Wolfe Tone (2nd edition) by Marianne Elliott

In proposing a biography of the most famous Irish revolutionary, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Marianne Elliott displays her formidable research skills, and succeeds in proposing an account of the man far from the nationalist legend that grew up in the 19th century. However, she does not really replace the man in his late 18th-century context. In this regard, her biography of Tone is less satisfying than her seminal Partners in Revolution.

Why is it so?

First, the genre itself. This is a biography, and despite the fact that biographies are a very pleasurable read, they also have this tendency to miss the whole point, i. e. that women and men are social constructs, and that their relationships shape them. By focusing on one individual, the dynamics of history are often missed — unless the author takes great pains to map out these relationships. This is what Michael Durey managed, in part, to do in his biography of William Wickham, which I reviewed recently. Here, Marianne Elliott is also keen on conjuring up what made the formative years of Theobald Wolfe Tone, his education at Trinity College, Dublin, and in London. These are the most detailed (and successful) parts of the book. But then, as Tone moves from being a lawyer with reformist sympathies to a political activist, and as the sources are less available, the reader lose the insight on Tone and he does not gain new insight on Tone’s new commitments (most notably the Catholic Committee). In many respects, the reading of his journals are immensely more instructive.

Which is where I come to my second criticism of the book. Marianne Elliott depicts Tone as a reluctant revolutionary, much like the other United Irishmen (a thesis she defended in her Partners in Revolution). So she focuses on Tone’s relationships with the representatives of the Ascendancy to show that he was himself a part of this selective milieu. In other words, Tone became a revolutionary and, then, due to the context, a republican, because he was a socially frustrated man with political ambitions. While this explanation has some merit, I am always wary of psychological motives. Because, even if it may be true for Tone, what does Tone’s life enables us to understand about the first Irish republicans?

There is an elephant in the room in this book, ever-present but never really addressed, and it is the fact that Irish society, much like Ancien Régime-French society, and despite the professed liberalism of the English monarchy, was a blocked society. The American and French revolutions sparked a wave and a desire for change in the connected Atlantic world. It also made clear that Ireland was colonized (yes, I use the word) society in many respects. And that the colonial elite was the Ascendancy.

Now, we can always state that Tone and the rest of the United Irishmen were ‘colonial outsiders’ (to quote from Tom Dunne), and that it would explain their frustrated ambitions, but we have to take into account that actions are only feasible if the actors are able to legitimate them (see Skinner, Pettit). And Tone did it (anyone who reads his journals can attest to that) by invoking the republican principles of freedom (for everyone) and honour (for himself). These principles were antagonistic, antinomian even, to the principles that were the foundations of the Ascendancy-ruled Irish society.

Thirdly, the progressive radicalisation of Tone is depicted in the book as a series of changed circumstances that Tone never really theorized or thought through, only rationalized in hindsight, especially in his autobiography, written in August 1796 while awaiting for the future French expedition to Ireland. This somewhat unsatisfying view is borne out, I fear, of what is now an outdated view of revolutionary France under the Directory (and, to a lesser extent, of a similar disinterest at what American society was like in 1795 for his brief passage in the United States). Tone, by his very exile to America and then his secret mission to France, was a man of the revolutionary and republican Atlantic. Not only does this plead for a reappraisal of the crucial 1794-5 years (which is not really done in this biography, because, once more, of the lack of sources on this individual, but can be done by following others) but it also should entail a reflection on what it meant, for an Irishman to be exiled because he was involved in a case of spying and potential subversive attempt against his own government (which refused to reform itself) in relation with a French agent (in time of war), in a context of campaigning by the Catholics for reform, and on what it means to go to the two countries where republicanism was invented. In this case, Marianne Elliott’s bibliography is mostly outdated.

Finally, in depicting Tone as this reluctant revolutionary and circumstantial republican, Marianne Elliott insists on the fact that he remained a product of his social milieu, the Ascendancy. Hence his supposed aversion to bloodshed, expressed during his trial. Here, I am baffled that Elliott doesn’t seem to take into consideration that the man is trying to obtain a honourable death sentence, much like she did (or rather did not) with the testimony of the state prisoners who proposed to the Irish government a deal — their lives in exchange for their information on the ‘conspiracy’ — in which they cast themselves as the reasonable men who tried to lead the supposedly fanatical and bloodthirsty Catholics out of their genocidal project. Here again, Tone had accepted the use of violence for a long time (‘long’ in the sense of his own personal career), though exactly when is still debatable. He was not so naive as not to understand that it would mean bloodshed. And he perfectly knew the boiling violence that could erupt. But he didn’t fear violence coming from those who wanted to throw down the government. He feared that violence could come from the government troops and resistance. This is why he hope that sufficient French troops would convince loyalists to surrender to avoid bloodshed. Else — well, he quotes the French proverb ‘on ne fait pas d’omelettes…’.

Despite these criticisms, which I hope are fair and show that I only diverge with Marianne Elliott on interpretations, not about Tone himself — Tone is, I think, accorded too much credit and importance; he was not even one of the most important of the United Irishmen, and his achievements in Paris, while numerous and admirable, were also rendered possible because of the networks of Irish which had been working with the French government for a long time before he even thought of coming to France — but on what Irish republicanism was when it first emerged. Also, as with Partners in Revolution, the research done by Elliott is amazing. I wish I had the opportunities to visit as many archival depots as she had. Though I fear that with this mass of documents, she only exploited some of them.

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