Woman who inherited Tone's spirit


THE great great grand daughter of Theobald Wolfe Tone Katharine (Kay) Dickason (1903-1995) died last September in Short Hills, New Jersey, at the age of 92. Although she is survived by three daughters, 11 grandchildren and six great grandchildren, with Kay we have lost the last direct link to Tone and his immediate family.

I first met and befriended her in May, 1984. We had been introduced through a helpful archivist in the Library of Congress, where I had been working on the papers of Kay's other great great grandfather, William Sampson, a friend of Wolfe Tone and fellow barrister.

She was waiting on the platform of Short Hills Railway Station and I emerged from the New York to Hoboken commuter train I was struck both by her elegance and her sprightliness. Small in frame, lively in movement and gesture I found the physical resemblances between Kay (and indeed others of the family) and Tone himself somewhat unnerving. She had certainly inherited Tone's spirit of adventure. She was still skiing in her 80s and only abandoned transatlantic flights in her 90th year.

Through her father (Lascelles Chester Maxwell) and grandmother (Grace Georgiana Tone Maxwell, Tone's granddaughter) Kay had access to oral traditions directly linking her to Tone's generation. Until the last months of her life Kay possessed total clarity of mind and perfect mental recall. She knew intimately all the actors in Tone's life and talked about the detail in a way which transposed the listener to that past.

Over the years, as I researched my biography of Wolfe Tone, she welcomed me into her home and family and granted me access to the family papers and traditions. She knew those papers better than any historian.

My task of researching the biography assumed a vibrancy and immediacy that biographers only dream of. Days of analysing the papers were punctuated by lengthy discussions with Kay. An impressively astute and pragmatic woman, Kay was devoid of uncritical sentimentality about her remarkable Irish lineage.

Many of my conclusions about Tone as a father and husband were based on family tradition. She was particularly informative about the character of Matilda Tone, her great great grandmother, the 16 year old with whom Tone had eloped in 1785.

Widowed in 1798 at the age of 29, she survived him for another half century till her death in 849. Given her difficult life, it was perhaps fortunate that Matilda was a good deal tougher in character than her husband. This was certainly the impression which Kay's grandmother conveyed. But Matilda also possessed that deep loyalty to family which has descended through the generations and Kay confirmed my sense that it was her, rather than her son William, who decided the tone and format of his father's writings the 1826 Life of Tone, arguably one of the most influential writings in the history of Irish nationalism.

One of the many memories I treasure of Kay was the evening I arrived in Short Hills in October 1989 with an advance copy of my Wolfe Tone. Her joy was infectious. "We must open a bottle of champagne," she exclaimed. And so she did, against my feeble protests that perhaps a bottle of champagne between two of us was somewhat excessive. Above all, Kay Dickason was great fun.

Kay was young in the 1920s. Family photographs reveal a society beauty. Like her illustrious ancestor she had a lifelong love affair with France and spoke French fluently. She was married in the American Church in Paris to Livingston T. Dickason (an engineer) in 1925 and returned annually for family holidays until 1993.

She was the force keeping together her large family. These holidays usually in the Norman seaside resort of Blonville brought four generations together and her home at Short Hills was the focal point for large family gatherings. She liked to keep abreast of developments in French as well as Irish history and I would send her copies of history books which I thought she would enjoy.

THIS was no escapist reader, If her children and grandchildren embarked on a certain career, she approached the task of acquiring knowledge in these areas with the dedication of a military tactician.

What about Ireland? She would speak of Tone and his family as if a they were alive today and she was very anxious to pass on that sense of connectedness to her children and grandchildren. But to say she was an Irish nationalist in the traditional sense would be wrong.

She had little time for the sentimentality which surrounded much of the Irish American scene and thought the many Irish who had made good in America were ignored in the prevailing tendency to celebrate the Irish as underdog.

She even mocked gently the sentimentality which was undeniably there in Wolfe Tone himself whereas Matilda was altogether more hardheaded. We talked frequently of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Kay was a committed pacifist and was totally opposed to the militant variety of Irish nationalism including the fund raising for arms in the US. The many sidedness and comprehensiveness of Tone's nationalism she felt was not always recognised.

Her pride in Tone and her determination to keep his memory alive in the family would have pleased great great grandmother Matilda. The Tone papers in her possession were old friends and she would return regularly to read them, much as others return to family photograph albums.

Among the more immediate family papers is a bulging scrapbook of a memorable visit to Ireland. The entire family (Kay and her husband, their three daughters Mary Elizabeth, Katharine and Anne, and their children) had been invited to Ireland by Eamon de Valera for the ceremonial unveiling of the Tone statue on Stephen's Green in 1967. At one stage David Hammond, the Belfast film maker, musician and founder member of Field Day, discussed the possibility of a documentary film about Kay. Unfortunately that the venture did not materialise.

1 have lost a close friend. Kay Dickason was a woman of considerable presence, warmth and wit. I shall miss her. She leaves behind an extended family, whose close links and genuine mutual affection are a tribute to her. She is also survived by a lively cocker spaniel. "I am calling him Rebel," she told me with a chuckle, as he set about upsetting the normal decorum of her Short Hills home, "he is certainly continuing family tradition."