The death of Wolfe Tone

History is best served by cool-headed objectivity not sensationalism

Sir, – The categorically assertive approach adopted by Paddy Cullivan (“Wolfe Tone did not take his own life in jail. He was murdered – and I know who did it”, People, June 6th) reflects an outdated, sensationalist way of pronouncing on the past. It totally belies the objectivity we have grown accustomed to during the Decade of Centenaries.

There were no rumours that Lord Kilwarden was possibly Tone’s father, as Theobald was not named after Arthur Wolfe, but (obviously) his cousin Theobald Wolfe.

The claim seems to originate in the 20th century, swelled by rumour-mongering which overlooks 18th-century societal practices. Tone had called his youngest child Francis Rawdon Tone, after Francis, Lord Rawdon. Where is the logic in his father Peter standing at the baptismal font, openly naming his son after his wife’s lover?

Mr Cullivan’s performance is rooted in historical storytelling revolving around a simplistic binary of heroes and villains, in which too much agency is attributed to individuals. Kilmaine could have influenced officer swopping, but it was not in his gift. A Franco-British cartel of prisoner exchanges existed, and Tone had written (unsuccessfully) to its French agent in London, Niou.


Time was not in Tone’s favour, but the colonial authorities denied his status as a French officer. Banished on the understanding he would never return to Ireland, he had returned. A “natural-born subject” of the king, he “traitorously entered” the French service and was taken “in open war bearing arms against his king”.

Reading Tone’s diary, and allowing him to speak for himself, we discover his numerous allusions to being hanged (and disembowelled) as a traitor if he returned.

His black humour dispelled genuine anxiety, and his son William later took up his quote from Tobias Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker: “Please God, the dogs shall not have my poor blood to lick” (March 1796).

This reflected the painful reality of his probable gruesome execution, yet hints at planning an alternative.

These direct insights are overlooked by Mr Cullivan.

Dr Georgina Laragy’s robust and scholarly location of Tone’s death in the suicide culture of his times very aptly points to how he had viewed Jackson’s own “voluntary death” in 1795 (Letters, June 7th).

Omitting corroborating quotations, Mr Cullivan states that William “questioned the manner of his father’s death”. William had censored many passages of his father’s writings while preparing the Life (1826) for publication, since restored in the three-volume scholarly edition of Tone’s Writings (Oxford, 1998-2007), the last of which I contributed to, under the supervision of CJ Woods. Remembering he had just turned seven when he last saw his father in 1798, William later thoroughly read over his last letters, and had his mother Matilda’s private insights. William wrote that his father was naturally cheerful and affectionate, but that his “constitution was nervous and sensitive to a very high degree”: herein lies a clue. After his sentence, honour was also at stake.

When Tone knew he would not be shot as an officer, William wrote (Life, page 532), and “in perfect coolness and self-possession” he anticipated “their sentence”. His father’s end had been “voluntary”, as before leaving France, his “determination was known to us”, ie his mother.

This explains why, as a widow, she never reflected anger or doubt or the possibility her husband had been murdered, projecting a form of tragic serenity.

William concluded that his father’s death should not be “considered as a suicide”, but the “resolution of a noble mind, to disappoint, by his own act, the brutal ferocity of his enemies, and avoid the indignity of their touch”.

William did anything but question the manner of his father’s death.

Weighing up this compelling and direct evidence, it seems Tone himself was the ultimate decider of his fate. The very least “our greatest patriot” deserves, as Mr Cullivan describes Tone, is cool-headed objectivity. – Yours, etc,


Department of History,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.