co-operate with France in a war against England. This individual was the Rev. William Jackson, an Irish Protestant clergyman, who had for some years been resident in France, and had become thoroughly imbued with Democratic and Republican principles. Unfortunately, he was not one of the most prudent of envoys. He revealed his mission to an acquaintance of his, an English attorney, named Cockayne, who repaid his confidence by betraying his secrets to the government.

Cockayne was immediately employed as a spy upon Jackson's further proceedings, in which capacity he accompanied his unsuspecting victim to Ireland, and acquired cognizance of most of his negotiations.

On the 28th of April, 1794, Jackson was arrested on a charge of high treason. He was brought to speedy trial, was found guilty, but was not sentenced, for, on the day on which the law's award was to have been announced to him, he contrived, before entering the court, to swallow a dose of poison, from the effect of which he expired in the dock.

Tone, with whom Jackson was known to have been in confidential communication, was placed by those events in a very critical position; owing, however, to some influence which had been made with the government on his behalf, he was permitted to exile himself to America.

As he had entered into no engagement with the government regarding his future line of conduct, he made his expatriation the means of forwarding, in the most effective manner, the designs he had at heart.

He left Dublin for Philadelphia on the 20th of May, 1795. One of his first acts, after arriving, was to present to the French Minister there resident a memorial on the state of Ireland.

During the remaining months of the year letters from his old friends came pouring in on him, describing the brightening prospects of the cause at home, and urging him to proceed to the French capital and impress upon the Directory the policy of despatching at once an expedition to ensure the success of the Irish revolutionary movement.

Tone was not the man to disregard such representations. He had at the time a fair prospect of securing a comfortable independence in America, but with the full concurrence of his heroic wife, who had accompanied him across the Atlantic, he sacrificed those chances and resumed the perilous duties of an Irish patriot.

On the 1st of January, 1796, he left New York for Paris, to try what he could do as a diplomatist for the cause of Ireland. Arrived at the French capital, he had his business communicated to the Directory through the medium of an Irish gentleman, named Madgett, and also by memorial, representing always that the landing of a force of 20,000 men in Ireland, with a supply of arms for the peasantry, would ensure the separation of Ireland from England.

Not satisfied with the slow progress he was thus achieving, he went, on the 24th of February, direct to the Luxemburg Palace, and sought and obtained an interview with the War Minister, the celebrated Carnot, the “organizer of victory.”

The Minister received him well, listened attentively to his statements, discussed his project with him, and appeared much impressed with the prospects it presented.

The result was that on the 16th of December, in the same year, a splendid expedition sailed from Brest for Ireland. It consisted of seventeen sail of the line, thirteen frigates, and fifteen transports, with some smaller craft, and had on board 15,000 troops, with a large supply of arms for the Irish patriots.

Tone himself, who had received the rank of Adjutant-General in the French service, was on board one of the vessels.

Had this force been disembarked on the shores of Ireland, it is hardly possible to doubt that the separation of this country from England would have been effected. But the expedition was unfortunate from the outset. It was scattered on the voyage during a gale of wind, and the Admiral's vessel, with Hoche, the commander, on board, was separated from the others.

A portion of the expedition entered the magnificent Bay of Bantry and waited there several days in expectation of being rejoined by the vessel containing the Admiral and commander; but they waited in vain.

Tone vehemently urged that a landing should be effected with the forces then at hand—some 6,500 men—but the officers procrastinated, time was lost, the wind, which had been blowing from the east (that is out the harbor), rose to a perfect hurricane, and on the 27th and 28th of the month the vessels cut their cables and made the best of their way for France.

This was a terrible blow to the hopes of the Irish organizer. Rage and sadness filled his heart by turns as the fierce storm blew his vessel out of the bay and across the sea to the land which he had left under such favorable auspices.

But yet he did not resign himself to despair. As the patient spider renews her web again and again after it has been torn asunder, so did this indefatigable patriot set to work to repair the misfortune that had occurred, and to build up another project of assistance for his unfortunate country.

His perseverance was not unproductive of results. The Batavian or Dutch Republic, then in alliance with France, took up the project that had failed in the Bay of Bantry.

In the month of July, 1797, they had assembled in the Texel an expedition for the invasion of Ireland, nearly, if not quite, as formidable in men and ships as that which had left Brest in the previous year.

Tone was on board the flag-ship, even more joyous and hopeful than he had been on the preceding occasion. But again, as if by some extraordinary fatality, the weather interposed an obstacle to the realization of the design.

The vessels were ready for sea, the troops were on board, nothing was wanted but a slant of wind to enable the fleet to get out. But for five weeks it continued to blow steadily in the adverse direction.

The supplies ran low; the patience of the officers, and of the government, became exhausted—the troops were disembarked and the project abandoned!

The second failure in a matter of such weight and importance was a heavy blow to the heart of the brave Tone. Elaborate and costly efforts like those which had ended so poorly, he felt could not often be repeated; the drift of the war was cutting out other work for the fleets and armies of France and her allies, and the unwelcome conviction began to settle darkly on his mind that never again would he see such a vision of hope for dear Ireland, as that which had shone before him on these two occasions, and vanished in doubt and gloom.

Yet there was no need to despair. Assurances reached Tone every day that the defeat and humiliation of England was a settled resolve of the French government, one which they would never abandon.

And for a time everything seemed to favor the notion that a direct stroke at the heart of England was intended.

In the latter part of 1797 the Directory ordered the formation of “The Army of England,” the command of which was given to General Bonaparte.

Tone's heart again beat high with hope, for now matters looked more promising than ever. He was in constant communication with some of the chief officers of the expedition, and in the month of December he had several interviews with Bonaparte himself, which, however, he could hardly consider of a satisfactory nature.

On the 20th of May, 1798, General Bonaparte embarked on board the fleet at Toulon and sailed off—not for Ireland or England, but for Egypt.

On the Irish leaders at home these repeated disappointments fell with terrible effect. The condition of the country was daily growing more critical.

The government, now thoroughly roused and alarmed, and persuaded that the time for “vigorous measures” had arrived, was grappling with the conspiracy in all directions.

Still those men would, if they could, have got the people to possess their souls in patience, and wait for aid from abroad before unfurling the banner of insurrection; for they were constant in their belief that without the presence of a disciplined army on Irish soil to consolidate their strength and direct it, a revolutionary effort of the Irish people could end only in disaster.

But the government had reasons of their own for wishing to set an Irish rebellion afoot at this time, and they took measures to precipitate the rising.

The arrest of the delegates at the house of Oliver Bond in Dublin, and the capture of Lord Edward Fitzgerald contributed to this end; but these things the country might have peaceably endured, if no more dreadful trial had been put upon it.

What could not be endured was the system of riot, and outrage, and murder, to which the unfortunate peasantry were then given over. Words fail to describe its cruelty and its horrors. It was too much for human nature to bear.

On the 23rd of May, three days after Bonaparte had sailed from Toulon for Alexandria, the Irish insurrection broke out. The news of the occurrence created the most intense excitement among the Irish refugees then in Paris.

Tone rushed to and fro, to the Directory and to the generals, pleading for the dispatch of some assistance to his struggling countrymen. Various plans were suggested and taken into consideration, but while time was being wasted in this way, the military forces of the British government were rapidly suppressing the insurrection of the unarmed and undisciplined Irish peasantry.

In this condition of affairs, a gallant but rash and indiscreet French officer, General Humbert, resolved that he would commit the Directory to action, by starting at once with a small force for the coast of Ireland.

Towards the middle of August, calling together the merchants and magistrates of Rochelle, “he forced them to advance a small sum of money, and all that he wanted, on military requisition; and embarking on board a few frigates and transports with 1,000 men, 1,000 spare muskets, 1,000 guineas, and a few pieces of artillery, he compelled the captains to set sail for the most desperate attempt which is, perhaps, recorded in history.”

Three Irishmen were on board the fleet—Matthew Tone, brother to Theobald, Bartholomew Teeling, and Sullivan, an officer in the French service, who was enthuiastically devoted to the Irish cause, and had rendered much aid to his patriotic countrymen in France.

Humbert landed at Killala, routed with his little handful of men a large force of the royal troops, and held his ground until General Lake, with 20,000 men, marched against him.

After a resistance sufficient to maintain the honor of the French arms, Humbert's little force surrendered as prisoners of war. The Irish who had joined his standard were shown no mercy. The peasantry were cruelly butchered.

Of those who had accompanied him from France, Sullivan, who was able to pass as a Frenchman, escaped; Teeling and Matthew Tone were brought in irons to Dublin, tried, and executed.

The news of Humbert's expedition and the temporary success that had attended it created much excitement in France, and stirred up the Directory to attempt something for Ireland more worthy of the fame and power of the French nation, and more in keeping with their repeated promises to the leaders of the Irish movement.

But their fleet was at the time greatly reduced, and their resources were in a state of disorganization. They mustered for the expedition only one sail of the line and eight small frigates, commanded by Commodore Bompart, conveying 5,000 men, under the leadership of General Hardy.

On board the Admiral's vessel, which was named the Hoche, was the heroic Theobald Wolfe Tone. He knew this expedition had no chance of success, but he had all along declared, “that if the government sent only a corporal's guard, he felt it his duty to go along with them.”

The vessels sailed on the 20th of September, 1798; it was not till the 11th of October that they arrived off Lough Swilly—simultaneously with an English squadron that had been on the lookout for them.

The English ships were about equal in number to the French, but were of a larger class, and carried a much heavier armament.

The French Admiral directed some of his smaller craft to endeavor to escape by means of their light draught of water, and he counselled Tone to transfer himself to that one of them which had the best chance of getting away. The Frenchmen, he observed, would be made prisoners of war, but for the Irish rebel a worse fate was reserved if he should fall into the hands of his enemies. But to this suggestion the noble-hearted Tone declined to accede.

“Shall it be said,” he replied, “that I fled while the French were fighting the battles of my country?”

In a little time the Hoche was surrounded by four sail of the line and one frigate, who poured their shot into her upon all sides. During six hours she maintained the unequal combat, fighting “till her masts and rigging were cut away, her scuppers flowed with blood, her wounded filled the cockpit, her shattered ribs yawned at each new stroke, and let in five feet of water in the hold, her rudder was carried off, and she floated a dismantled wreck on the water; her sails and cordage hung in shreds, nor could she reply with a single gun from her dismounted batteries to the unabating cannonade of the enemy.”

During the action Tone commanded one of the batteries, “and fought with the utmost desperation, as if he was courting death.” But, as often has happened in similiar cases, death seemed to shun him, and he was reserved for a more tragic fate.

The French officers who survived the action, and had been made prisoners of war, were, some days subsequently, invited to breakfast with the Earl of Cavan, who commanded in the district in which they had been landed. Tone, who up to that time, had escaped recognition, was one of the party, and sat undistinguished among them, until Sir George Hill, who had been a fellow-student of his in Trinity College, entered the room, and accosted him by his name. This was done, not inadvertently, but with the intention of betraying him.

In a moment he was in the hands of a party of military and police, who were in waiting for him in the next room. Seeing that they were about to put him in fetters, he complained indignantly of the offering of such an insult to the uniform which he wore, and the rank—that of chef de brigade—which he bore in the French army. He cast off his regimentals, protested that they should not be so sullied, and then, offering his lips to the irons, exclaimed—“For the cause which I have embraced, I feel prouder to wear these chains, than if I were decorated with the Star and Garter of England.”

He was hurried off to Dublin, and though the ordinary tribunals were sitting at the time, and the military tribunals could have no claim on him, as he had never belonged to the English army, he was put on his trial before a court-martial.

This was absolutely an illegal proceeding, but his enemies were impatient for his blood, and would not brook the chances and the delays of the ordinary procedure of law.

On the 10th of November, 1798, his trial, if such it might be called, took place in one of the Dublin barracks. He appeared before the court, “dressed,” says the Dublin Magazine for November, 1798, “in the French uniform, a large cocked hat, with broad gold lace, and the tri-colored cockade, a blue uniform coat, with gold-embroidered collar and two large gold epaulets; blue pantaloons, with gold-laced garters at the knees; and short boots, bound at the tops with gold lace.”

In his bearing there was no trace of excitement. “The firmness and cool serenity of his whole deportment,” writes his son, “gave to the awe-struck assembly the measure of his soul.”

The proceedings of the court are detailed in the following report, which we copy from the “Life of Tone,” by his son, published at Washington, U S., in 1826:—

The members of the court having been sworn, the Judge Advocate called on the prisoner to plead guilty or not guilty to the charge of having acted traitorously and hostilely against the king. Tone replied:—

“I mean not to give the court any useless trouble, and wish to spare them the idle task of examining witnesses. I admit all the facts alleged, and only request leave to read an address which I have prepared for this occasion.”

Colonel Daly.—“I must warn the prisoner that, in acknowledging those facts, he admits, to his prejudice, that he has acted traitorously against his Majesty. Is such his intention?”


“Stripping this charge of the technicality of its terms, it means, I presume, by the word traitorously, that I have been found in arms against the soldiers of the king in my native country. I admit this accusation, in its most extended sense, and request again to explain to the court the reasons and motives of my conduct.”

The court then observed they would hear his address, provided he kept himself within the bounds of moderation.

Tone rose, and began in these words—

“Mr. President, and gentlemen of the court-martial,—I mean not to give you the trouble of bringing judicial proof to convict me legally of having acted in hostility to the government of his Britannic Majesty in Ireland. I admit the fact. From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Great Britain and Ireland as the curse of the Irish nation, and felt convinced that, whilst it lasted, this country could never be free nor happy. My mind has been confirmed in this opinion by the experience of every succeeding year, and the conclusions which I have drawn from every fact before my eyes. In consequence, I was determined to employ all the powers which my individual efforts could move, in order to seperate the two countries. That Ireland was not able of herself to throw off the yoke, I knew; I therefore sought for aid wherever it was to be found. In honorable poverty I rejected offers which, to a man in my circumstances, might be considered highly advantageous. I remained faithful to what I thought the cause of my country; and sought in the French Republic an ally to rescue three millions of my countrymen from—”

The President here interrupted the prisoner, observing that this language was neither relevant to the charge, nor such as ought to be delivered in a public court.

A member said it seemed calculated only to inflame the minds of a certain description of people (the United Irishmen), many of whom might be present, and that the court could not suffer it.

The Judge Advocate said—“If Mr. Tone meant this paper to be laid before his Excellency in way of extenuation, it must have quite a contrary effect, if the foregoing part was suffered to remain.”

The President wound up by calling on the prisoner to hesitate before proceeding further in the same strain.

Tone then continued—

“I believe there is nothing in what remains for me to say, which can give offence; I mean to express my feelings and gratitude towards the Catholic body, in whose cause I was engaged.”

President—“That seems to have nothing to say to the charge against you, to which you are only to speak. If you have anything to offer in defence or extenuation of the charge, the court will hear you, but they beg you will confine yourself to that subject.”


“I shall then confine myself to some points relative to my connections with the French army. Attached to no party in the French Republic—without interest, without money, without intrigue—the openness and integrity of my views raised me to a high and confidential rank in its armies. I obtained the confidence of the Executive Directory, the approbation of my generals, and I will venture to add, the esteem and affection of my brave comrades. When I review these circumstances, I feel a secret and internal consolation, which no reverse of fortune, no sentence in the power of this court to inflict, can deprive me of, or weaken in any degree. Under the flag of the French Republic I originally engaged with a view to save and liberate my own country. For that purpose I have encountered the chances of war amongst strangers; for that purpose I repeatedly braved the terrors of the ocean, covered, as I knew it to be, with the triumphant fleets of that power which it was my glory and my duty to oppose. I have sacrificed all my views in life; I have courted poverty; I have left a beloved wife unprotected, and children whom I adored fatherless. After such a sacrifice, in a cause which I have always considered—conscientiously considered—as the cause of justice and freedom, it is no great effort, at this day, to add the sacrifice of my life. But I hear it is said that this unfortunate country has been a prey to all sorts of horrors. I sincerely lament it. I beg, however, that it may be remembered that I have been absent four years from Ireland. To me those sufferings can never be attributed. I designed by fair and open war to procure the separation of two countries. For open war I was prepared, but instead of that a system of private assassination has taken place. I repeat, whilst I deplore it, that it is not chargeable on me. Atrocities, it seems, have been committed on both sides. I do not less deplore them. I detest them from my heart; and to those who know my character and sentiments, I may safely appeal for the truth of this assertion; with them I need no justification. In a case like this success is everything. Success, in the eyes of the vulgar, fixes its merits. Washington succeeded, and Kosciusko failed. After a combat nobly sustained—a combat which would have excited the respect and sympathy of a generous enemy—my fate has been to become a prisoner, to the eternal disgrace of those who gave the orders. I was brought here in irons like a felon. I mention this for the sake of others; for me, I am indifferent to it. I am aware of the fate which awaits me, and scorn equally the tone of complaint, and that of supplication. As to the connection between this country and Great Britain, I repeat it—all that has been imputed to me (words, writings, and actions), I here deliberately avow. I have spoken and acted with reflection, and on principle, and am ready to meet the consequences. Whatever be the sentence of the court, I am prepared for it. Its members will surely discharge their duty—I shall take care not to be wanting in mine.”

The court having asked if he wished to make any further observation—

Tone said—

“I wish to offer a few words relative to one single point—the mode of punishment. In France our emigrees, who stand nearly in the same situation in which I now stand before you, are condemned to be shot. I ask that the court adjudge me the death of a soldier, and let me be shot by a platoon of grenadiers. I request this indulgence rather in consideration of the uniform I wear—the uniform of a chef de brigade in the French army—than from any personal regard to himself. In order to evince my claim to this favor, I beg that the court may take the trouble to peruse my commission and letters of service in the French army. It will appear from these papers that I have not received them as a mask to cover me, but that I have been long and bona fide an officer in the French service.”

Judge Advocate.—“You must feel that the papers you allude to will serve as undeniable proof against you.”


“Oh, I know they will. I have already admitted the facts, and I now admit the papers as full proof of conviction.”

[The papers were then examined; they consisted of a brevet of chef de brigade from the Directory, signed by the Minister of War, of a letter of service granting to him the rank of Adjutant-General, and of a passport.]

General Loftus.—“In these papers you are designated as serving in the army of England.”


“I did serve in that army, when it was commanded by Bonaparte, by Dessaix, and by Kilmaine, who is, as I am, an Irishman; but I have also served elsewhere.”

The Court requested if he had anything further to observe.

He said that nothing more occurred to him, except that the sooner his Excellency's approbation of the sentence was obtained the better.

This is Tone's speech, as reported in the public prints at that time, but the recently-published “Correspondence” of Lord Cornwallis—Lord-Lieutenant in those days—supplies a portion of the address which was never before published, the Court having forbade the reading of it at the trial.

The passage contains a noble outburst of gratitude towards the Catholics of Ireland. Tone himself, as every reader is aware, was a Protestant, and there can have been no reason for its suppression except the consideration that it was calculated to still more endear the prisoner to the hearts of his countrymen.

We now reprint it, and thus place it for the first time before the people for whom it was written—

“I have labored to create a people in Ireland by raising three millions of my countrymen to the rank of citizens. I have labored to abolish the infernal spirit of religious persecution, by uniting the Catholics and Dissenters. To the former I owe more than ever can be repaid. The services I was so fortunate as to render them they rewarded munificently; but they did more: when the public cry was raised against me—when the friends of my youth swarmed off and left me alone—the Catholics did not desert me; they had the virtue even to sacrifice their own interests to a rigid principle of honor; they refused, though strongly urged, to disgrace a man who, whatever his conduct towards the government might have been, had faithfully and conscientiously discharged his duty towards them; and in so doing, though it was in my own case, I will say they showed an instance of public virtue of which I know not whether there exists another example.”

The sad sequel of those proceedings is soon told.

The request of the prisoner to receive a military execution was refused by the Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis, and Tone was sentenced to die “the death of a traitor,” within forty-eight hours from the time of his conviction.

But he—influenced, it must be confessed, by a totally mistaken feeling of pride, and yielding to a weakness which every Christian heart should be able to conquer—resolved that, rather than allow his enemies to have the satisfaction of dangling his body from a gibbet, he would become his own executioner.

On the night of the 11th of November he contrived, while lying unobserved in his cell, to open a vein in his neck with a penknife.

No intelligence of this fact had reached the public when, on the morning of the 12th, the intrepid and eloquent advocate, John Philpot Curran, made a motion in the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus, to withdraw the prisoner from the custody of the military authorities, and transfer him to the charge of the civil power.

The motion was granted immediately, Mr. Curran pleading that, if delay were made, the prisoner might be executed before the order of the court could be presented.

A messenger was at once despatched from the court to the barrack with the writ. He returned to say that the officers in charge of the prisoner would obey only their military superiors.

The Chief-Justice issued his commands peremptorily:—“Mr. Sheriff, take the body of Tone into custody—take the Provost-Marshal and Major Sandys into custody,—and show the order of the court to General Craig.”

The Sheriff sped away, and soon returned with the news that Tone had wounded himself on the previous evening, and could not be removed.

The Chief-Justice then ordered a rule suspending the execution.

For the space of seven days afterwards did the unfortunate gentleman endure the agonies of approaching death; on the 19th of November, 1798, he expired.

No more touching reference to his last moments could be given than the following pathetic and noble words, traced by a filial hand, and published in the memoir from which we have already quoted:—

“Stretched on his bloody pallet in a dungeon, the first apostle of Irish union, and most illustrious martyr of Irish independence, counted each lingering hour during the last seven days and nights of his slow and silent agony. No one was allowed to approach him. Far from his adored family, and from all those friends whom he loved so dearly, the only forms which flitted before his eyes were those of the grim jailor and his rough attendants—the only sounds which fell on his dying ear the heavy tread of the sentry. He retained, however, the calmness of his soul, and the possession of his faculties to the last. And the consciousness of dying for his country, and in the cause of justice and liberty, illumined like a bright halo his later moments and kept up his fortitude to the end. There is no situation under which those feelings will not support the soul of a patriot.”

Tone was born in Stafford Street, Dublin, on the 20th of June, 1764. His father was a coachmaker, who carried on a thriving business; his grandfather was a comfortable farmer, who held land near Naas, county Kildare.

In February, 1781, Tone entered Trinity College, Dublin; in January, 1787, he entered his name as a law student on the books of the Middle Temple, London, and in 1789 he was called to the bar.

His mortal remains repose in Bodenstown churchyard, county Kildare, whither parties of patriotic young men from the metropolis and the surrounding districts often proceed to lay a green wreath on his grave. His spirit lives, and will live forever, in the hearts of his countrymen.